Difficult market for foreign car manufacturers in the immediate aftermath of the First World War
Britain is Europe’s top car producer in 1932
Mercedes-Benz vehicles are besieged attractions at motor shows
During the First World War car production in Britain virtually came to standstill. But the inter-war period became the first era of mass motorization – in Britain as elsewhere. In 1918 the number of private cars had plateaued at around 100,000; by 1939, however, that number had risen to two million. In 1922 the nation boasted 88 engine manufacturers, 31 of which survived the economic turbulence of the 1920s. And in 1932 Britain overtook France in terms of production to become Europe’s number one manufacturer of automobiles.
It was to be some time before Daimler and Benz – the two German manufacturers who merged to form Daimler-Benz AG in 1926 – were able to regain a firm foothold in the British market, belonging as they did to the losing side in the war. But by the outbreak of the Second World War the Mercedes-Benz brand had flourished to become the star of London’s Olympia, the show that “was of such importance to the British Empire and the northern states of Europe,” as the magazine Der Motorist put it in 1934. “If technical progress in this field were left to the British then we would still be stuck in the past, driving the sort of out-of-date and unfashionable vehicles now shown at Olympia with such pride and admired with such British reverence.” Mercedes-Benz vehicles, on the other hand, “are considered to be the most modern and advanced models on the international market today.”
For the German manufacturer, however, there was a still a long, hard road to be travelled before the golden years of the 1930s – even in Britain. In 1921 Milnes-Daimler bought up the business of Morgan & Co. and began selling Adler automobiles instead of continuing with Daimler products. Then in October 1921 a certain H. Seddon bought out the Daimler agency and continued to run it until 1927 under the name of British Mercedes Ltd. When Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft merged with Benz & Cie. in Germany in 1926, this British representational office became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Daimler-Benz AG with effect from January 1, 1927.
The Mercedes-Benz diesel engine is awarded the Dewar Trophy
In June 1928 the subsidiary in London , now renamed British Mercedes-Benz Ltd., took delivery of its first Mercedes-Benz L 5 diesel truck. After extensive testing by the British trade magazine The Commercial Motor, and making particular mention of the truck’s engine, the Royal Automobile Club that September awarded Daimler-Benz AG the Dewar Trophy, a prize bestowed by the parliamentarian Sir Thomas R. Dewar in recognition of outstanding achievement in the field of vehicle design. The offices and showrooms of British Mercedes-Benz were located at 35 and 37 Davies Street, the workshop was at 111 Grosvenor Road.
At the Olympia Show in London Daimler-Benz and Horch were the only two German exhibitors at the predominantly Anglo-American show. Alongside an eight-cylinder chassis, there were presented a six-litre convertible with supercharged engine, an eight-cylinder Pullman saloon with Mannheim body and a sports car on the Mercedes-Benz stand, which enjoyed an “exceptionally strong” crowd of visitors. As one internal report put it: “The centrepiece was our new eight-cylinder car, the body of which seems perfectly suited to English tastes. […] The gentlemen running our English agency are hopeful of strong sales where this model is concerned, since the price of the car compared with British models of similar output and dimensions does not seem to be too high.”
In its review of the 1928 Motor Show, “Stuttgart’s Neues Tageblatt” was keen to point out that the sports models had no equivalent in England: “She can top a hundred and twenty, guaranteed, her owner solemnly declares, ‘she’ being the most beautiful exhibit ever seen at the London Motor Show – the new 220-horsepower Mercedes-Benz export car. […] Day after day, from morning until evening, an excited crowd surrounds the sleek white beast of prey. Young women grow wide-eyed and lose the power of speech at the sight of it, and daring sportsmen turn pale with excitement at the chance to steal a blast on the accelerator pedal.” In the years that followed, German sports cars would continue to cause a sensation at British motor shows.
In 1929 excitement in the press reached new heights – and the voices were not just German ones: “I believe the Mercedes-Benz to be the finest piece in the show, for it is the safest car one can drive anywhere in the world,” ran an internal company report, quoting a line from the Evening Standard of October 25,1929. Furthermore, Daimler-Benz was the only German company represented that year at the commercial vehicle shows in London and Paris.
In 1930 Car Mart Ltd. moved into the rooms in Davies Street and also took over representation of the German carmaker for a few years, while truck sales were controlled as before from Grosvenor Road. The top sellers were Mercedes-Benz sports cars, which by this time had earned an outstanding reputation and massive exposure at races all over Europe. In 1934 passenger car representation returned to British Mercedes-Benz hands, and towards the end of that year the company opened a representative showroom at 110 Park Lane.
At the 1934 Motor Show held from October 11 - 20, Daimler-Benz was once again the only German car manufacturer present, a fact documented in a paper from the central publicity department. According to an internal report the Germans were delighted that the Mercedes-Benz stand was “the focus of interest for all visitors” and that the foreign press recognized “in its frank reporting the enormous technological progress and high level of quality of the Mercedes-Benz cars on display.” The report continued: “This justified assessment is a particular source of pride, given the conservative approach of the British and their forceful propaganda for British products.”
Royal Highnesses show an interest
The Mercedes-Benz stand not only provoked an enthusiastic response from the general public, however, it also attracted the attention of royalty, as two telegrams from the period documented. On October 11 the following succinct message was wired to Untertürkheim “king of siam visited our stand.” It was followed on October 19 by a second more detailed telegram: “just received visit from h r h [His Royal Highness] prince of wales at our olympia show stand stop extremely interested in our design details for 130 and 500 models.” The following year, the Prince of Wales opened the 1935 Olympia Show and during his tour spent considerable time at the Mercedes-Benz stand, a fact that was also immediately wired back to Germany: “showed lively interest in all vehicles on show stop stand well positioned stop five-litre roadster highlight of the show”.
In 1938, too, with the International Motor Show in London already in its 32nd year, Daimler-Benz once again proudly presented its record-breaking sports cars. The whole of the 1930s had been essentially about speed, and the London show featured not only the 1938 racing car with a 12-cylinder supercharged engine and three-litre displacement, but also for the first time the Grand Mercedes featuring an eight-cylinder in-line engine with 7.7 litres of displacement. This unit delivered 155 hp (114 kW) or 230 hp (169 kW) with the supercharger switched on. The company also presented a Mercedes-Benz 540 model with supercharger and a “silvery-blue” convertible A with cream-colored upholstery. And as proof that the company led the rest of the world in the design of efficient vehicles for everyday use, it also exhibited the 320, 230 and 170 V models. Visitors were given the opportunity to test-drive the cars and experience for themselves the “Made in Germany” factor. In the period from 1927 to 1939, according to the internal Central Statistics department, Daimler-Benz AG exported a total of 552 passenger cars and 265 trucks and buses to Britain.