New Mercedes cars, stunning museum
span auto history
By John Gilbert, special to SNS
STUTTGART (SNS) – In
societies that don’t speak the same language, a lot of things
aren’t always understood. For example, while breezing along on the
German autobahn, my co-driver in the passenger seat said he
thought the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class station wagon I was driving
had a diesel engine.
I didn’t think so.
I mean, I’m a strong advocate for diesel technology
advancing into the United States as soon as we can get our fuel
cleaned up in October. And I know the best European diesel-powered
cars betray none of the obnoxious traits – smelly, smoky, loud
clattering sound, and an oily lack of power – of diesels as American
drivers recall them.
But still, this vehicle was an E-320, so I thought
it might be the new Mercedes direct-injection gasoline V6.
My co-driver, Tony, is a good friend from Vancouver.
No language problem there, because we share a lot of opinions, as well
as a love of great cars and the game of ice hockey.
As we continued our friendly discussion, neither too
sure, I tried a few smooth passing moves to see if I could detect any
hesitations, or any telltale puffs of smoke from the exhaust. There
At one point, where the autobahn had no posted speed
limit, I pulled into the left lane of the three lanes, passed a slower
vehicle, and kept on a-going. The speedometer rose, reaching 120, then
140, 160, 180 and 200.
Of course, we were in Germany, and the car’s
speedometer was in kilometers, not miles. But still, 200 of them are
quite a few. I kept easing onward, with nothing but clear roadway
ahead. At 220 kilometers per hour, I asked Tony to take a picture of
the speedometer, because I was too occupied to look at it.
At the equivalent of 142 miles per
hour, the E-320 was smooth as silk, and had a lot more in reserve.
We stopped at the small town of Wolnzach, north of Munich, to
change vehicles. As we walked around behind the station wagon,
Tony pointed out that the emblem on the rear end said "CDI."
Sure enough, it was a turbocharged V6 diesel.
Furthermore, it is the new "Bluetec" diesel that
will become prominent in the U.S. within the next year, as our diesel
fuel gets cleaned up to reasonable standards. It has only 165
horsepower, but also a whopping 388 foot-pounds of torque, occurring
from 1,600-2,800 RPMs.
That was so impressive I was reluctant to get out of
the "Estate" – Germany’s term for a station wagon – but U.S. buyers
are strangely reluctant to buy station wagons, so duty pressed me to
drive some of the gathered sedans.
That comes under the heading of "tough job, but
somebody has to do it," because the gathered sedans were all
world-class standouts – the new E-Class sedan, plus the high-powered
AMG version of the E, and, several super-sleek CLS sedans, including
its incredible AMG high-performance model.
While external design changes are only subtle in the
four-year mid-cycle refreshening of the seven-year E-Class cycle –
confined mostly to the adaptive headlights, side mirrors and
taillights – there are also a number of technical revisions in the
One of the major upgrades is in design of the
standard 5-liter V8, which goes from three valves with single overhead
camshafts to four valves with dual overhead cams on the E-550. The new
engine delivers 382 horsepower and 391 foot-pounds of torque, and is
evidence why other drivers stay out of the left lane on the autobahns.
It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting or needing more
power than that, but turn to the AMG model of the E-Class. The E63 AMG
is the same sedan after thorough reworking by the in-house hot-rodders
of AMG. The E63 number signifies a nearly 6.3-liter V8 that replaces
the 5-liter, and boosts power to 507 horsepower and 465 foot-pounds of
It will run from 0-100 kilometers (about 62 miles
per hour) in a mere 4.5 seconds, through a specially reinforced
seven-speed automatic, which is manually shiftable.
Mercedes has put simpler tabs above the steering
wheel arms on both sides to facilitate upshifts and downshifts.
Thankfully, Mercedes has done away with the toggle switch controls on
the backside of the steering wheel, which always made me feel uneasy
because while you could easily rock them to upshift or downshift with
either hand, it was too easy while merely gripping the wheel.
I always imagined what might happen if you upshifted
with your right hand while squeezing your left hand just a bit and
inadvertently enacting a simultaneous downshift. With the new larger
and more obvious paddles, you upshift with the right hand and
downshift with the left. Easy. And fun.
The entire trip was special to me,
because I had never driven the CLS before, so it was introduction
time for me with that car, too. It is the sleekest sedan ever
built by any company, and is referred to as the "four-door coupe"
It seems to me, the ideal thing in the world of
automotive journalists would be to mandate that all road tests be
conducted on the German autobahns.
Other than a race track – a long, long racetrack –
or maybe a private, open expanse of highway in Montana or Nevada,
there is no place to let such a prized vehicle as these Mercedes
stallions run at full gallop.
As far as I could judge from the brief driving
experiences, both the E-Class and the CLS could drive right on back to
Stuttgart and park themselves in the sparkling new Mercedes-Benz
Before we got the chance to drive any of the cars,
we spent two fascinating days with the priceless and historic vehicles
stored at the old museum at the Mercedes plant, and the cream of the
crop, strategically placed throughout the magnificent new museum
scheduled to open May 19.
From a sensory perspective, it was too much to
digest in a mere four days. The museum is a priceless work of art as a
facility alone, to say nothing of the 160 or 170 vehicles on display –
the fruit of a prolific company that can claim to have built the
world’s first automobiles, dating back to 1883.
The history is riveting. The old museum was in the
middle of the Mercedes-Benz plant, not suitable for properly
displaying the pride of 125 years of building some of the world’s
greatest motorcars. So in 2000, Mercedes executives went forward with
plans to build the new facility.
In January of 2002, they hired an architectural firm
from Holland to design it, and without question, there is no other
building like it in the world. Construction started in March of 2003,
with May 19, 2006 as a target for completion – just before Stuttgart
plays host to World Cup soccer quarterfinals in a stunning new domed
stadium, which is located right adjacent to the museum.
Ben van Berkel, chief architect of the Dutch firm,
designed a double helix – essentially an unending line that traces
three continuous double circles that ultimately meet – with the three
circles to mimic the three-pointed star of the Mercedes logo.
The three-pointed star, incidentally, was conceived
out of the company’s ambition to develop internal combustion engines
to revolutionize travel on three fronts, land, sea and air.
The exterior of the building is a
wonderfully blended structure of huge glass panes, with steel
exterior and concrete interior pillars. The steel represents the
structure of the vehicles, and the concrete pays tribute to the
highways and bridges those vehicles have traveled. There is not a
single wall in the structure that is straight – everything curves
for a purpose, either horizontally or vertically, from the seven
levels that start from the top.
The museum consumes 16,500 square meters, rising
adjacent to the autobahn that leads down around the circular path into
the city of Stuttgart, located in the valley below. As you drive into
the city, it appears you might drive right into the Museum itself.
The Guggenheim Museum has similar spiral design, but
nothing else has the double helix layout that always offers visitors
the opportunity to look outside at the city, the soccer stadium, and
mostly the autobahn, passing below, or inside, down to the atrium.
Elevators take visitors to the top, then the two
separate tours travel downward through seven separate legend rooms,
and five different collection rooms, each defining different eras of
advancement. Four mechanized hooks in the center ceiling can lift
vehicles to the various levels, placed through openings that are then
closed to the artfully sloped inner walls.
Passenger vehicles, commercial vehicles, motorsports
vehicles, aircraft engines, safety developments – everything is there,
with a complete library where each of the eras can be more thoroughly
The attention to detail includes sounds. As visitors
rise on the interior elevators, they hear different sounds of
automotives, until, at the very top, they hear the clip-clop sound of
horses hooves. Visitors can take one of two separate tours, starting
with the earliest vehicles at the top, and leading down along displays
and vehicles in a breathtaking trip through time.
The structure is so stiff, there are no interior
pillars. As you continue downward, you can look to the inside and see
each upcoming display from a different perspective, and you can step
off the walkway for close-up examination of any of those displays.
The plan was to create the feeling that the entire
facility is one long and continuing room, with no doors. Van Berkel
described the constant view of displays from the walkways as merging
into an "almost kaleidoscopic" sensation.
Explanations are offered via headphones in eight
languages at every level, with videos, memorabilia, and attention to
detail, with the two pathways ultimately meeting at the motorsports
display, which covers 120 years of racing.
Even the name Mercedes-Benz is fascinating. The
three key players were Karl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach.
Daimler and Maybach collaborated out of a facility in Cannstatt, and
built their first car as a motorized horse carriage, with three
wheels. Benz started out in Mannheim, and went a different direction,
patenting his first car in 1886. Daimler-Maybach became one company,
while Benz competed with them from 60 miles away, and never got to
know his rivals.
In 1893, Benz built the "Vis-à-vis" car, and in
1894, Daimler added a fourth wheel to his vehicle in 1889, solving a
steering problem with the three-wheeler, and created the "Velo," which
sold through 1901.
When Daimler motorized a boat, he claimed it was
electrically powered, because he feared people would be apprehensive
of the dangers of the explosions of internal combustion power.
In 1899, Daimler built the Phoenix race car, and
Emil Jellinek dominated auto races. It was Jellinek who asked to have
the name of his daughter, Mercedes, added to the company. It wasn’t
until after both companies converted to World War I production for
German vehicles, when they faced the economic crisis of the
depression, that they decided to merge in order to survive.
The rest, as they say, is history. The company also
made vehicles for World War II, which is still a subject of massive
guilt under Adolph Hitler’s Nazi control. But the significance of
technical improvement continued, as the company realized aircraft lost
power at higher altitudes, and invented supercharging their engines,
using compressed air intake to overcome the problem.
After the war, the company struggled to continue,
but after the May 8, 1945, capitulation to the Allied forces, it
stayed in business doing maintenance work on occupying force vehicles.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that Mercedes-Benz could afford to build
Officials say that the facility will not be used for
selling cars, although a magnificent nearby structure houses the most
modern of dealership displays, and anyone buying a car will get
invited to visit the museum.
To qualify for entry, a vehicle must be out of
production for 25 years. So as we cruised the autobahn in the new
E-Class, and in the CLS 63 AMG monsters, we realized they wouldn’t yet
qualify for inclusion. But their time will come.
They are simply the latest example of a company that
installs its pride in technology, quality, luxury, and safety into
That pride also makes the museum come alive, as
today’s vehicles zip past, outside on the autobahn.
Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.