Sunday July 2, 2006
FROM the outside, the new Mercedes-Benz Museum resembles a perfectly normal modern structure. With a combination of concrete slabs, shiny metal panels and big glass windows, it follows the stereotypical recipe for futuristic architecture.
Only that it looks as if a giant came along, didn’t like what he saw and whacked it with a big stick. So yes, it looks bent out of shape. (No doubt the giant felt much better after).
And yet, it looks magnificent. Asymmetrical but perfectly proportioned. A chaotic mess, yet in complete harmony. Not a single one of its windows share the same shape and you’ll be hard pressed to find straight, vertical lines.
The Lightning Benz 200hp race car of 1909. It had a gigantic 21-litre
4-cylinder engine and a top speed of 228kph which made it the fastest
vehicle on the planet at the time – faster than even airplanes and trains.
It confirms that thing you heard as a kid about how all great artists draw in free hand – never using a ruler. Which is true, because the building’s designers and architects used computers instead. Lots of them.
“The main floor plan was inspired by the topology of a cloverleaf, which you can draw without taking your pen off the paper as you draw it,” explains Tobias Wallisser, one of the building’s designers from UN Studio, Amsterdam.
“This allows you to create a structure that’s not only spacious, but also allows you to splice several big halls together with long passageways.
While the original Mercedes-Benz Museum was widely regarded as one of the best automotive museums in the world, there just wasn’t enough space. Planning for the new building began in 1999 and construction was underway by 2002.
The museum houses over 1,500 exhibits, of which 160 are vehicles. While it looks small from the outside, it’s huge on the inside. Each room has a remarkably high ceiling and will easily house a fleet of express buses. Or a giant.
The building’s floor plan is essentially made out of two intersecting helixes – one to access the seven “Legend” rooms and the other for the five “Collection” rooms. This seemingly complicated interleaving structure actually allows a seamless transition from one exhibition hall to the next with no staircases or doorways.
You can even peek at some of the other rooms through the building’s large central ventilation shaft. A bit of trivia here: this shaft is really a smoke extraction system that’s capable of creating the world’s biggest artificial whirlwind. How cool is that?
The museum is a lot bigger on the inside.
The overall result: the perfect display cabinet for Mercedes-Benz’s entire history, which itself stretches right to the very beginning of the history of automobiles in 1886.
Which is really the point of it all. And that’s the thing: other manufacturers can harp about great racing legends with funny moustaches driving their vintage cars to victory at some motor race of historical significance.
But (and this is a big “but”) no one else can claim to have made the very first cars. No other car company can claim to have pioneered so many technologies at the infancy of the automobile. And to top it off, Mercedes-Benz has plenty of pictures of moustached racing legends in the museum, too.
Somewhere in time
As you begin your journey through time from the top floor, you walk in a tunnel with a series of photographs on its walls. The photos depict a man riding a horse, who then stops, dismounts and walks towards the end of the tunnel.
Step out of the tunnel, and you are greeted with two simple-looking vehicles sitting in the middle of an otherwise big, empty room. They are the Gottlieb Daimler’s motorised stagecoach of 1886 and Karl Benz’s Tri-Car Motorwagen of 1885 – the first commercially produced automobiles in the world. This is where it all began.
From then on, you can either opt to walk through the Legend route (which traces the history of Mercedes-Benz in chronological order) down one of the helixes or through the Collection route which showcases, amongst many other things, Princess Diana’s privately-owned Mercedes 500SL sports car and the Pope-mobile.
The 300SL Gullwing is arguably the most beautiful and technologically advanced
car of its time.
While the various collections were utterly cool, the main attraction was definitely the Legend route.
I felt a surge of emotion as I walked down the halls of the Legend rooms. I’ve seen some of these cars before – in children’s books and car magazines. Actually seeing these cars in the metal was quite an experience.
As you walk down the corridors that lead from one exhibition hall to another, the walls are adorned with fantastic photographs that convey the atmosphere and emotion of the era. Examples include African American athlete Jesse Owens on the podium at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the militarisation of the Third Reich, the formation of the United Nations and the rise of the Beatles. The list goes on.
Look in the opposite direction of the photos and you’ll see, in each hall, an array of vehicles that were driven by people of the era. And then it hits you. As a company, Mercedes-Benz has been through all these moments in history.
Old and older cars share space in a playground replete with motorsports heritage.
The collection has all of the best cars ever to come out of Stuttgart, including the famous 300SL Gullwing coupe of the 50s, the grand 600 Pullman state limousine from 1965 (spiritual predecessor to today’s S-Class) and the pre-war Mercedes 75PS double phateon – still breathtaking despite being almost a hundred years old.
But whichever route you take, the journey ends in the biggest hall of all – the Silver Arrows Legend room, which is designed as a steep-bank curve adorned with championship-winning Mercedes-Benz competition cars, from the curvy Grand Prix cars of the 50s to Mika Hakkinen’s 1998 McLaren-Mercedes MP4-13.
This fantastic setting highlights the rich tradition and success of Mercedes-Benz in motorsports. Our tour guide said, quite rightly, that if you keep your eyes closed you could almost hear these racing legends screaming past you at full speed.
At the end of the tour, we’re eating lunch at the café on the ground floor, feeling rather honoured at having the chance to see some of the greatest cars ever to have graced the planet – set in a highly impressive automotive museum.
The 98-year-old Mercedes 75PS double phaeton in the centre looks
But as I chew my pasta, a gleaming McLaren Mercedes SLR stares at us from across the hall. Not much further away, a Smart fortwo and a gigantic Maybach luxo barge lurk in the shadows.
All of which made me realise something. In around 20 years' time, Mercedes would probably have to build another museum – a much bigger one. Meantime, the current one is absolutely brilliant. Point your web browser to www.mercedes-benz.com for more details.