If you go back, way back, before Ferrari and Lamborghini, before Honda and Toyota, before even Ford and GM, there was Mercedes-Benz. Well, Benz. In 1886, Karl Benz created what's considered by most as the first gas-powered car, the Patent-Motorwagen. Barely more than three wheels with a seat and an engine, it was the start of a revolution in transportation.
In the following years, Benz, and his eventual partners Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach, would refine and evolve their designs. Others would join them and create vehicles that were faster, bigger and better. Today's "Motorwagen," afor example, has 670 times the horsepower, weighs two tons more, and can travel almost indefinitely between a network of gas stations all over the world.
In Stuttgart, Germany, Mercedes has built an amazing museum to celebrate its 130-plus-year history making cars and trucks. Here's a look inside.
Cylinders and helixes
I've been to a lot of car museums, but I can't remember one in a building as beautiful as this. The curves of glass and steel could easily be an art museum. Stepping inside there's still not much of an indication of what you're about to see. There's a single car near the entrance, and you can only see hints of others peering down from the floors above. The atrium, where the elevators are, is a triangle with bowed out sides, looking like a Wankel rotor. The roof far above lets in sunlight.
You ride to the top floor in an elevator that could be taken from the set of a sci-fi movie. It opens and there's still no sign of cars. Instead, a gorgeous steel and skylit space has a single occupant: a statue of a horse. I feel this is an artistic way to hint that you're working your way from the days of horses to the age of cars. And indeed, the first room, which has a lit floor and ceiling and looks like something straight out of a Kubrick film, features the first cars of Benz and Daimler, with the latter's revolutionary internal combustion engine.
From here the museum tells multiple stories at once, via two cross-connected helixes. One helix tells a chronological history of Mercedes, the other has themed galleries featuring a number of related vehicles. Long ramps connect the floors and give additional context.
There is a lot to see. Early race cars give way to 300SLs and Pagodas. Trucks and buses sit beside limos and sedans. Somewhere between the 1902 40-hp Simplex and the 750-hp full-electric SLS there is a Popemobile G-Class.
Perhaps the most visually interesting and impressive exhibit is the long, curved raceway, with dozens of famous race cars (and trucks!) that seem to defy gravity in midturn. From one of the winningest F1 cars to Sterling Moss's 722, there are some legendary vehicles all here racing together in silence.
To the autobahn and beyond
With over 130 years of history, it's surprising to see how many cars and eras are represented. Sure, there aren't many standard C-Class sedans and late-model ML-Class SUVs, but there are some, which is more than I expected. No sign of my favorite, the 6.9, though. Oh well.
Going to Germany and driving on the unrestricted autobahn is the dream of many petrolheads. Following those immaculate (and sadly, often busy) roads to Stuttgart is an easy sell. In one town you can hit this museum, plus the excellent Porsche museum just a few kilometers away.
As far as the Mercedes-Benz museum goes, it's closed Mondays, and some holidays. If you're not driving, it's a short walk from several U-bahn and S-bahn stations. Tickets are 10 euros, or about $11.
As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, airplane graveyards and more.