Gottlieb Daimler produced what was probably the first successful four-wheel car in the world, based on a horse-drawn carriage, in 1886, and immediately began supplying his vehicles to those wealthy enough to afford them.
Locksmith Karl Benz was a little slower; by 1884 his two-stroke engine – using coil ignition rather than the hot-tube type – was running well; his four-stroke followed soon afterwards, and he began selling motor tricycles in 1886. A four-wheeler appeared in 1892, but despite his willingness to devise or adopt new solutions it took the spur of race competition against his rival, Daimler – by now racing his cars under the Mercedes badge to make him see the advantages of things like pneumatic tyres.
After the 1914-18 War, as the German economy wallowed in a depression soon to afflict others, talks of a merger between Daimler and Benz first began, but the amalgamation didn’t finally take place until 1926.
The Daimler-Benz quest for engineering excellence through racetrack development and success continued through the late twenties and into the thirties. It led to intensive and successful research with superchargers and into the production of some of the most classically elegant roadsters of the period. The supercharging development was carried into the Grand Prix racing of the thirties and the Mercedes name began to appear more and more frequently in the record books. The 1935 season was dominated by .the 430hp W25, but two years later the W125 arrived, packing a stupendous 650hp and capable of 200mph. Later the trend was for smaller cars, and Mercedes kept their top speeds as high as their enormous predecessors with better streamlining and higher supercharger boost.
The engineer behind much of this development work is better known for the cars bearing his own name which went into production after World War II; Ferdinand Porsche’s expertise was the key to the success of cars like the legendary 1928 Mercedes SSK, which developed 225hp from its 7.1-liter engine. The designation of the cars revolved partly around the new blown engines; there was the 6.8-liter S – or Sports – Mercedes, followed soon after by the bigger 7.1 Super Sports. The K referred to the chassis, based on the luxury touring models supplied by Daimler-Benz but somewhat shortened (hence kurz, or short ) for better handling qualities.
Built to the expected high standards, these rakish vehicles were favorites among the stars of the bur-geoning film industry, and were often fitted with special bodywork; Al Jolson had his own boat-tail SSK built in 1928. But despite their glossy image, they weren’t just fast and good-looking sports tourers. These were also very strong, successful working cars.
These were the competition cars raced so successfully by the likes of Rudi Caracciola in Grand Prix, Formula Libre, in the Le Mans 24 Hours – where he became involved in a memorable dogfight with Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin and the Bentley Boys (which they won) in 1930 – at Belfast, where he scored his famous wet-weather victory in the TT against strong opposition from the blower Bentleys, and his epic victory in the 1931 Mille Miglia.
Away from the track, Caracciola had his own Mercedes – yet another classic of the period, a 5-liter supercharged Limousine Coupe designated the 500K. In convertible form this was perhaps the best-looking full-fendered sport scar ever made, designed in the true thirties idiom; in retrospect, it stands against any car built before or since as a pinnacle of achievement, a perfect blend of form and functionality. Its successor was the 5.4 liter 540K, also supercharged and good for about 160hp from its six cylinders.
Postwar engines were even more efficient; although Mercedes had dominated Grand Prix racing right through the thirties, there was still room for improvement, and the race engines of the fifties developed more than twice the power of the big blown prewar units. It was this much-improved power-to-weight ratio which lay behind the success of Mercedes’ return to the top in racing, with the 300SL-Sports Light- on which a whole series of Mercedes sportscars, from the 190SL onwards, were based. A brief and total domination of road racing in the early fifties ended after Levegh’s horrific accident at the 1955 Le Mans with the 300SLR, a car based on the W 196 GP car rather than the 300SL.
Had this development continued there would, perhaps, be a stablemate for the excellent 500SL. Although its engineering now bears little, if any, reference to those first postwar sportscars, it still has the visual hallmark of its heritage, and the parameters which made the 300SL what it was still apply to the 500SL- extreme tractability, tremendous power, opulent luxury and superb engineering.
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