By Neil Davidson
STUTTGART, Germany (CP) _ Kings and queens, presidents and popes,
chancellors and czars have owned them or been chauffeured in them.
So have Elvis, Elton John, Pablo Picasso, Al Jolson, Grace Kelly,
Errol Flynn, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and countless other
But the Mercedes-Benz isn't restricted to the rich and famous.
Working stiffs have also travelled in style thanks to the buses,
fire engines, ambulances, taxis, trucks and delivery vans that
Mercedes has produced over the years.
All are on display in the flashy new Mercedes-Benz Museum, which
opened May 20 in the company's home of Stuttgart. The $192-million
US gleaming glass and aluminum building is as sleek and shiny as the
vehicles it houses, rising 47 metres from the ground like the
conning tower of a giant submarine buried in the ground.
The building's height and ``double helix'' interior design
maximize space, allowing 16,500 square metres of exhibit space on a
lot of just 4,800 square metres.
Upon arrival, visitors are given audio commentary devices and
whisked up seven floors by elevator, where the Mercedes-Benz story
starts. At the heart of the story are Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler
who each independently designed automobiles in 1886. Top speed?
Benz's machine, a three-wheeled affair, managed 16 km/h, while
Daimler's four-wheel motor carriage could hit 18 km/h.
The two companies would not come together until 1926, joining
forces after struggling to survive in the aftermath of the First
World War. But in the early years, both were quick to innovate and
their cars soon evolved to a point where the rich could race them.
That included Austrian-born businessman and racer Emil Jellinek,
who ordered a high-performance vehicle from
Daimler-Motoren-Gesellchaft in 1900 and named it after his daughter
Mercedes (which is Spanish for grace). Ready in 1901, the first
Mercedes could reach a top speed of 75 km/h.
The museum contains more than 160 vehicles. There is commentary
throughout, accessed by simply pressing a button on the portable
audio device and pointing at the display.
The building itself is eye-catching with a giant atrium complete
with futuristic elevators. Giant moving images are projected up the
interior walls, moving up and down.
The museum also weaves the company's history into that of
Germany, via video and film montages. A series of wall displays also
count down significant milestones, giving you a sense of what was
happening in the world as you move through the exhibits.
The show reminds the visitor of just what the automobile
accomplished. It made the world smaller, kickstarted tourism and
helped break down barriers between countries.
It also caused traffic jams.
The museum storyline also depicts the darker side of Mercedes'
Second World War years, where factories were turned into munitions
makers and thousands of prisoners and others were condemned to
forced labour in slave-like conditions.
The Allies targeted the factories to stop the weapons production
line, and both Mercedes-Benz and Stuttgart were hit hard from above.
But both returned from the ashes.
All the history makes for a fascinating journey, but the sheer
beauty of most of the cars is also remarkable, whether it's a
stylish 1939 limousine, the famous 1955 300 SL Coupe with the
gull-wing doors, or the sexy 1958 190 SL that Grace Kelly drove.
Sports buffs can marvel at the long line of rocket-like racing
machines with the Mercedes logo. Others will enjoy a section devoted
to celebrities and their Mercedes. The display includes Diana's 1991
red 500 SL (the Princess of Wales had to give it back after a
backlash over its non-British roots) and an SUV used in The Lost
World, the sequel to Jurassic Park. But the most interesting part is
a montage of still clips showing celebrities and royalty with their
Mercedes. The list is staggering and it's hard to walk away until
Another nifty display offers a ring of TVs mounted above ground.
Each shows ever-changing clips of a Mercedes in action, in
Australia, China, Syria and many more countries. The message is that
the Mercedes is everywhere and doing everything.
The museum also offers a terrific view of the surrounding grounds
and buildings, including the neighbouring white soccer stadium,
which looks like a German take on Calgary's Saddledome.
And what of Mercedes Jellinek, who gave this storied car its
name? She married a baron and died in 1929 of influenza at age 39.
It is said she never learned to drive.
The museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays and on public holidays,
from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. It is easily reachable by rapid transit
(Gottlieb-Daimler-Stadion stop) with signs pointing the way on the
10-minute walk to the museum. It's worth arriving early on the
weekend. Admission is eight euros per adult and four per child.
Mercedes also offers tours of its factory in Sindelfingen, about
40 kilometres away. Tours in English are offered twice a day on
weekdays, but have to be booked in advance.
There are also tours _ only in German _ of the Mercedes facility
next to the museum, but these do not offer a look at the production
For more information, visit www.mercedes-benz.com/museum.