Driving the legends of the secret Mercedes archive

Car makers love to play on their history and former glories, but none has made an investment to preserve its past quite like Mercedes-Benz.

The company’s vast Classic collection now has more than 1300 vehicles and grows every year. Mercedes has saved at least one example of everything it has produced throughout most of its long history, plus numerous racers, one-offs and prototypes. Only a small percentage of these are displayed in the museum at Stuttgart at any time, and although others are lent to other institutions and dispatched to historic events, most live in the careful stasis of long-term storage.

Occasionally, though, Mercedes lets some of them out to play. At the recent opening of the company’s vast new proving ground at Immendingen, 80 miles from Stuttgart, journalists were given the chance to experience a selection of Classic’s brightest stars in a controlled environment. And I was lucky enough to be invited to this hands-on history lesson.

It was definitely a shallow dip rather than a deep dive, the combination of social distancing and Germanic organisation – with cars in loosely themed groups – limiting time in each to no more than 10 minutes. For some of the larger groups, we had to make choices about what to miss out on.

My day starts with some very gentle off-roading in a G-Class 4×4² (Classic didn’t want to risk any body damage), but the next rotation turns things more interesting. This takes place on Immendingen’s dynamic handling circuit and features four compelling performance cars – a 190E 2.5-16 Evolution II, a CLK DTM, an SLS Black Series and a new GT R – as well as DTM and Formula 1 veterans Bernd Schneider and Karl Wendlinger to act as chaperones.

Being given free choice of what to drive first is a proper ‘where do I throw my beach towel?’ moment, but I opt to start with the 190E, both as a personal favourite – I own a non-Evo version of the same car – and because I suspect that it will feel tame compared with the others.

Originally built to homologate aerodynamic changes for the late-era 190E DTM racer, values of the limited-to-500 Evo II, with its butch bodykit and huge rear wing, have exploded in recent years. Classic’s low-miler is almost certainly one of the most valuable cars here. But the interior is effectively identical to the standard car’s, and a mechanic confirms to me that the changes over the regular 2.5 were only the bodykit, a sportier camshaft, four-pot brake calipers and a hydraulic front lift.

It performs keenly on track and revs more enthusiastically and sounds rortier than its standard sister, but there’s noticeable lean during hard cornering, with the effect exacerbated by poor seat bolstering. I’m also privately pleased to discover that the notoriously grumpy dog-leg shift of the Getrag gearbox in Classic’s minter feels notchier and less accurate than it does in my 160,000-mile car.

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The beginning of Benz – and of cars

Mercedes’ commitment to its history doesn’t quite reach the start; the sole surviving Patent-Motorwagen is in Munich’s Deutsches Museum. But to celebrate the centenary of the world’s first car in 1986, it built a small run of near-exact replicas (in effect inventing the continuation car), and I got to drive one of these.

Getting it started is the hard part, swinging the single-cylinder engine into life and risking a crushed finger when it eventually fires up.

The Patent-Motorwagen obviously predates most automotive innovations, including the cooling circuit and the steering wheel. Cooling is done by a water-filled sleeve that needs emptying frequently, lubrication by gravity-fed drippers that leave a trail wherever it goes. Engine speed is set using a rotary restrictor valve over the air intake; it runs at around 400rpm to drive.

Moving off is no harder than pushing forth the lever to the right of the seat, which moves a leather drive belt into contact with the crank. The engine bogs down to a chugga-chugga as it takes the load but is almost impossible to stall.

Once off, the Patent-Motorwagen gathers speed quickly, the sensation of velocity enhanced by the exposed driving position and the suddenness of its responses to steering inputs. Top speed is 10mph, but it’s one of the most thrilling cars in the collection.

The special one

The biggest highlight of the day was definitely the Gullwing. The 300 SL Coupé was one of the fastest and most glamorous cars in the world when it was introduced in 1955, and it still feels special 65 years later. Getting in is a scramble over fat sills into minimal, check-trimmed bucket seats. I instinctively reach for a seatbelt only to find that there isn’t one, because the Gullwing predates their introduction.

Once on the move, it’s louder and sounds angrier than the SL Roadster. It’s faster, too – certainly when facing a wide, empty track. Beyond the stipulation for caution on the banked turns, my in-car chaperone takes a commendably liberal attitude to speed, only making slow-down gestures as the speedometer needle passes the 200kmh (124mph) mark, at which point the car was still accelerating hard. That was probably sensible given the all-round drum brakes.