Hours and hours at the Mercedes-Benz Museum
Most photogenic museum ever also happens to be crammed with automotive history.
The first thing a visitor to the Mercedes-Benz Museum sees, after purchasing a ticket and ascending to the top of the Guggenheim-like structure, is a stuffed white horse -- a slight shock anyone who made the pilgrimage to Stuttgart in search of Gullwings and Silver Arrows.
The bit of taxidermy isn't just a product of that vaunted German sense of humor at play. Naturally, it serves a specific and exactingly calculated purpose: The elevators taking you to the top of the concrete corkscrew are “time machines,” you see, designed to transport you to the dawn of mechanized personal transportation.
The horse, which presumably had the virtue of being easier to haul to the top floor of a building than a steam locomotive, is a reminder of what came before. Just past it -- in the museum's first gallery, to be exact -- lies the dawn of the internal combustion era. And Mercedes-Benz historians have figured out how to let company founders Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz share in the spotlight as motorized transportation pioneers.
Visitors are presented with Daimler's 1886 Motorkutsche, the first four-wheeled automobile -- but are instructed to note that it was not the first purpose-built vehicle since its basic structure was a conventional horse-drawn carriage. The 1886 Patent-Motorwagen displayed just feet away, by contrast, was built for internal combustion-based propulsion from the ground up.
Nearby displays highlight other superlatives: The first motorcycle, the oldest surviving truck (used for beer transportation, of course), the first motorized airship, etc. The history lesson was welcome and we would have enjoyed the well-planned displays even if the placards didn't make space for English translations.
As gravity pulled us down the spiral ramp and forward in time, we were surprised at how quickly the conventional “car” form, with a front-mounted engine sitting low in the frame, foot-operated controls, rear-wheel drive and a steering wheel took shape. Leaving aside completely alien driver control systems, the 1905 Benz 18 PS and 1902 Mercedes-Simplex 40 PS seem downright modern next to their carriage-like predecessors.
That Mercedes-Simplex, which occupied a place of honor in the center of a large, dramatically lit gallery, deserved special mention. Compared to the jaw-dropping 1936 Mercedes-Benz 500K Special Roadster a level or two down, it wasn't much to look at -- more of a crude, brass-covered buggy than a machine-era masterpiece -- but without it, none of the later vehicles would have existed. It represents one of the very first cars to wear the Mercedes name, and it is the oldest of those known to survive. Its crown of Swarovski crystals is well-deserved.
We never had the opportunity to attend the old Mercedes-Benz museum, but we're told it was much less photogenic than the new structure -- and besides, it didn't have room to display the dozens of buses, service vehicles and trucks visitors can get close to today.
Galleries devoted to “voyagers” (buses, touring vehicles and wagons) “carriers” (buses and auto haulers) and “helpers” (fire, police and service vehicles) grabbed our attention as firmly as the Gullwings did, though we never want to see a Unimog as spic-and-span clean as the ones displayed at the museum are ever again.
We lingered near postwar Pontons and Pagodoas for a while before breezing through the driving safety section and making a beeline for one of the final, and perhaps the most dramatic, exhibits in the museum: The extensive display of racing and rally vehicles. It's a rather indulgent, if well-deserved, setup that glorifies Mercedes-Benz's long history of success in motorsport. As with the rest of the museum, it's tough to find a bad angle for viewing or photography.
We struggled to put a dollar value on the Silver Arrows before us -- $150 million? $250 million? Priceless? -- before resigning ourselves to simply enjoying the banked display setup. Earlier racers like the 1909 Blitzen Benz might not have borne Sir Stirling Moss' signature (as did the 1955 300 SLR nearby), but they raised their own unique set of questions. Forget driving these unruly beasts: How in the hell did anyone crank-start a four-cylinder engine with 21.5-liters of displacement?
That the museum celebrates Mercedes-Benz nearly exclusively is perhaps to be expected; based on the information presented in its exhibits, one could very nearly imagine an alternate automotive history in which Henry Ford, the Dodge Brothers or Walter P. Chrysler never lived. But that shouldn't keep you from attending -- and the $10 day ticket is dirt-cheap considering the hours you'll spend wandering the halls and galleries.
Guided tours are available (we did take one during our trip, and it might be advisable for the uninitiated), but we enjoyed wandering through the museum's galleries at our own pace. Comprehensive English-language signage made navigating exhibits a cinch. And if you want to make a Stuttgart-centric weekend out of your visit, be sure to hit the Porsche Museum located not too far away.
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