Rear-view mirror: Mercedes-Benz Museum Inside No. 7/2020

May 2020
  • Recommendation from British racing driver and author Dorothy Levitt back in 1909
  • Further development for seeing better and being seen better
  • Cameras and screens instead of rear-view mirrors in 1996 in the F 200 Imagination research vehicle
  • “33 Extras”: Exhibits of motoring culture at the Mercedes-Benz Museum

Stuttgart. One-hundred and sixty vehicles and a total of 1,500 exhibits are presented in the varied permanent exhibition of the Mercedes-Benz Museum. The “33 Extras” are a particular highlight: they can bring the history of personal mobility and motoring culture to life using details that are often surprising. The Mercedes-Benz Museum Inside newsletter series draws attention to the “33 Extras” and focuses on their background stories. Today’s issue covers the rear view mirror.

7/33: The rear-view mirror

1 – Rear visibility: In the early days of the motorcar, British racing driver, journalist and author Dorothy Levitt gave her readers some advice: lady drivers should always have a hand mirror with them that they could “occasionally hold up to see what is behind you”. In this way, the traffic behind the car could be monitored while driving and the vehicle could still be safely controlled at the same time. Ideally, the hand mirror should be “fairly large to be really useful and it is better to have one with a handle”. And this is exactly what the hand mirror in the “33 Extras” exhibit series of the Mercedes-Benz Museum looks like.

2 – Experience: This hint is found in Levitt’s book “The Woman and the Car: A Chatty Little Handbook for All Women Who Motor or Who Want to Motor”, which was published in 1909. The book contained advice of great practical relevance. After all, born in 1882 in England and a pioneer of women drivers, she had by then long been a successful racing driver. In April 1903, she was the first woman in Great Britain to take part in a motorcar race and, in subsequent years, she achieved numerous racing and class victories throughout Europe.

3 – On the road and in sports: The denser and faster road traffic became, the more useful a mirror was for checking what was behind. Instead of just picking it up from time to time, having a permanently installed one made more sense. At the beginning of the 20th century, numerous ideas emerged as to how a rear-view mirror could be permanently mounted in or on a car. The first racing driver to use a fixed rear-view mirror in competition racing was Ray Harroun, an American. With the aid of this innovative detail, he won the first 500-mile race at Indianapolis in 1911. Thanks to his rear-view mirror, he was the only driver in the field who could dispense with a co-driver, who at that time was needed as much as anything to keep an eye on what was happening behind.

4 – Inside and outside: The rear-view mirror became standard after the First World War. There were two variants: the interior mirror fixed in the driver’s compartment and the exterior side mirrors. Today’s mirror placement developed over time. In the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL “Gullwing” (W 198) which was launched in 1954, for example, the interior mirror was not located at the top edge of the windscreen, but was mounted on the dashboard – as in the racing sports car of the same name (W 194) from 1952. The “Tailfin” top-of-the-range saloon cars of the W 111/112 series (1959 to 1968) sported outside mirrors on both the front wings and the doors.

5 – Being seen: Exterior mirrors initially only improved the driver’s visibility. But some time ago, they began to be used to assist in being seen. In 1998, the S-Class of the 220 model series had LED indicators fitted to the housings of the exterior mirrors for the first time. The LEDs were arranged in such a way that their flashing was visible both towards the front and the side.

6 – Rules and regulations: Because of their importance in the safety of road traffic, regulations were drawn up for rear-view mirrors. In Germany, exterior mirrors on the driver’s side of lorries have been mandatory since 1925. The combination of interior and exterior mirrors became a requirement of German Road Traffic Licensing Regulations for passenger cars from 1956, and in Great Britain they were mandatory from 1978. A second exterior mirror has long since become a permanent feature.

7 – Cameras instead of mirrors: Reversing a car and looking backwards is a tricky situation because the angle of the rear-view mirror does not allow a detailed view of the distance between the rear of the car and any obstacles. This is where innovative solutions from Mercedes-Benz come in. PARKTRONIC uses ultrasound to measure distance while the car is being parked; it was introduced in 1995 and made its début in the 140 model series S-Class. And then, in 2005, the rear-view camera was introduced in the S-Class of the 221 model series – the image was displayed directly on the screen in the dashboard, which was even easier than Dorothy Elizabeth Levitt having to reach for her mirror. In the United States of America and Canada, for example, rear-view cameras have been mandatory for new passenger cars since 2018. In Japan, a law was enacted as early as 2016 that allowed orientation using cameras and screens instead of the classic rear-view mirror also while driving. Mercedes-Benz presented camera solutions for interior and exterior mirrors as early as 1996 in the F 200 Imagination research vehicle. In the new Mercedes-Benz Actros, the MirrorCam made its début as a series solution in 2019. Here, for the first time in a lorry, cameras and screens replaced the classic exterior mirrors in the standard version.

8 – Mirror, mirror…: Another mirror in modern cars is concealed in the sun visor of the front passenger seat. However, it is not intended as an aid to orientation in road traffic, but merely to serve the vanity of the passenger seated there. In 1909, however, Dorothy Levitt advised her readers against this “strictly personal use” of the hand mirror while driving.

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Mercedes-Benz F 200 Imagination research vehicle from the year 1996. Instead of exterior mirrors, it had monitors on the left and right in the dashboard. A further monitor was located in the middle of the upper edge of the windscreen and replaced the interior mirror usually fitted there: it showed the image from a camera that pointed backwards.
Mercedes-Benz 170 Cabriolet C (W 15) built in 1931, with a rear-view mirror at the upper edge of the windscreen.
Mercedes-Benz 300 SE "Tailfin" (W 112, 1961 to 1965).