Monday, 22 September 2014 00:00
She wasn’t an engineer, or a race car driver, or the founder of an automobile company. But Mercedes Jellinek, born 125 years ago (16 September), left an indelible mark on the automobile industry, thanks to her doting father and his attachment to her name.
Mercedes Adrienne Ramona Manuela Jellinek, born in Vienna, was the first daughter born to Austro-Hungarian businessman and diplomat Emil Jellinek and his first wife, Rachel Goggmann Cenrobert.
Jellinek, a self-made businessman and the son of a Viennese rabbi, was an early automotive enthusiast who was to become Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft’s best and most difficult customer. Always wanting to go faster, in 1896 he wrote to Daimler to order four cars, but only if they could attain 25 MPH.
Founder Gottlieb Daimler and engineer Wilhelm Maybach were reluctant to put a powerful engine in a small chassis – even then, the way to better performance – but the offer was too good to turn down. Jellinek was pleased with his new hot rod, and managed to sell the other three to another motoring enthusiast, Baron Arthur de Rothschild. (He caught Rothschild’s attention by passing his Panhard on a hill, and sold him the first of three Daimlers on the spot.)
Jellinek was having such a good time selling Daimlers that he ordered six more. Jellinek entered the first of these cars in the Nice Automobile Week races, and, like many other racers of the time, competed under a pseudonym, adopting a name dear to his heart: Mr. Mercedes. Jellinek did well with his new car, but did not win either the road race or the hillclimb.
Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft would have to do better. They built a huge, powerful car for the 1900 Nice Week, but tragedy struck when factory foreman Wilhelm Bauer lost control at the first corner and was killed when the car hit a wall. At DMG headquarters in Cannstatt, which had just recently suffered the shock of losing Gottlieb Daimler a few days earlier, the decision was made to withdraw from racing. Jellinek strongly disagreed. “If you do not enter, the conclusion will be drawn that you are unable to enter,” he wrote. An abandonment of racing, he continued, would be ‘commercial suicide’.
He offered another alternative: a lower, lighter, wider, longer and all-around better race car. He wanted an engine of at least 35 hp, or seven horsepower more than the car in which Bauer had been killed. And he promised to buy 36 such cars, at the equivalent of $ 130,000 in 1900 dollars. In exchange, Jellinek asked for two things: One, he wanted to have the exclusive sales agency for Austro-Hungary, France, Belgium and the United States. And two, he wanted the car named after his daughter, Mercedes. The factory agreed.
The first Mercedes was an even bigger success than Jellinek could have hoped for, dominating the 1901 Nice Week events by winning the hillclimb, the distance race and the sprint. In 1905, Emil changed his last name to Jellinek-Mercedes, quipping, “This is probably the first time that a father has taken his daughter’s name.” Mercedes Jellinek was 11 years old when the car bearing her name appeared.
Not much more than the broad outline of her life was known until 2012, when a collection of materials from the estate of her son Hans-Peter Schlosser was donated to the Mercedes-Benz Classic archives. Among this collection were some 300 photographs and they show a young woman enjoying life, riding horses, holding her newborn children. One even shows her at the wheel of a Mercedes Grand Prix car, though there’s no evidence that she ever had much of an interest in automobiles.