Not surprisingly, the Mercedes-Benz Museum, in Stuttgart, Germany, houses an invaluable collection of cars, trucks and automotive artifacts. But more than that, it traces the timeline of progress in automotive technology, from its very beginnings through its 125-year-plus history.
The story begins on the eighth-floor of the avant-garde structure, which opened to the public in 2006, replacing the previous museum. From there, a circular ramp leads visitors down through the decades, with sidebar stops along the way, to the present – and future – on the first floor.
It’s not the pioneering 1886 vehicles of Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler that first greet visitors as they disembark from the eighth-floor elevator to begin their tour.
It's a full-size horse mannequin, reminding us of the limitations to personal transportation that preceded the automobile – and just how revolutionary its development really was.
Replicas of those two pioneering vehicles do form the centerpiece of the display area proper, which also features replicas of early internal-combustion engines – the enabling technology that preceded the car itself.
Both Daimler and Benz worked separately on their own engine designs, building on the foundations established by Nikolaus Otto, with whom Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach – the third key figure in the company’s saga – had worked.
Prominently on display is Daimler’s pioneering "high-speed" single-cylinder engine of 1885, dubbed the "Grandfather Clock," because that’s what it resembled with a huge flywheel at its base.
While today’s gasoline engines bear little resemblance to that early powerplant on the outside, they continue to operate on the same 4-stroke Otto cycle as the "Grandfather Clock."
Benz, too adopted the Otto cycle, after first experimenting with 2-strokes. He designed his three-wheeler around his engine and patented it in 1886, officially becoming the first automobile.
Daimler was more focused on building an engine that could be used in multiple mobility applications – including the world’s first motorcycle in 1885 – so his four-wheel automobile, which followed Benz’s Patentwagen by just a few months, was not designed specifically as such but rather began life as a stagecoach to which his engine was adapted.
Nevertheless, that four-wheeler established the configuration followed by almost every car built in the next 125 years.
Benz, too, capitulated to the four-wheel layout in 1893, but only after patenting the parallel-link, kingpin-type front-wheel steering layout that forms the basis of steering systems to this day.
Around the same time, Daimler introduced the first vee-angled engine – a V2 – followed soon after by inline and horizontally-opposed designs, which comprise the primary layouts in use today.
The pioneering continued with the first Mercedes, built by Daimler and engineered by Maybach, in 1900. With its stamped-steel frame, low-mounted high-speed engine and honeycomb radiator up front, it was in effect the first modern automobile, breaking the mold of the until-then traditional horseless carriage.
In 1921, Daimler raised the bar again with the introduction of the first supercharged production car, employing a technology it had developed to maintain power in aircraft engines at high altitudes during WWI.
Three years later, Benz introduced the first diesel-powered commercial truck and in 1936, Mercedes-Benz – the combined company – produced the world’s first diesel passenger car.
It was also during the 1930s that aerodynamics began to play a role in vehicle design, and the science progressed rapidly in part because of fierce competition between Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz for world land speed record supremacy.
In the post-WWII era, a return to racing drove such developments as the space-frame construction of the 300 SL and the first production application of fuel-injection in a gasoline engine.
In 1959, the Mercedes-Benz 220 and its derivatives became the first production models to incorporate energy-absorbing crumple zones in their body design. Subsequent models incorporated interiors designed to minimize injury on impact and in 1968, the double-safety-catch door lock was introduced.
Then-advanced feature such as ABS and airbags, introduced in a series of experimental safety cars in the 1970s have since become standard fare in every car on the market.
Mercedes-Benz was the first automaker to offer a turbo-diesel passenger car in 1978 and pioneered cylinder deactivation in 1981. There followed a continuous focus on developing alternative and energy-efficient technologies that resulted, among other things, in the company taking a leadership role in fuel-cell development.
At the same time, it continued to experiment with a variety of safety advancements, such as electronic stability control, and was the first to put them in production.
Now, Mercedes-Benz is blazing new trails in terms of hybrid and battery-electric as well as fuel-cell electric vehicle development.
All these technologies and more are part of the automotive continuum that comprises the Mercedes-Benz Museum. But for all the advancements they represent, the core concept of the automobile remains true to the ideas first exemplified by those first creations of Daimler and Benz.