Even in a land as old as Germany, Sindelfingen is an ancient town. It was first settled in the year 200. A thousand years later, in 1263, it was incorporated; thereafter, for more than 600 years, it slumbered peacefully, contributing no more and no less than scores of other small towns to the history of Germany and the world. But the ghosts that people it today are as contemptuous of time as science fiction, as unmindful of antiquity as a rocket engine, as familiar to the highways and raceways of the world as high-octane gasoline. They are the automobiles of Mercedes-Benz.
On the preceding pages David Douglas Duncan, using a stopped-down color camera and a long exposure, has caught their flashing, wraithlike beauty as they swoop through Sindelfingen's narrow, cobbled streets on their daily shakedown runs from the factory nearby. With it he has also captured the magic which the sports car has for those who love it: that evanescent, almost mystic sense of glory and adventure, of temperament and valor, on the race track or the open road And this is a magic that Mercedes has been creating and dispensing for just about as long as the automobile has been in existence—to be exact, for 60 years.
The Mercedes family tree has twin roots. Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz, two early automotive pioneers, were the progenitors of the present-day line; but for three decades theirs were individual and competing firms. In their separate and collective history, successful racing is a strong and steady strain, from almost the very first cars right up to the present day.
In 1894 two Daimler-powered automobiles burned up the road from Paris to Rouen to sweep the Continent's first organized road race. Two-cylinder, 3½-hp jobs, they pushed their drivers home first out of a field of 21 vehicles of every kind of power from gas and steam to clockwork. Six years later, when Daimler started producing a 35-hp engine, the first Mercedes saw the light of day, by the grace of a millionaire's whim and his love for his dark-eyed daughter.
The millionaire was Emil Jellinek, an Austro-Hungarian diplomat. He bought 30 of the Daimler cars for 550,000 marks, named them for his child, Mercedes, and began marketing them in Europe. The name caught on and became famous; on the Continent, the Daimler cars became generally known as Mercedes. When Daimler and Benz merged in 1926 to form the Daimler-Benz AG, the cars which they produced bore the label of Mercedes-Benz and the now-famous ringed three-point star.
From the Paris-Rouen race on, speed records fell before the Daimler and Benz cars year by year. The most famous, and for years the fastest, was the incredible Blitzen Benz, a racer whose enormous, four-cylinder engine had a displacement of 21.5 liters and developed 200 hp. In 1910 Barney Old-field bettered 131 miles per hour over a measured mile at Daytona Beach in a Blitzen Benz; and a year later, over those same classic sands, another famous American driver, Bob Burman, pushed the monster up to a world's record of 141.7 mph which stood unbroken for 13 years.
While toppling all-out speed records in the automobile's teething era, Mercedes and Benz cars were also racking up a string of racing victories from St. Petersburg in Russia to the Indianapolis brickyard. In the 1930s, the ringed star emblem was virtually a symbol of Grand Prix victories—notably in 1935, when the silver cars won nine out of 10 major races, and again in 1939, when they took six out of seven in the titanic struggle with their great prewar competition, the rear-engined racers of the now defunct German Auto-Union firm.
With the coming of war, racing ended. The racers were garaged (one, with a 3,030-hp aircraft engine, designed to travel nearly 500 mph, had never even been used), and the full energies of the plant were directed to production of trucks, tanks and aircraft engines. Then came the years of bombing and destruction. In smoke and flame and rubble, the three-point star was buried. By the war's end, the Daimler-Benz AG was so thoroughly destroyed that many believed the name made famous over half a century of automotive history would never be heard of on the world's speedways again. If there was magic left, it lingered only dimly in the memories of men.