The German companies that eventually became Daimler A.G., as Mercedes-Benz has been known since 2007, date to the late 19th century. Carl Benz founded Benz & Cie. in October, 1883. His company’s open-air Benz Patent Motorwagen from 1886 is considered the first automobile, despite having only three wheels. In 1894, Benz released the Velo, which was the world's first mass-produced car.
Gottlieb Daimler founded Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) in November, 1890. The first car to bear the Mercedes brand was produced in 1901—the vehicle took its name from the 10-year-old daughter of an early salesman for Daimler, an Austrian businessman named Emil Jellinek. This first Mercedes, designed by Daimler’s Wilhelm Maybach, had a 35 horsepower, 5193cc, four-cylinder engine.
Prior to and during World War I, both firms focused on manufacturing aircraft engines and trucks for the German war effort. After the war, stung by inexpensive Ford imports, Daimler attempted to diversify its product line by make bicycles and typewriters. But the Treaty of Versailles played havoc on the German economy, and by 1926, the two auto companies had merged as Daimler-Benz. Touring convertibles, sports cars, boxy sedans, and trucks filled out the list of models from the late 1920s until the mid-1930s. By the end of the decade, the company was back in the military-truck and aircraft-engine business. During World War II itself, Daimler-Benz relied on forced labor to fill roughly half its workforce.
The 1950s saw the reintroduction of the Mercedes-Benz brand into international automotive markets, as well as the dawn of a new look for the car company’s products. Up first was the 300SL (for “sport" and "leicht" in German, or “sporty" and "light” in English), which was released in 1954 as a Gullwing. The car’s name referred to the way in which the doors resembled bird wings when fully opened (they were hinged on the car’s roof). The visual effect was impressive, but from a practical standpoint, the Gullwing left a lot to be desired. The body leaked, the frame was difficult to repair if damaged (dealers hated it), and if the car rolled in an accident and landed on its roof, the doors were next to impossible to open. After 1,400 Gullwings, the 300SL was redesigned in 1957 as a roadster convertible, 1,858 of which were produced until 1963.
During the 1960s, Mercedes mostly devoted itself to its 200-series SLs. The 230s had a removable steel roof, known as a Pagoda, and proved popular with customers—almost 20,000 of the 230 models were sold between 1963 and 1967. The 250SL was a transitional model (just over 5,000 units were shipped), while the 280L was the best of the bunch, with enough power (170bhp vs. 150) to give the vehicle a sports-car feel, even with an automatic transmission. Just under 24,000 280SLs were purchased, making it the best-selling Mercedes of the decade.
Although Mercedes-Benz also produced convertibles and coupes in the 1960s, one of its most famous cars was a luxury sedan, which is known as a saloon in England, called the 600. Owned by everyone from John Lennon to Fidel Castro, the 600 had a big, 300bhp V-8 engine, which it needed to move the 5,000-pound vehicle (6-door models with 8 seats, known as Pullmans, weighed almost another half ton, but even those beasts could do zero to 60 in just 10 seconds and cruise at 120mph). From 1963 to 1981, a mere 2,190 600s were built, while only 487 Pullman versions were manufactured during the same period.