The Center of It All – Mercedes-Benz Classic

Graham Robson
With the Museum in Stuttgart at its cores, Mercedes-Benz Classic preserves, restores, and celebrates the artifacts and heritage of the world’s original car company.

The Center of It All
With the Mercedes-Benz Museum and Classic Centers at its core, Mercedes-Benz Classic preserves, restores, and celebrates the artifacts and heritage of the world’s original car company. Michael Bock, director, Mercedes-Benz Classic and Customer Center, offers an in-depth look at this dynamic repository of all things Mercedes-Benz.
Article Graham Robson
Images Daimler Media and Gary Anderson
Outside the Mercedes-Benz Museum on the track that Mercedes-Benz created for last year’s Stars & Cars extravaganza November 29, luminaries such as Sir Stirling Moss, Jochen Mass, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were hopping into and out of multimillion dollar cars, irreplaceable examples of the company’s illustrious past, as if they were fairground toys. Inside the museum and looking on was Michael Bock, with a proud smile on his face – the smile of a father whose offspring were showing off to their friends. As the head of Mercedes-Benz Classic Center and Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Bock is responsible for those cars’ maintenance and preservation: They’re his children. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man with such awesome responsibility looking quite so relaxed.
So when and how did the company’s unrivalled feel for its heritage get started? I’d been expecting the answer “after the 1926 merger” or “after 1945,” but it was apparently much earlier. “After Untertürkheim originally burnt down in 1903” (yes, more than a century ago), Bock said, “I think they decided always to preserve cars, documents and photographs. It took time because the first museum, initially just a single room in the headquarters, only opened in 1924 during the merger.”
Since then, there has been continuous evolution. The company decided in 1936 to celebrate the 50 years since Karl Benz invented the first gasoline-powered automobile. “We realized we needed a department which would take care of our history,” Bock said. This was when an archive was established, as well as a department to run the museum. During the war, careful husbandry and dispersal of vehicles to remote, hidden locations ensured that nothing was destroyed; after the factories were rebuilt, a second museum was set up in the 1960s in the center of the Untertürkheim factory complex and modernized again for the 100th anniversary celebration in 1986.
Other manufacturers – some in the United States – had already copied this approach pioneered by Mercedes-Benz, but not the innovation that followed in 1993. “We realized that there was an opportunity to use the workshop we had for maintaining the collection vehicles,” Bock continued to explain, “to look after the restoration of privately owned cars for customers.
“That was when we established the Classic Center. That was basically when we combined the archives, the cars, the operations and the workshop and also – very important – the operation for finding, and remaking, spare parts. We are proud of this, and aware of the importance of doing it. This building [the new museum] and all the operations of the Classic Center were opened in 2006 when I took over this job.”
Clearly, he was – and is – the right man for the job, for before he took over at the stunning new museum facility he was running the motor shows and exhibitions side of Mercedes-Benz and played a big part in the reshuffle of departments, which led to setting up the overall operation now referred to as Mercedes-Benz Classic Center. More recently, this operation has embraced a personal customer delivery operation where retail buyers can visit various assembly plants in Germany to collect their newly built cars, view the automobiles manufactured on the modern assembly lines and, if in Stuttgart, get an opportunity to visit the magnificent modern museum.
“The core of the Classic operation is the archive,” he said. “It isn’t just that we restore – and sell – as many older cars as possible, but we do want to make everyone happy by communicating as much about the products as we possibly can and answering as many questions as possible. We want people to know that we still retain ‘the spirit’ of everything from Mercedes-Benz, and we want to retain it for the future – their future.
“There are several different archives. The product archive tells which cars have been built, in which configuration, when, and where delivered to which dealer. In addition, we have the film and photograph archives, with many images of the company’s past – you have used this service for The Star features in the past – and of course, we have a pile of documents about board meetings and so [forth]. It’s a big responsibility, for sure.”
My jaw dropped when Bock casually steered the conversation toward numbers – the collection’s numbers. “We have 900 vehicles in all, of which there are 160 here at the Museum, and about 100 on longer loans to other museums and collections.” He saw I was astonished, grinned, and said, “Well, we have to cover 128 years …” which means, dear Star reader, that the numbers must increase in the future. This is an ever-changing, ever-expanding collection – the most modern vehicle on display is Mika Häkkinen’s F1 Championship-winning McLaren MP4/13 of 1998. “Every year, too, we tend to get a DTM [Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters] sedan or an F1 car to add to the collection … so we are running out of space.”
Then came more astonishing information: The Classic Center now has a permanent staff of 26 technicians in the workshops at Fellbach who are not only expert mechanics, but have absorbed all the technologies, know-how and general background about all the cars. Some of them have the joyous task of working solely on the old legendary competition cars. Bock made it clear that restoration did not mean modernizing; a renovation job may take longer than is ideal because the appropriate (i.e., historically correct) materials and assembly methods are used. 
“I am delighted that there are so many older Mercedes types out there, and especially when they are in good condition, with good quality,” Michael Bock explained. “In our restorations, we aim for at least the same level of quality as the cars were built when they were new.
“In the past, Mercedes-Benz used the Classic Center to generate business, but that didn’t make a lot of sense. Now we aim to re-create the products and then to communicate, through what we offer, just how much we think of them, and of our reputation.” It was for that reason, perhaps, that he was almost relieved to confirm that the Classic Center was not set up to be a profit-making operation, though it does make a contribution.
I had known before this interview started that the specter of World War II would have to be mentioned at some point, if only once. How on Earth could so many thousands of irreplaceable documents, so many priceless artifacts and so many extremely rare and valuable vehicles such as the very Silver Arrows themselves have been packed up, spirited away, and successfully hidden to survive such a tumultuous era?
“During the war, there was much damage in Stuttgart, but we managed to preserve everything,” Bock said. “First of all, we realized that the Allied bombers, the Lancasters and later the B17s, could reach Stuttgart, so we moved all the important cars like the Silver Arrows, in pairs, to the east of Germany where they couldn’t be reached. Then, after 1941, when the war with Russia broke out, we had to think again.”
Nowadays, it’s possible to discuss such things without ill will and the marvelous survival of so much of the company’s rich heritage is a source of real pride. “If they had been destroyed, we would have had to start again in 1945.”
Today, Mercedes Classic is a considerable operation. Including the delivery centers, there are over 400 employees, of which the Classic Center accounts for “just 150,” Bock said. Just 150? That number alone must make every other car maker in the world go suddenly quiet – and is yet another reason why Mercedes-Benz is held in such high esteem by its competitors.
Bock said that facts relating to each individual car’s build history are important – not only to the current owner, but to posterity. Like others in the industry, where ultra-valuable historic cars are concerned, he acknowledges that there is still a lot cheating out there: He is pleased that the Classic Center’s operation can dig down for information to accurately access – and honestly divulge – the real roots of any important car.
And it works, even down to the most mundane level. For example, if you, Mr. Customer, lose the keys to your car, a cry for help to the Classic Center when accompanied by the authentic chassis number, will produce the appropriate details and, shortly, a new key.
Is this meticulous service, record keeping and expertise confined only to Germany and the fabulously equipped headquarters in downtown Stuttgart? Bock made it very clear that his operation now also tracks and keeps records for vehicles assembled in the United States. He also emphasized that Classic takes over the responsibility for maintaining a spare-parts supply even after the “mainstream” business has fulfilled its “10-years-after-a-model-is-taken-out-of-production” guarantee. And that, by the way, represents annual revenue of $160 million.
Turning the discussion to motorsport – and the reminder that Mercedes-Benz recently celebrated 120 years at the top – Bock’s face lit up in a big smile once again. “Right from the start, the founders of Daimler and Benz understood the way that motorsport success could be good for the business,” he said. “Don’t forget, too, that people like [Ferdinand] Porsche, [Rudolf] Uhlenhaut, [Alfred] Neubauer and [Fritz] Nallinger were all regular employees, and they all realized that motorsport was a good way to promote the product. And this year [2014] definitely, yes!
 “So it is that sort of spirit, the knowledge that we are a luxury brand, that we want our customers to appreciate our enthusiasms, which is a big part of Classic. Not many rivals understand this – Jaguar did, but they are not very large commercially, and BMW, for instance, did not take it seriously. We can measure it – we have 700,000 visitors a year to the museum, we can show them the cars, we can tell them stories, and we can also show them what happened in the world in that time which interests them. At the end of all this, don’t forget, our aim is that this company wants to go on selling new cars.”
And it isn’t just the Classic Center that promotes the marque. Bock said the various Mercedes-Benz clubs worldwide are much-appreciated brand advertisers. The Classic Center, I am assured, takes pleasure in showing itself and its products at club events to emphasize the origin of Mercedes-Benz tradition. And an important anniversary never, but never, slips by unnoticed.
“In 2015, we will be concentrating on that wonderful occasion, the 60th anniversary when ‘722’ [the company’s pet name for the legendary 300SLR in which Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson dominated the 1955 Mille Miglia] became famous. Not only that, but we will also recall John Fitch’s amazing fifth place in the same race in the Gullwing. The target, next year, is to show three genuine 300SLRs at the same time, all as they competed in the Mille Miglia, because all three are still driveable.”
And lasting pride comes from knowing that when we see these cars, they will not be replicas, but the real thing. Mercedes-Benz like its rival and industrial colleague on the other side of town – Porsche – goes to great lengths to keep the treasures in great condition, and authentic in character for the future.
“In the 1950s, we gifted one or two of our famous racecars to museums, including the Ford Museum in the United States – we bought that back later – and the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu, and some of our cars which ended up in the Eastern zone of Germany after the war found their way into private collections, but now we are never tempted to sell any more of these machines, though millionaires have often approached us, and asked, offering a great deal of money. We have always turned them down, and hope we always will. We have such a strong view of the value of our heritage that we do not want to dilute it.”
Did he ever get the pleasure and privilege of driving any of the Classic’s collection of irreplaceable cars? “Sometimes, just sometimes,” he replied, and acknowledged that his favorite was still the unique 300SLR Coupe that Uhlenhaut used to drive up and down the then near-empty Autobahn of the 1950s – “With ear plugs, of course.” Bock admitted that he often has to remind himself be very careful not to put machinery like that at risk – it’s irreplaceable.
Signaling the end of our conversation, I got that now-familiar smile – this was, after all, the Stars & Cars celebration – he had plans for the rest of the day. And that certainly involved driving at least one of those classic cars in front of the crowds who were enjoying a unique occasion; they were smiling, too.
The Museum: A Priceless Asset
Anyone planning a trip to Germany with even a passing interest in automobiles should certainly visit the fabulous Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart. Designed by Dutch architectural firm UNStudio and opened in 2006, the striking modern complex is close to the historic Untertürkheim plant, which originally built Mercedes cars – after 1926, Mercedes-Benz automobiles – and now makes automotive components for the company.
This magnificent building – with its sloping ramps connecting nine levels of exhibition space – replaced the old over-crowded museum hidden away within the Untertürkheim factory. The new museum covers every aspect of the company’s 130-year history, displaying almost every famous car, motorboat, airship, airplane engine, racing and record car built by Mercedes-Benz. The stats tell their own story: The museum has at least 1,500 exhibits spread over 180,000 square feet, the historical stories presented on each level in automotive- and commercial-vehicle segments. Well over 10,000 visitors explore this unique collection every week.
And it isn’t just a boring display of old cars that have not run for decades. Many of the vehicles on display – even the pre-1900 examples – are in full working condition. There are themed collections grouped around the walls, including celebrity models, a mass of shadowbox displays explaining innovations the company has made and, of course, a complete gallery of all the famous and amazingly successful competition cars from more than 120 years of motorsport. Would you like to see a legendary 1930s Silver Arrow GP car? The 300SLR in which Stirling Moss won the 1955 Mille Miglia? A modern single-seater F1 racing car? They’re all there.
Incidentally, it is a measure of the museum’s success that the new facility, not yet a decade old, was built with the future of the company, and the exhibits, in mind. But it’s already full. No wonder there is space for less than a fifth of the ever-growing collection of priceless exhibits.                                                                  Graham Robson
Michael Bock
Although Michael Bock operates from Stuttgart, his empire stretches far and wide. His title – Director, Mercedes-Benz Classic and Customer Center – tells its own story, for he has to monitor the details of how a car is built in each of the factories in the world, and may even oversee the delivery of the car to the customer at the plant.  He also looks after the classic cars’ spare-parts manufacturing strategy, as well as the maintenance and restoration of all the historic machines in the collection that occupy several workshops remote from the museum itself.                                      Graham Robson                                    
The Mercedes-Benz Museum, with its restaurant, outdoor cafÈ, broad plaza and amphitheater, is now a social and cultural gathering place in Stuttgart.
BACKGROUND IMAGE: The Mercedes-Benz Museum’s displays highlight company heritage. Here, the special exhibit, “Mercedes-Benz S-Class – always ahead of its time,” presents the history of this distinctive model. RIGHT: Nine levels of exhibition space offer varied display options for the vast collection of historic vehicles and artifacts. Suspended from the wall on the far left is the famous Mercedes-Benz W125, which in 1938 set a world speed record of 268.86 miles per hour on a public road, a record that  still stands to this day.
LEFT: The strikingly modern Mercedes-Benz Museum has been called “the Guggenheim Museum of cars.” OPPOSITE PAGE FROM TOP, LEFT TO RIGHT: Mercedes-Benz Classic Centers in Fellbach, Germany, and Irvine, California – both sites restore, maintain and sell prewar and postwar Mercedes-Benz vehicles. A spotless workshop at the Fellbach Classic Center. Originality – Mercedes-Benz Classic Center ensures a first-rate parts supply to help keep classic Mercedes-Benz vehicles in perfect condition. Michael Bock, director of Mercedes-Benz Classic and Customer Center. The Stuttgart museum is home to the Mercedes-Benz Archive, housing artifacts such as a copy of Gottlieb Daimler’s original 1886 patent for the automobile, the complete technical archive for all Mercedes-Benz vehicles, original trim and color guides, and an extensive collection of authentic posters, advertisements and sales brochures. The museum serves as a cultural center for the city of Stuttgart – an evening jazz concert in the outdoor amphitheater.
BACKGROUND IMAGE: Mercedes-Benz Classic at the Grossglockner Grand Prix 2012 – a 1928 Mercedes-Benz SSK. With racing glory stretching back more than a century, Mercedes-Benz does more than any other manufacturer today to honor its motorsport heritage – both the machines and the gallant individuals who drove them to victory. CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Goodwood Festival of Speed 2011 – world champion John Surtees in a 1939 W165. Mille Miglia 2013–  1952 W194 300SL racing car at the starting line in Brescia, Italy. Sir Stirling Moss behind the wheel of W196 300SLR “658” at the Goodwood Revival 2011.