Baden-born Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler of Württemberg were pioneers and inventors of the automobile 135 years ago – unknown to each other and only 130 kilometres apart. In an ironic twist of fate, since 1952, the two birthplaces of the automobile have made up the federal state of Baden-Württemberg which is now one of the most important regions in the world for the automobile industry. What also connects Baden and Württemberg apart from the automobile is the Neckar river which flows through both parts of the state before it joins into the Rhine near Mannheim.
The American writer Mark Twain made a trip through Europe in 1878 and travelled on the Neckar with a raft. It is said that his raft trips in the novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, which Twain was writing at the time, were inspired by his experiences on the Neckar. In his travel journal, Mark Twain described the landscape and the people of Germany. He wrote about the Neckar: “The Neckar is in many places so narrow that a person can throw a dog across it, if he has one.” Now much wider, the Neckar is today a long way from this image.
Our journey follows the path of Mark Twain to Heidelberg. The writer’s stories have made a lasting contribution to the international image of the old town on the Neckar. And we are journeying into the history of the Mercedes-Benz model series W 29, which with the 500 K and 540 K models, was one of the world’s dream cars in the 1930s.
The career of the Mercedes-Benz “Type 500 with supercharger” began with a bang in March 1934 at the Berlin Auto Show: the new model with eight cylinders, five litre displacement and 160 hp output with the supercharger active was exhibited exclusively as a so-called “Highway Courier”, “specially constructed for particularly high speeds”. In 1932, the first German highway was inaugurated, further expressways followed. The type 500 had a total of seven variants in its price list in June 1934; in addition there were a large number of special bodies such as the sports sedan displayed.
The customers loved the Type 500 with supercharger (today’s common designation 500 K was only rarely used by Daimler-Benz) – and they were hungry for performance. So, in April 1936, Daimler-Benz increased displacement by expanding the bores and the stroke to 5.4 litres. This raised output to 115 hp or 180 hp with the supercharger. The 540 K was adapted to deliver this increased output in September of that year. Between February 1934 and November 1939, a total of 761 chassis for the two models of the model series W 29 were produced.
Only 70 of them received a customer order to be fitted with a body by a body builder. All the others had their sheet metal body cut by the special vehicle department at the Sindelfingen plant – at the time a big success for the Mercedes-Benz style. Sindelfingen built, among other things, the Special Roadster and Special Coupe designs as illustrated.
The white Cabriolet B was built in the last year of construction of the W 29 and is part of the stock of the Auto & Technik Museum Sinsheim. It is driven by Sonja Schäfer, a representative of the museum. She is one of the very few women worldwide who can handle the legendary supercharged Mercedes-Benz models just as easily as others handle an SUV well-supported by assistance systems. The synchronized five-gear transmission, only on offer in 1939, makes it easy to use the gearshift, but the steering free of any support and the large wheels illustrate why, especially at low speeds, motorists were originally required to use all the strength they had.
Sonja Schäfer and the Cabriolet have reached their destination: the castle at Heidelberg. In 1880, Mark Twain wrote of the town at their feet: “One thinks Heidelberg by day – with its surroundings – is the last possibility of the beautiful; but when he sees Heidelberg by night … he requires time to consider upon the verdict.” Until today, literature enthusiasts and friends of Heidelberg have speculated whether it was just a coincidence that Twain named his most popular novel character Huckleberry. In German “Huckleberry” is “Heidelbeere” …