By on August 16, 2011

No, I’m not talking about the cars and SUVs that Mercedes assembles in Alabama. Yesterday, Jack Baruth told us about the relationship between the American Steinway and German Daimler companies and the cars that Steinway started assembling under license from Mercedes in 1905.  When I read Jack’s article I remembered that I had something in my collection of press kits, sales brochures, images and and assorted swag (with apologies to Mr. Zimmerman) that I’ve been accumulating for the past decade or so of working the press previews for the Detroit, Chicago and Toronto auto shows. In 2006 Mercedes Benz distributed a reproduction of a reproduction. It’s actually a very cool little piece of automobilia and a nice facsimile of a historical artifact, in a couple of ways.

It’s a small booklet, less than 40 pages, called The American Mercedes. It was originally distributed in 1906 by the Daimler Mfg. Company, on Steinway Ave. in Long Island City, and promotes the 1906 45 horsepower “American Mercedes”. It was reproduced in the early 1960s, and the copy M-B gave out in 2006 had a 1961 afterword and an insert from 1964. The whole package is chock full of historically interesting aspects.

To begin with, before we get to the original 1906 text and illustrations, it’s interesting to look at the afterword and insert from the 1960s. The company distributing the booklet then was called Mercedes-Benz Sales, Inc. Just as the address of the Daimler Mfg. Co. on Steinway Avenue is significant, so is the address of M-B Sales Inc. on South Main Street in South Bend, Indiana. South Bend, of course, was the home of Studebaker. The Studebaker Museum is there, and from Earth orbit you can still see the trees that spell STUDEBAKER at the former Studebaker test track near Bendix Woods west of South Bend.

Mercedes-Benz Sales Inc. was a subsidiary of Studebaker-Packard, who had acquired the US import and distribution rights for M-B cars in 1957. Looking over the copy from the 1961 and 1964 editions, it’s truly remarkable how the Mercedes brand went from almost non-existent in the US to a leading luxury brand. The 1961 afterword discusses how there were only 32 M-B cars registered in the US in 1952, climbing to 3,446 in 1957, when Studebaker started distributing them and expanding the M-B dealer network. By 1961, sales had risen to almost 13,000 units a year. M-B Sales pointed out that number was exceeded by “only two small, inexpensive imported automobiles”, and that there were 60,000 satisfied American owners of M-B products. I’m supposing that those two cars were undoubtedly the VW Beetle and most likely the Renault Dauphine, which had some measure of success in the late ’50s and early ’60s. There were 350 dealers and a network of parts warehouses to service them. The “less than $4,000” price for a Merc in 1961 was pitched as representing “very good value indeed”.

The insert from 1964 mentions the story Jack related about William Steinway’s 1888 trip to Germany and his ride in one of Gottlieb Daimler’s quadricycles and the history of the US Daimler Manufacturing Company and the cars they assembled. It talks of similarities and differences between the brass age Mercedes and the then modern 90 HP models, and of course it stresses Daimler and Benz’s roles in the invention of the automobile and Mercedes-Benz’s reputation for engineering and quality. In three years registrations increased to 90,000, which means that there was a slight downturn in annual sales from the ’61 figures.

The booklet itself is a great look at the dawn of the automobile age, early advertising and some American culture as well. The cover says The American Mercedes above the Daimler Manufacturing Company’s logo, which appears to have combined German and American eagles into a single crest. The brochure is illustrated with very nicely executed drawings of the car and major components, and stresses the high level of quality of the Steinway made American Mercedes. Of note is the fact that the brochure stresses that all critical components of the car were made from imported German ores and steel, not what they regarded as inferior American metal with less strength and greater weight. It also stresses that the car would be “an exact reproduction of the … foreign Mercedes”. It would still be a couple of years before master machinist Henry Leland would make Cadillac the standard of the world and change the reputation of American automotive engineering. Though it touted the car’s European origins, the brochure stressed that the royalty they were paying the Daimler company was less than import duties would be on the same car if imported from Germany. From the earliest days to today’s “transplant” assembly facilities, local production has often made economic sense. The text is much more technically detailed than promotional materials would be today, but then in 1906 you had to be a genuine auto enthusiast and  pretty decent mechanic just to drive a car and keep it running.

The 45 HP American Mercedes was a large car, built for seven passengers, available in two lengths, with wheelbases of 3225mm (127″) and 3279mm (129″). For comparison purposes, that’s in mid 1970s Cadillac and Lincoln territory. The larger car had a body 8″ longer than the shorter wheelbase car. Red was the standard color but the company offered custom colors.

CARS are furnished with all necessary equipment, such as tools, tire repair kit, horn, two oil sidelights, to gas head lights and one tail light, etc. There is also included an assortment of the spare parts more frequently needed, such as chain link valve and igniter springs, igniter electrodes and piston rings. Price with Standard Equipment, $7,500 F.O.B. New York City.

It’s a fascinating look at early automobile ownership and it’s worth reading the whole thing. There’s no copyright issue anymore, it’s long since passed into the public domain, so I scanned the entire booklet as well as the insert and you can see it in the gallery below.

Note: The TTAC photo gallery player doesn’t always work well. I’ve also put up a post on Cars In Depth with a Flash player that actually works and plays the images in proper order.


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10 Comments on “The American Mercedes...”

  • avatar

    Thanks for that link to the aerial view of the former Studebaker test track! I never even knew that even existed. Indiana certainly has an incredible amount of automotive history, behind Michigan and Ohio.

    To look back upon the glory years of America’s industrial greatness, perfectly symbolized by the name of the company spelled out in trees and only visible by air, evokes both fondness and sadness for what we have lost.
    Now the most popular “gotta have” consumer products are made in, um, well, not here anymore!

    • 0 avatar

      You’re welcome. Comments like yours are very gratifying. Thanks.

      Much as I have fondness for Studebaker (and Packard) the independents were truly weak sisters to the Big 3, not exactly symbols of America’s industrial greatness. Remember, the auto industry did pretty well throughout the 1960s.

      • 0 avatar

        Looking at the history of both Studebaker and Packard, I would have to disagree with you statement, which was true by the 1950s, but not before then. Both companies peaked prior to WWII, and were very successful at the time when the “big 3” weren’t that big yet (Ford got “big” first). And Studebaker had a 100-year run as a company.

        I would argue that both Studebaker and Packard paved the way for the Big 3, with Packard setting the quality standard that Cadillac would attempt to emulate.

  • avatar

    Ive seen and done some pretty extensive roadside repairs but new Rings in a tool kit is extreme

  • avatar

    “it’s truly remarkable how the Mercedes brand went from almost non-existent in the US to a leading luxury brand. ”

    Ratchet up the calendar about 30 years and substitute Lexus for Mercedes.

    I guess there’s nothing new under the sun.

    • 0 avatar

      Lexus sold more than 16,000 cars in the first 4 months they were on sale. They started out from a much higher baseline than Mercedes. If you look at the numbers I quoted, that’s more cars than Mercedes sold in the US in any of the complete years from 1957 to 1964 at least.

      • 0 avatar

        I was referring to the meteoric rise of the brand more than the actual numbers. However, it is instructional to know that Lexus had a pretty good push from mother ship Toyota who already had an established reputation here in the States for much longer than MB enjoyed.

      • 0 avatar

        Lexus did undercut Mercedes at first, though. And when the W124 was finally discontinued DB could not keep up with the electro-wizards at Toyota. Then they made the good fortune of assembling the first gen ML in Alabama. lolz

  • avatar

    Nice to see a write up about the American Mercedes. The illustrator for the original booklet was named Harold Osinga and he drew all of the drawings while a student at the Armour Institute of Technology. I have his original copy of the booklet. I also have the domain name Check it out. Let me know if anyone is interested in acquiring either or both. Thanks.

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