The Birth of the Mercedes Marque
The first Mercedes automobile, a 35 hp. Mercedes racing car, designed in 1901 by Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG), was an engineering marvel that established DMG’s leadership in the new automotive world, and launched a continuous line of successful racing and touring cars. The life of the 11 year old girl, Mercedes Jellinek, for whom this iconic car was named followed a different arc. However, through the energy and imagination of her doting father, her name has been synonymous with automotive glamor and excellence for the last 116 years.
Emil Jellinek, Mercedes’ father, was the son of a respected rabbi and intellectual in Leipzig, Germany. A self-acknowledged black sheep in a scholarly family, Emil did not take to the discipline of school work and believed that learning from life experience was more useful than academics. He informed his father one day, that “one can learn everything without study”, and at 17 left school to work as a clerk in a Moravian railway company. The job lasted for two years until Emil was sacked for operating late-night train races. Successfully failing upward, Emil secured an appointment at the Austro-Hungarian Consul in Morocco through connections of his father. While on duty there he met Rachel Goggmann Cenrobert, an African born lady of French-Sephardi descent, whom he eventually married in 1881 at the age of 28. Emil and Rachel had two sons and a daughter, Mercedes Adrienne Manuela Jellinek, born on September 16, 1889.
Despite his lack of promise as a teenager, Emil proved to be a skillful entrepreneur and businessman, beginning with trading Algerian tobacco at his post in Morocco to successfully selling insurance to clients on the French Riviera, and eventually selling automobiles. Jellinek was an early admirer of DMG cars, and soon became their most energetic and productive dealer. Intensely competitive, Jellinek had been racing DMG cars with some success, and had developed strong ideas of what was needed to improve the racing success of current designs. With the goal of developing a new car for Nice Week, an annual sporting event on the Riviera, Emil proposed to DMG a new design that was lighter, smaller, lower, and faster than the previous models. If this could be done, Jellinek would commit to order thirty-six of these cars, he would be granted the exclusive dealership for Austro-Hungary, France, Belgium, and the United States, and, one more thing, the cars would be named Mercedes for his eleven year old daughter. Who could refuse? Wilhelm Maybach, DMG’s chief designer, took up this challenge, and produced a car that at 2,200 lbs. was half the weight of its predecessor, developed 35 hp. vs 28 hp. of the previous model, and had a top speed of 55 vs 37 mph.
The new Mercedes swept the events at Nice: the distance races, the hill-climb, and the sprint. Jellinek had no problem selling the first batch of cars.
The powers at DMG, who had initially thought they would call the car the New Daimler, changed their minds, trademarked the name Mercedes, and began using it for its entire production. Jellinek added Mercedes to his surname, becoming Jellinek-Mercedes, his villa in Nice, becoming Villa Mercedes, and his yachts, becoming Mercedes, and Mercedes-Mercedes.
In the Centennial Anniversary issue of The Star, Technical Editor Frank King dubbed the 35 hp. Mercedes “… the greatest single step forward in the history of the Automobile”. The success of Mercedes at Nice set DMG on a course of rapid expansion and singular prestige in the automotive world. Other car makers quickly adopted the innovations introduced by the Mercedes to their own models, and it became common for manufactures to boast of “Mercedes technology” in their own cars. DMG’s sales shot up, and the Stuttgart factory expanded from 340 employees in 1900 to 2,200 in 1904. In 1907 both Jellinek and Maybach left DMG, Maybach because of illness and Jellinek-Mercedes because of fraying relations with the board. With Maybach gone, DMG promoted Gottlieb Daimler’s son, Paul, to chief engineer. DMG continued innovating, along with several competitors who both copied and sought to improve the Mercedes design. Foremost among these was Benz whose success in rallying and racing competitions kept both companies striving for better designs. At that time it was believed by many manufacturers that success in competition was necessary for commercial acceptance, and DMG continued to improve performance and reliability of their cars at a remarkable pace, scoring impressive victories on the race circuit in both Europe and America. These include winning the 1908 Grand Prix (there was only one then), followed by two Benz cars in second and third place; and peaked in 1914 with a remarkable one-two-three sweep of the Grand Prix. Less than a week before this event, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, and by the following week Europe had plunged into the abyss of the First World War.
In the wake of World War I the market for luxury cars collapsed. Consolidation offered many advantages for financial survival and continued investment in new designs. Merger talks began as early as 1919 between DMG and Benz, and after long negotiations, the two companies officially became Daimler-Benz during the summer of 1926. Benz executive William Keissel became Managing Director of the combined companies.
Emil Jellinek-Mercedes continued to prosper selling Mercedes car, becoming very rich in the process. Success, however, was not an edifying experience for Jellinek-Mercedes, but seemed to go straight to his head. His communications with the factory, while often concerning issues of extreme importance, were written with a tone of authority and directness that became tiresome at DMG. Concerning an issue of an alleged faulty suspension design Jellinek began a letter with, “You consider it irresponsible that I give … my opinion about the bad construction of your steering control. You are not even entitled to make a judgment about this and I will ignore it.” As the relationship with DMG continued to decay, Jellinek became even more strident, writing near the end, “There are only two ways open to me: either the existing conditions are changed so that all new designs will again come exclusively under my direction, or I shall leave the DMC for good”. The DMG Board was left with little choice. Jellinek-Mercedes may have become a colossal pain to the DMG factory, but he was nevertheless a passionate advocate for his customers, a dynamic and successful marketer for Mercedes, and had a clear and prescient vision of the necessary factors for commercial success.
In 1908 DMG terminated Jellinek-Mercedes’ contracts and connections to the company. He returned to diplomatic duties with an appointment as honorary vice-consul in Monaco, where he added an ostrich panache to his pith helmet and posed for photos in his military jacket covered with medals. This glamorous lifestyle ended abruptly when World War I broke out. The French accused Jellinek-Mercedes of espionage for Germany, and seized his properties and yachts in France and Monaco. His second wife, Anaise, was suspected by the Austrians. In 1917 they fled to neutral Switzerland where he died on January 21, 1918.
We can only imagine the magical childhood that Mercedes Jellinek must have had, a luxurious life on the French Riviera with her name attached to the most exciting car of the time. We do know that she played music and had a good soprano voice, and probably never shared her father’s passion for automobiles. When her father offered to buy her a piano, she insisted on the best, a Steinway, telling him, “I think as highly of pianos as you do of cars!”
Her brother sheds some light on her young personality, describing her, “… restless, full of vague longings; she was artistically inclined and attracted by bohemian life”. At the age of 20 Mercedes married Baron Karl von Schlosser, a friend from childhood, in a magnificent ceremony in Nice. World War I ruined them in Nice, and the family moved to Vienna where Karl worked as a civil servant and served in the Austrian Reserves. The couple had two children, Elfriede (b.1912) and Hans-Peter (b. 1916).
In 1923 Mercedes left her family and home to marry a sculptor, Baron Rudolf Weigl, whom her brother Guy describes as, “… not without talent, but very conceited and unstable”. Weigl, consumptive and hard-drinking, died soon after. As Guy describes the situation, “A restless life of travel, alcohol and nightly reveling shattered his weak constitution and the bond which Mercedes soon realized was a mistake”. Mercedes died of bone cancer in 1929, a few months before reaching the age of 40. She was buried in the familial grave in Vienna near her grandfather, Rabbi Adolf Jellinek.
David Sears, February 2017
Quotes were taken from: My Father Mr. Mercedes (1961) Guy Jellinek-Mercedes, Chilton Book Co.