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Retracing the Road of Daimler, Benz

June 08, 1986|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

LADENBURG, West Germany — This is a centennial celebration year in Europe that could well be called the Year of Los Angeles. And, of course, the Year of Detroit.

Without what happened here near the confluence of the Rhine and Neckar rivers 100 years ago, Henry Ford might not have been able to launch the American auto industry in Detroit and Los Angeles of today would not be a city made possible by the automobile.

This is part of a speculative fantasy for auto buffs traveling to Europe this summer and autumn.

Like any special interest travelers, they are among the least likely to be influenced by headlines about the scattered acts of terrorism that have caused many tourists to change their travel plans.

Since early this year, inquiries have been arriving steadily for information about vintage car rallies, museum exhibitions, parades, symposiums and all the other jubilee celebrations commemorating the invention of the automobile in Germany a century ago and its impact on daily life throughout the world.

Town Where Benz Lived

We are here in the 3,000-year-old town of Ladenburg on the Neckar River between Mannheim and Heidelberg. Karl Benz worked on his automobile invention and established his business in Mannheim, but built his home in nearby Ladenburg where he lived from 1904 until his death in 1929.

The home is a museum now. One of its exhibits is a model of the Benz three-wheeler motor car, completed in 1886 with its one-cylinder engine assembled into chassis and drive units to form an integrated vehicle.

That was the year in which Gottlieb Daimler in the town of Cannstatt near Stuttgart, 60 miles from Mannheim, introduced a carriage "moved by invisible forces and not drawn by horses." It was powered by a small, light petrol engine.

Both Daimler and Benz are being honored this year as the pioneers of the automotive industry. It's a paradox of history that the two men, starting their careers only 60 miles apart, never met while helping drive the world into an unprecedented era of mobility and communication.

Daimler died at age 66 in 1900. Benz lived nearly another three decades and died at age 85 at his home here. Each had founded his own business. In 1926, the internationally known firms of Daimler and Benz merged to survive inflation in Germany and compete effectively on the world market.

Story of the Mercedes

Meanwhile, the Mercedes car had been trademarked by the Daimler firm, named after a winsome Austrian girl living on the French Riviera.

If you start following the story here in Ladenburg and Mannheim, it's little more than an hour's drive to the Daimler-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, open for the centennial year after being completely renovated.

Exhibits re-create the earliest horseless carriage and three-wheeler and tell of the evolution of the Mercedes and its trademark star. A multimedia show sets the scene of transport and traffic a century ago, but the new audio system is Ray Bradbury and the 21st Century. The commentary and explanation of each exhibit are beamed by infrared waves to small cordless receivers carried by visitors. The museum is open all year, Tuesday through Sunday, and admission is free.

As for the girl on the French Riviera, she was Mercedes Jellinek, daughter of a wealthy Austrian businessman and consul general in Nice. A racing enthusiast, the father had been an early patron of Daimler cars. The trademark star came from a post card Daimler once sent to his wife; he had drawn it as a symbol of a guiding star over their home.

Reliving the First Ride

In Mannheim on July 3, the historic first ride of the Benz three-wheeler will be re-created with the replica of the car. July 5 will be open house day at the Daimler-Benz factory, which will present its Jubilee Exhibition between July 11-20. The touring exhibition of classic cars will be in Duesseldorf June 14-22 and in Mannheim July 12-20.

More than 100,000 visitors are expected this year at the German Auto Museum in the Castle of Langenburg between Heilbronn and Nuremberg. The exhibit will feature 75 vintage cars and Grand Prix racers including Maseratis, Ferraris, Porsches and Mercedeses. Visitors may tour the castle and see its collection of tapestries, paintings, china and furnishings dating from the Renaissance to the 19th Century.

Ladenburg is a town that will be a discovery for many visitors. The Celts populated this site 3,000 years ago. The Romans made it a trade and administration center in AD 98, and hardly a month goes by without the discovery of more Roman artifacts.

Colorful History

The Gothic St. Gallus Church with its Romanesque crypt is built on the old Roman market basilica. The Witches Tower and Martin's Gate are part of town fortifications built in AD 1200 above the Roman defensive wall. The bishops of Worms had made their summer residence here for a thousand years before Karl Benz decided he wanted to live in Ladenburg the rest of his life.

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