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Mercedes' name lives on

SUNDAY DRIVER -

May 18, 2004|by JASON STEIN/Wheelbase Communications

That little 11-year-old girl with the soft look - the dark eyes, the long neck and brown hair - couldn't possibly have imagined the reality or the gravity of her father's actions.

Could she have imagined that her name would be repeated in casual conversation for 100 years or more? Could she have imagined that her name would be associated with so many things to so many people: style; class; sophistication; power and influence?

Being Mercedes Jellinek, daughter to Austrian consul general and entrepreneur Emile Jellinek, could you imagine that more than a century later your name would still be on vehicles from Stuttgart to Shanghai?

It is.

Trace the name and you'll realize that the Mercedes in Mercedes-Benz is her name, the name that was the inspiration for a vehicle that lives to this day. Emile Jellinek made it so, suggesting to Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhem Maybach, Mercedes' original owners, that they name the company's vehicles after his 11-year-old daughter. It would stick for good.

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But, dig deeper, and it's easy to see Jellinek was more than just the right man with the right idea for naming a new vehicle.

He was a visionary, a man who took advantage of time and place and transformed the moment into something meaningful.

His stamp on Daimler's product would be profound.

Before the turn of the 20th century, Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach had been selling cars under the Daimler name since the early 1890s, but although these vehicles were reliable, they weren't fast or romantic.

Jellinek, an avid automobile and race fan, offered an alternative.

During a meeting at an informal Daimler car race in 1899, Jellinek told Daimler he believed the company could sell even more vehicles if customers thought they were sexy and fast. He suggested a number of innovations to Maybach as well as Gottlieb's son, engineer Paul Daimler.

Jellinek believed that if the engine on the Phoenix-Daimler car he had driven and owned sat much lower in the chassis there would be improved stability that would make the car quicker and more appealing. He proposed that the engine be in the front with the cabin and passengers immediately following.

Stationed along the French Riviera in Nice, Jellinek was onto something.

Daimler and Maybach agreed to build the Model 35PSD, in part because Jellinek also agreed to purchase 36 of the new vehicles, a number believed to be the largest sale order in automotive history to that point.

Soon, Daimler was producing a 6.0-liter version of the vehicle that indeed was faster. The new car produced 35 horsepower, 11 more than the previous car, and accelerated with ease. And with the engine riding in a lower position, stability and handling were greatly improved.

Built in 1901, the car was a raging success, enjoying a good run on the street as well as the race courses in the mountains near Nice.

Where most of its predecessors had been tall and unsightly, this car was low and sleek with rear-wheel drive and a honeycomb radiator in front.

Everyone wanted it - celebrities, millionaires, doctors and lawyers - and, just as Jellinek had suggested, the cachet would follow. American owners included Isaac Guggenheim and Henry Clay Frick. On the course, William K. Vanderbilt took several records in a 90-horsepower car produced later.

But that was only half of the story.

Of course the new version of Daimler's vehicle needed a name to match, something romantic and inviting.

Jellinek, by then an influential member of the Daimler Motor Works board and the sole agent in Austria-Hungary, France and the United States, had an idea.

Mercedes, his 11-year-old daughter and third child, had the perfect name for the new Daimler car. Jellinek had even been using her name as a pseudonym for his own race cars.

Mercedes is a Spanish Christian name meaning "grace."

Indeed, it was a perfect fit, something synonymous with status and power.

The company agreed and the name caught on. By 1902 a trademark had been taken out in her name.

More than a century later, it still fits.

Mercedes means power and grace. It means substance and style. And it means an 11-year-old girl from Nice could never have imagined the impact.

Just imagine.

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached at jstein@wheelbase.ws.

Copyright 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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