5 May 2020
5 May 2020
One hundred and twenty years have now passed since a fledgling German maker of cars adopted a brand name that would become a byword for luxurious, cutting-edge automobiles.
So where, exactly, did the ‘Mercedes’ in Mercedes-Benz come from? A colourful and rich history leads us back to … a 12-year-old girl.
The first ‘Mercedes’
The Mercédès in question was the daughter of German-born, Austrian-raised entrepreneur Emil Jellinek. He believed the name, which means “kindness” or “mercy” in Spanish, brought good fortune – so much so that he also labelled his family’s grand residence ‘Villa Mercedes’.
Drawing on careers in insurance, stock trading and diplomacy, he established an automobile trading company in the late 1890s while working as Austria’s Consul General in Nice, France. He sold the cars of many brands to French aristocrats, including those of Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG).
Emil was fascinated by these turn-of-the-century cars as they began to take on the familiar shape and attributes that would underpin the automotive industry for the next century and beyond, and had also begun to dabble in car racing. In 1899 he even raced under the pseudonym of ‘Monsieur Mercedes’ – the first time the name had publicly been attached to an automobile.
He developed into an opportunistic businessman and struck a big deal with his favourite brand. In return for Emil purchasing a shipment of 36 of their cars, DMG chief engineer Wilhelm Maybach – a man that Emil personally idolised – would design a bespoke racing car just for him.
Though the automotive industry was still finding its feet and product marketing was little more than a vague notion, Emil understood the vital importance of an evocative brand name that would be easy to remember. And so it was that in 1901, 12-year-old Mercédès Jellinek provided the inspiration for the Mercedes 35 HP, the first model of many to come to adopt the moniker.
Regarded as the first modern motor car, the Mercedes 35 HP was a road-based adaptation of Emil’s racing car and featured a 5.9-litre straight-four petrol engine making 35 horsepower (26 kilowatts).
Little might Emil have suspected that his daughter’s name would become a global trademark, a byword for quality and luxury as alluring and covetable as the likes of Gucci, Rolex or Tiffany.
The role of Bertha Benz
It’s worth noting that Mercédès Jellinek is far from the only woman whose influence has loomed large over the 120-year history of Mercedes-Benz.
It’s widely acknowledged that the world’s very first proper car journey was undertaken in 1888 not by the creator of the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, Karl Benz, but by his wife Bertha Benz and their two teenage boys.
Bertha realised the need to draw publicity to her husband’s invention, so she orchestrated the world’s first road trip, from their home in Mannheim to her mother’s house in Pforzheim, in the Black Forest.
It is said she used a hatpin to clear the carburettor and a garter to insulate wire along the journey. The round trip – undertaken over two days – was an arduous 194 kilometres. Her ploy worked, as local scepticism about the world’s first truly horseless carriage turned to wonder, giving her husband the impetus to continue his work. In 1926, he would go on to join forces with Gottlieb Daimler – and the company that would become Mercedes-Benz.
By Steve Colquhoun