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The Mercedes-Benz Museum at Stuttgart

Following his visit to Europe recently, David Greenhalgh spent time visiting the tourist traps of Southern Germany. Having spent time at the Porsche Museum, as we reported last week, he then crossed town to see the Mercedes Museum. Here are his impressions - suffice it to say that visits to both are recommended!

The Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart is a very different place from the Porsche museum across town: Mercedes tries to paint a considerably broader picture than does Porsche.

Of course, Mercedes has a much longer and wider story to tell, as their history goes right back to the early days of the automobile. This fact is reinforced not only by the vehicles on display, but also by an extensive and very idiosyncratic selection of photographic panels aimed to sum up the 20th century in all its shades of life, not just from the automotive point of view. It is particularly fascinating to see how the two World Wars are handled.

While these photos extend down one side of the museum in a long spiral, the other side is devoted to more specific displays. These include Mercedes owned by famous people as diverse as Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Pope and Princess Diana. And tucked away in one of these galleries amongst some far more mundane vehicles is a 300SLR on the back of a replica of the famous race transporter.

On the rear flank of the 300SLR – only in English, just in case anyone misses the point – is written, “This car has never been beaten or dropped out due to mechanical failure. This model is not for sale.” It’s a very clever touch: the general-interest visitor to the museum is meant to be impressed by the comment as it stands, while the enthusiast is being subtly reminded that, after the 1955 Le Mans disaster destroyed one of the 300SLRs, the company made the honourable choice of withdrawing the other two from the race while in a very strong position.

The 300SLR sits several levels above the bulk of the racing cars, which are lined up in a breathtaking arc near ground level. Unlike Porsche, Mercedes has a very distinguished grand prix history to portray – especially its ground-breaking cars of the 1930s and ’50s - and there they all are: W25, W125, W154, W165, W196, even two modern McLaren-Mercedes.

The company of course only has an intermittent history in GP racing, but when they’re in, they tend to make an impact – which no doubt explains why there was no car to be seen from their last three, fairly anonymous, years in F1. Meanwhile, fans of other areas of the sport are catered for by a collection of record-breakers, DTM and rally cars, a Penske PC23 Indycar and, more bizarrely, some racing trucks.

So that leaves the sports cars. And when you think about it, they don’t have many to choose from: the marque’s legendary stature in motor racing rests far more on its grand prix than sports car exploits.

Accordingly, it always seemed likely that there may be a 300SL and 300SLR from the ’50s, assorted Saubers from the late ’80s/early 90s, and a CLK from later in the ’90s – and sure enough, they all made the cut. For reasons even more obvious than with the 2010-12 GP cars, it was hardly likely that they would choose to display a C291, let alone the ill-fated CLR.

The 300SL is presented as the Panamericana car, while the 300SLR carries the famous 722 of Moss/Jenkinson’s 1955 Mille Miglia romp. The Sauber C9 is dressed as the 1989 Le Mans-winner, while the very compact C11 and the strikingly-elegant CLK round off the display.

The cars are supported by various bits of memorabilia – drivers’ gloves and helmets, Alfred Neubauer’s notebook and other such treasures – while an excellent series of films from each period and category of racing are also constantly played.

Even more imaginatively, the lift carrying visitors way up to the start of the museum on level 8 carries a projector. As the lift goes up or down, images of legendary Mercedes figures like Caracciola, von Brauchitsch, Neubauer, Fangio and Moss are briefly thrown onto the opposite wall; flickering, ghostly figures from an extraordinary past.

Unlike Porsche, Mercedes did not have to make too many value judgments about which racing cars to display in their museum – any Mercedes which is even vaguely significant to the history of the sport is here to be seen. Accordingly, no racing enthusiast could possibly be disappointed – or less than utterly captivated – by the selection on display.

Rather, it is in the general part of the museum where the interesting decisions were made. Mercedes is one of the only remaining automotive houses which traces its roots right back to the start of the 20th century, and the casual visitor will surely be greatly intrigued by the photographs the company has chosen to illustrate the history of the world during the marque’s long and very successful existence.

David Greenhalgh