Last month, I managed to pay another visit to one of the best factory car museums of the Continent, that could easily make it among the best car museums in the world. It is located at Mercedes’s headquarters in Stuttgart, next to the Factory and the Mercedes Arena (address is at 100 Mercedesstrasse (what else?), 70372 Stuttgart). In the past two years, I had the opportunity to visit dozens of renowned technical and car museums on the continent, from the Netherlands to the national museum of Italy, and from France to Latvia, and it is safe to say, that the Mercedes Museum offers nothing but the best.
To best describe a Museum, picture this: a professional marketing division of one of the world’s largest and most successful premium brands with the most renowned history puts all its efforts to design and build the best museum possible. It cannot be compared to any old public Museums, living on the mercy of state subsidies and donations. The Mercedes Museum transpires the strive for perfection: its architecture is truly fascinating as it offers a flawless view from every angle, as the visitors wander around the corridors. Every detail is in place, and even outside the field of vision, not a single detail, that would distract from the immersive experience. The modern building is a true architect porn, perfected in its entirety to produce the most optimal spectacle. It is also worth to have a look at the virtual tour of the museum, with maps, 360 virtual views and information on the individual exhibits.
When arriving, the experience encapsulates well before the elevators: already in the parking lot, famous cars await the visitors in glass cages. In 2017, I get to park right beside the racing car of DTM champion Bernd Schneider, this year, I only got a pace car SLS.
The garage leads to a souvenir shop that offers pretty much everything from keyrings, and rubber ducks, to diecast models of all prices and clothing. To the left, the Mercedes classic car division offers its services to the owners if they need factory parts for their classics and also to those longing for retired Mercedes racing cars or a replica of the 1885 Benz Patent Motorwagen. Next to the Museum, a four-floor new car dealership is waiting for interested buyers.
After the ticket purchase, the museum kicks off with one of my favourite sections: behind the lifts, we can admire a series of contemporary concept cars and a series of modern supercars in a multi-story hall (the exhibition tour will also finish here).
My personal favourites in this hall are the C111 coupe and the W125 Rekordwagen, the latter’s record from 1938, when Rudolf Caracciola reached the top speed of 268.9 mph, ever attained on a public road lasted for 80 years until recently, as it has been overthrown only recently by the Bugatti Chiron. The 700-hp Batmobile made in the 30s is one powerful illustration for the astonishing history of the brand. No matter which decade, activity or market, there will be a significant record, championship or a ground breaking model to showcase. Last year I also got to see the Rekordwagen’s archival, the Auto Union car in Ingolstadt at the Audi Forum. Not only the record, that the impression that the Rekorwagen makes is also incredible.
By the way, the Rekordwagen is a timid piece of machinery next to the brutal T 80 world record car, designed by Ferdinand Porsche, powered by the DB 603 aero engine and developing 3,000 hp. The T 80 was to become the world’s fastest car on four wheels and reach a speed of 373 mph on the motorway in early 1940. However, the outbreak of World War II prevented the car from being completed, and the T 80 never hit the road.
The museum is part of this greatness, as the building is also vast: three futuristic turbolifts bring visitors to the top floor, where the exhibition starts.
The exhibition formally starts here, and visitors stepping out from the elevator are greeted by a representative of the automotive industry before Mercedes, i.e. a plain white horse: )
Of course, listening to the heartbeat of the Patent Motorwagen’s engine is also quite some experience.
The tour follows a descending circular path down the building, starting with a few dozen vehicles well illustrating that Mercedes, was already an industrial conglomerate in the 19th century, when other major competitors were just establishing their companies.
The path leads to genuine, four-wheeled vehicles, culminating in the brilliant pieces of the 30’s, like the legendary SSK coupe and the 500K Special roadster, and the modernists of the 40s.
Before anybody would miss the door on the right, I would point out an important thing: next to the direction of travel, we find a separate room on each floor, which pays tribute to a specific topic.
In the first one, more classy commercial vehicles are parked from a caravan to the racing car carrier, and underneath, if we spiral down a floor, there is a set of modern workhorses from ambulance car to snowmobiles. The set of exposed vehicles continuously evolves even if the topic remains the same.
After returning from the special rooms to the regular tour, we arrive at the post-war recovery, with a couple of stylish and bourgeois models beside the most beautiful Mercedes of all time, the gullwing 300SL (and its open and the racing SLR siblings).
Following the tour, two thematically arranged exhibitions commemorate the security innovations and breakthroughs of the 60’s and 80’s, and further down one level, the electronics and environmental innovations in the subsequent period.
My personal favourite is the blue measuring car that is purpose-built for the testing department (a bit like the SLR transport). It is equipped with large and heavy measuring equipment of the era to record the data delivered by test vehicles during their test runs. The data was transmitted by a long physical cable that connected the sensors of the test vehicle with the instruments in the measuring car. My other favourite is the electric SLS from downstairs.
In 2017, the next special room was honouring the AMG brand celebrating its 50th birthday. The exhibition was quite comprehensive, from the legendary red pig and from the first tuning variants of street models to the AMG SLS and GTR, and the latest Project One electric super sports car. This summer I did not find this exhibition any more, as the room was not accessible.
If someone thinks it’s hard to step it up from here, the choreographers of the Mercedes Museum keep a finale with grand fireworks, a motorsport segment that no other brand could reproduce. There is hardly an other car brand with such diverse and consistent history in Motorsport. Grand Prix winning open wheelers from the early 20th century, modern Formula-1 cars, (including the reigning champion), touring cars, trucks, an amount of trophies that hardly any other brand could match.
There is a champion in this exhibition from almost every racing category, and even more astonishingly, there could be many more cars showcased here, yet the exhibition limits itself to one car per epoch, e.g. there is just one champion car piloted by Mika Hakkinen, or by Lewis Hamilton, while the two drivers acquired 7 titles in total), just one Group C car for 2 titles, and a single DTM champion (the 1992 AMG-Mercedes 190 E 2.5-16 Evolution II DTM touring car), no need to brag about an other dozen of DTM constructor’s titles. There is still a great deal of modesty in all this excellence, if one reads between the lines.
It is difficult to say whether the quantity or quality is more astonishing in the Mercedes Museum. It’s not unrivalled in its pursuit of perfection, there are quite a few national museums and private collections that go beyond storing and presenting national cultural heritage. The National Museum of Italy in Turin or the Dutch Lowman Collection also have a great design, and the museums of many competing brands are also conceived and accented by talented professional designers. The really impressive ingredient is the history of the brand as Mercedes stormed and often reached the peak and it competed almost everywhere throughout the decades. Speed record in the ’30s, which remained valid until today, unrivalled racing record, there is hardly any area where the brand did not excel. For me, the most impressive aspect is still what the Museum did not expose, as it shows only a fraction of Mercedes’s past, present and success.
There is no cult built around personalities, even if Mercedes employed legendary engineers and designers such as Ferdinand Porsche, Paul Bracq (one of the first real star designers) and Bruno Sacco, the leading innovator of the brand’s design and today’s form language. There are a number of brilliant concept cars I missed from the Museum, such as the recent Maybach Coupe, which make any car show memorable.
I did not encounter the bround-breaking or category-creating models like SLK, ML or CLS (they are usually showcased at the Techno Classica fair, in the Mercedes hall), no Maybach, Smart, DKW or anything from the Chrysler group.
There must be at least a dozen more Formula-1 champion cars that were not on display.
I am pretty sure, that any other brand would probably feature them as most cherished trophies. Thus the most impressive aspect of the Mercedes Museum for me is what has not been included in the exhibition, but would steal the show at any other museum.