Mudguards: Automotive beauty and dirt on the road

January 2020
  • Over the course of time this component has become an increasingly more important vehicle design element
  • Protects drivers from dirt on the roads
  • “33 Extras”: Exhibits of automotive culture at Mercedes-Benz Museum

Stuttgart. What do a ladies’ hat, a driving licence and a bobble head sausage dog have in common? They are three of “33 Extras” that steer one’s attention towards the fascinating details of the history of mobility and bring automotive culture to life as part of the permanent exhibition at the Mercedes-Benz Museum. One of these stories focuses on the mudguard as a vital body element.

1/33: Mudguard

1 – Surprise for museum visitors: What is a single mudguard in a museum display case meant to tell us? It emphasises how vital this unassuming component is. Its appearance may have changed significantly over the decades. However, to this day, it protects occupants and vehicles from stirred up dirt on road surfaces and spray.

2 – Etymology of the German term “Kotflügel”: The wheels of the first vehicles were covered by slim strips of sheet metal or wood. As a result of their elegant shape reminiscent of birds’ wings, Germans called them “Flügel” (wings). They protect against all types of dirt, for instance horse manure (“Kot”), something the most important means of transport before the invention of the motorcar in 1886 left behind.

3 – Integrated into the body: Early vehicle versions also adopted the mudguards from horse-drawn carriages. The function and design have been the focus ever since: when the wheels got wider, so did the mudguards. From the 20th century they became more closely linked to the main body and have ultimately been fully integrated into the vehicles’ outer shell.

4 – Analysing road dirt: What does the mudguard actually protect us against? English chemist Dr Henry Letheby already analysed the dirt on London’s roads back in the mid 19th century: and it had long since consisted of more than just horse manure. No less than 30 per cent of the dirt is made up of abraded stone from the cobbles, a further ten per cent consists of metal particles from wheels and horseshoes. The roads themselves and the vehicles consequently produce a large part of the dust that turns into mud in poor weather conditions.

5 – From dirt track to tarmac road: The issue becomes even more apparent on country lanes. Mudguards play a key role in the success story of this new means of transport, ever since 1888 when Bertha Benz went on the first long-distance trip with a motorcar from Mannheim to Pforzheim. In contrast to towns and cities, country roads feature only a few cobbled stretches, and carriageways are made of compressed gravel and surfaces consisting of sand and pebbles. What a stroke of luck then that the history of innovations for vehicles went hand in hand with those for road building. Nowadays road surfaces made of composites with surfaces consisting of asphalt or concrete have long since become the standard.

6 – Speed and aesthetics: However, modern carriageways are far from making mudguards obsolete. On the contrary, on these new and smooth roads vehicles these days can drive faster than ever before. And with increasing speeds, tyres stir up even more spray and dust. This correlation made the mudguard one of the favourites of automotive designers in the 1920s and 1930s. Its extended lines, dynamic curves and expressive, shapely design tell a tale of the speed and aesthetics of fast driving. Consequently, the most beautiful Mercedes-Benz bodies produced during this era are far removed from the down-to-earth, fundamental principle of the mudguard for protection against spray. More than ever before, they turn vehicles into works of art.

7 – Influenced by aerodynamics: The mudguard for passenger cars and commercial vehicles continues to develop. Aerodynamics also play an increasingly vital role as part of this evolution. Early examples in this context include designs with an optimum flow in vehicles, such as the Mercedes-Benz 540 K Streamliner and the Mercedes-Benz 320 “Autobahnkurier” (motorway courier) with its flowing forms. It goes without saying that both vehicles still had mudguards that were clearly separate from the body. From the 1950s the ponton design prevailed in modern Mercedes-Benz passenger cars. Starting with commercial vehicles, a new styling took over in the 1960s featuring cubic shapes.

8 – Motorsports as the exception: Many racing cars and in particular formula racing cars have free-standing wheels to this day so drivers can accurately steer into corners. The Mercedes-Benz W 196 R dating back to 1954/1955 took a different route: this Formula 1 car was available both with free-standing wheels as well as with a streamlined body that covered the wheels and, you guessed it, featured striking elements over the front wheels. Depending on the race track, the Racing department would rely more on the specific strength of improved aerodynamics.

9 – Mudguard as a design element: The mudguard, formerly a free-standing element, finally became an integral part of the body in the second half of the 20th century. However, its design has more variants than ever before, e.g. stylists’ portfolios ranging from a wheel housing with a cheeky lid line in the 300 SL (W 198) and 190 SL (W 121) models dating back to 1954, and the elegant wings of “tail fin” saloons that picked up on the North American zeitgeist of short rear fins to make backing up easier, to the smooth shapes of the traditionally contemporary, compact W 201 series models.

10 – Variety like never before: Mudguards have always remained a paramount element of the overall design in each era. Thanks to the Mercedes-Benz model campaign and the differentiation between different body shapes, this variety of forms and styles is as ample today as it ever was. In a permanent exhibition with 160 vehicles dating back to the invention of the motorcar in 1886 – and as part of “33 Extras”, the Mercedes-Benz Museum describes how we got to this point and what we can look forward to.

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    Rudolf Caracciola with the Model K, in which he won the touring car category at Klausen Pass and the International Semmering Race in 1926.
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    Elegant convertible: Mercedes-Benz 19/100 PS Type Nürburg 500 dating back to 1931. Actor Brigitte Helm at the wheel.
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    Standard item: Mercedes-Benz vehicles from the 1920s with clear designs featuring mudguards that are separate from the body.
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    Aesthetics of aerodynamics: Mercedes-Benz 540 K Streamliner dating back to 1938.
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    Expressive design: The expressive design of the Mercedes-Benz 500 K Special Roadster (1934 to 1936) – here at Mercedes-Benz Museum – symbolises speed with the vast flowing lines of the front mudguards.
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    Aesthetics of aerodynamics: Mercedes-Benz 540 K Streamliner dating back to 1938.
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    Slim splash guard: Early examples of mudguards, here on the Benz Vis-à-Vis dating back to 1893 in Myths 1 at the Mercedes-Benz Museum, clearly show the origins going back to horse-drawn carriage design.
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    Cause and solution? The mudguard from the “33 Extras” at Mercedes-Benz Museum protects against dirt stirred up from the road. However, horses, the long-established, most important means of transport back then, are far from being the only source of the dirt on roads.
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    Evolution: The improved version of the motor car, introduced in 1888, already featured mudguards over the rear wheels. Image on the right: Carl Benz.
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    New perspective: Mercedes-Benz tail fin saloons (in the image a W 112 series 300 SE) pick up on the contemporary, North American automotive design feature of short fins on the rear mudguards to make backing up easier.
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