One of the most confounding misnomers in the Museum’s collection is also one of the most legendary: Mercedes.

A cursory look into the marque’s origin will reveal that the man responsible for the automobile was Gottlieb Daimler, not someone named Mercedes at all. In fact, Daimler did not even have any relatives named Mercedes. She was the daughter of Emil Jellinek, the man who would provide both the unmistakable name and the sometimes confounding demands that made the car the success it is today.

Jellinek was, as was often the case with early motorists of means, a bit of a black sheep in his family. Born to an Austrian rabbi and intellectual well known in the Jewish community, Emil failed to excel at academic pursuits, dropping out of a number of schools before being placed as a clerk at a Moravian railway company at age 17. His employ lasted only two years and ended when the railway management learned that Jellinek had been orchestrating late-night train races. Despite this inauspicious entry into the workforce, young Emil was appointed to diplomatic posts at the Austro-Hungarian Consul in Tangier and Tétouan, Morocco. He would later enter the insurance field before becoming the Austrian Consul General in Nice, France, a position that would place him in the social spheres of the well-to-do who would soon become his customers in relation to his newfound love—automobiles.

Mercédés Jellinek at the time when the car carried her name.
Mercédés Jellinek at the time when the car carried her name.

His fascination with the newly introduced automobile suffered a tenuous beginning. His first cars were a de Dion tricycle and a Benz Victoria in 1893, neither of which served to satisfy his thirst for speed. In 1896, an advertisement for the Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) caught Jellinek’s eye. While the car proved remarkably reliable, Jellinek was unimpressed with the top speed of the vehicle, a meager 15 miles per hour. Once inspired by automobiles, Jellinek turned his full attention to the matter. He knew that Daimler-built engines were winning races with faster speeds in cars built by the likes of Panhard-Levassor and Peugeot. Armed with this knowledge, Jellinek petitioned DMG to build him four cars, provided they could manage 25 mph. Daimler and his partner Wilhelm Maybach were skeptical, to say the least; their chassis were not built to accommodate such speeds. Jellinek remained unperturbed by their misgivings, informing them that what he did with their cars once purchased, where he drove them and how fast, were all his concern and his alone. The prospect of such a large order won and Daimler acceded.

Emil Jellinek standing by his first Daimler, a 6hp Double Phaeton.
Emil Jellinek standing by his first Daimler, a 6hp Double Phaeton.

Satisfied with his purchases, Jellinek now had to decide what to do with four new automobiles. His answer was fairly evident: become a salesman. Wintering on the Mediterranean in the city of Nice, Jellinek associated with the well-to-do of the day, one of whom was Baron Arthur de Rothschild, himself a self-proclaimed auto enthusiast. Rothschild made a habit of ascending La Turbie Hill in his Panhard-Levassor on a daily basis in order to, in his words, “thrill the populace.” The more likely experience the populace received was one of terror at the sights and sounds of the mechanical menace. Jellinek’s plan was a simple one—intercept the Baron on his daily constitutional with a faster, more powerful car. When Jellinek arrived at the top of the hill ahead of Rothschild, the Baron purchased it on the spot, not being one to be outdone. Two weeks later, our newly minted auto dealer repeated his feat with a newly tuned Daimler, selling that to the Baron as well. Knowing that luck operated in threes, Jellinek baited the Baron once again, with the tale of yet another, new and improved Daimler, which he sold sight unseen.

Madame Andree Jellinek-Mercédés in the Siegfried Marcus car in Vienna on April 16, 1950. By her side is engineer Alfred Buberl who drive the historic vehicle.
Madame Andree Jellinek-Mercédés in the Siegfried Marcus car in Vienna on April 16, 1950. By her side is engineer Alfred Buberl who drive the historic vehicle.

With an established sales record under his belt, Jellinek ordered six more cars, this time with even more demands. Instead of the two cylinders that had powered all of his previous Daimler cars, Jellinek wanted each car to have four—mounted at the front of the vehicle, unlike predecessors’ mid-engine placement. Such was Jellinek’s thinking that his reasoning dictated that “The engine should be in front, because that was where the horse used to be.” In fact, his logic frequently ran to such simple analogies, as when he stated, “If I can’t get any more out of an auto than out of a horse and carriage, then I might as well travel by horse again.”

Again, Daimler and Maybach expressed their concerns, this time stating that the added weight of such a large engine at the front of the vehicle would make steering all but impossible. Regardless of these concerns, the engineers knew that Panhard-Levassor had configured vehicles thusly to great success, and knew as well of Jellinek’s burgeoning success in selling their vehicles. As such, the cars were built, and an era was about to begin.

With the delivery of the first of his new run of vehicles, Jellinek entered the car in the Nice Automobile Week in March 1899. What was, perhaps, the most important aspect of this running was not the win in the Nice-Magagnone-Nice race at the hands of DMG factory driver Wilhelm Bauer but Jellinek’s use of the pseudonym Mercedes as the team name. The use of such a nom de guerre was commonplace among wealthy motorsports enthusiasts at the time, when such activity was perceived as below the subject’s station in life. In fact, the Baron Henri de Rothschild raced under the name Dr. Pascal, the same name he used while practicing as a playwright. Mercedes, in addition to being the name of Jellinek’s daughter, was the name he used for many of his endeavors, including his homes and yacht. Spanish for gifts or favors, he thought the name brought good fortune and he used it prolifically.

The following year, Jellinek entered yet another custom-built racer in Nice Week. This time the car was powered by a 23 horsepower four-cylinder engine. During the hill-climb event, Bauer lost control of the vehicle and crashed into a barrier. He died from his injuries the next day. This tragedy of March 30, 1900 proved to be the second in less than a month for the Daimler camp. The company’s namesake had tragically died weeks before, on March 6th. With the combined calamitous events, DMG expressed a wish to withdraw from racing, blaming Bauer’s death on the overly heavy and powerful engine as Daimler and Maybach had insinuated. Jellinek refused to believe that speed alone was the culprit and suggested that lengthening the wheelbase and lowering the car’s center of gravity would correct problems encountered. So adamant was he that the brand maintain its racing heritage that he stated, “It would be commercial suicide to abandon racing,” and “Victories bring world fame. People buy the winning brand and will always buy it.” This sentiment was, perhaps, the precursor to the expression “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.”

By this point in his career, Jellinek had amassed 34 sales of Daimler vehicles, enough to earn him a place on the Board of Directors. This position allowed him greater latitude in his penchant for racing and speed, and he continued to push the boundaries of man and machine. He was, self-admittedly, “Not interested in today’s car or tomorrow’s—I want the car of the day after tomorrow!” This sentiment would prove prophetic, not only for the day after tomorrow, but for over a century. On April 2, 1900, DMG began development of a new car—lower, lighter and more powerful than any the firm had yet produced. The 35 horsepower behemoth Jellinek had requested was a full 7 hp more powerful than his last request and featured a number of innovative features that would become standards of the automotive industry for years, if not decades. The chief obstacle to the development of the car was financing. While this may have been a problem for the manufacturer, Jellinek was able to shoulder the burden, once again, entirely on his own. With an investment of 550,000 marks, the equivalent of over $135,000, he ordered 36 vehicles, two more than his total sales thus far.

Following the death of Gottlieb Daimler, management of the company was turned over to his eldest son, Paul, and his chief designer and longtime business partner, Wilhelm Maybach. Each was provided his own design workshop and pursued quite different avenues, in part due to the fact that the two frequently suffered differences of opinion. Paul embarked upon designing a smaller car, a two-cylinder, eight horsepower car of the French voiturette style. Maybach, on the other hand, was left to work with the more traditional, larger cars. This division of labor was short-lived, however. In June of 1900, just two months after development began on Jellinek’s latest brainstorm, Maybach recognized elements of Paul Daimler’s lightweight car that would suit the needs of the company’s newest design.
Wilhelm Maybach has been referred to as the King of Design Engineers, and with this latest project, he certainly earned that moniker. Jellinek threw a veritable litany of demands at the designers, always claiming, “My workshop is the road. Only the road is the criterion for me.” This battle cry would have made lesser designers throw up their hands in despair as being technically unfounded or even impossible, but Maybach rose to the challenge each time. Faster, lighter, more powerful and lower were the demands, and Maybach always found a way.

The first Mercedes car (35 hp) in 1901

Perhaps the most important change in this new vehicle was the name under which it was sold. While the company maintained the right to market it as the New Daimler, Jellinek wanted to call the car Mercedes, the first time his pseudonym would be applied to the vehicle and not the driver or the team.

Jellinek received the first Mercedes on November 22, 1901, fewer than eight months after the date of order, and suffered a series of troubles from transmission and clutch issues to a seized engine over the next several months, including an early withdrawal from the Grand Prix in Pau in February of 1901. Just a month later, all of the car’s difficulties had been sorted out, just in time for Nice Week at the end of March. What followed was legend. With factory driver Wilhelm Werner and mechanic Hermann Braun aboard at the controls the car swept the events that characterized one of the world’s largest automotive events, winning the 244-mile long distance race, the one mile sprint and the hill climb up La Turbie hill. After demanding a 1,000 mark bonus for both Werner and Braun, Jellinek replaced the car’s two-seat racing body with a four place version and proceeded to parade around town to illustrate that not only was this vehicle a stock, factory car, it was more importantly available for sale. So impressive was the new Mercedes that Paul Meyan, Secretary General of the French Automobile Club professed, “Nous sommes entrés dans l’ère Mercédès.” (“We have entered the Mercedes era.”) Surely this was no small compliment, coming from the foremost authority of automobile fashion. The Simplex even warranted the notice of German Emperor Wilhelm II, who was heard to declare this witticism, “A truly beautiful engine you have here! But it’s not as simplex as that, you know.”

Never ones to rest on their laurels, the team at Daimler set about developing their next great vehicle, the car that would be known as the Simplex. With five additional horsepower, bringing the total to 40, and an extended wheelbase, the car’s name was derived from a company slogan that touted, “Comfort by means of simplicity.” This claim was supported by developments made to ease the operation of the vehicle. Improvements to the transmission made shifting easier; the new throttle valve allowed the car to be “driven almost all day long on the third speed, even amongst traffic,” and the clutch needed to be used only when stopping the car. Advertisements claimed that the car could be run from 5 to 45 miles per hour without changing gears or using the clutch. An interesting side note is that, even in 1902, the use of the throttle was promoted as a means of saving petrol.

The Museum’s 1904/05 Mercedes Simplex, Chassis #2626, is accompanied by a small collection of facsimile factory records, providing some insight as to how the vehicle arrived in the United States. According to the handwritten ledger, Chassis #2626 was originally slated for delivery to C.L. Charley, a French importer who ran the “Mercedes Palace” at 70 Avenue des Champs-Élysées. As with Jellinek and Henri Rothschild, Charley was a pseudonym, this time for Karl Lehmann, a cycle racer of the time. Lehmann had seen one of the first Mercedes cars in production and promptly visited Jellinek to negotiate the sole Mercedes dealership in France. In the ledger, Charley’s entry has been crossed out and in its place appears Allen, Halle & Co, New York. The car itself bears a pair of brass information plates, one announcing the licensure from C.L. Charley and the other proclaiming that it was “Imported and sold by Smith & Mabley, Inc. Licensed under the Selden Patent.” The leap from C.L. Charley to Smith & Mabley is bridged in a November 24, 1904 article in Motor Age magazine, which states that “Smith & Mabley have become the distributing agents of the Mercedes for Allen, Halle & Co., representatives of C.L. Charley of Paris.” While the article goes on to state that Charley “Recognizes only Allen, Halle & Co. as his sole American representatives … he does not dispute their right to sell to Smith & Mabley or others.”

Chassis #2626 features a Rear-Entrance Tonneau body, which is removable to permit changing body styles with the seasons. Following 1904, models in this line ceased using the Simplex name, opting instead for horsepower designations as with the 28/32 and 40/45. This example was donated to the Museum by founder Thomas Watson II in 1984 and remains one of the crown jewels of the collection.

Specifications: Model 40/45 hp tourer; engine four-cycle, four-cylinder, in-line, water-cooled, spark ignition; bore 118 mm., stroke 150 mm., 6,786 cc. displacement, 44 hp at 1300 rpm.

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