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Mercedes Benz museum more than mere car show

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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 celebrities.

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 it's over.

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 line.

For more information, visit www.mercedes-benz.com/museum.

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Mercedes Benz museum more than mere car show
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