A superstitious Austrian who could make cars from a distance
LEIPZIG, 6 APRIL 1853
GENEVE, 21 JANUARY 1918
Suppose that your name is Gottlieb Daimler, that you manufacture the first modern automobiles in history in the German city of Cannstatt at the end of the 19th century and that you have a commercial agent in France who has been heaping abuse on you for years. ‘You are all donkeys,’ the agent informs them, or ‘Your manure wagon has just broken down on schedule.’ Other niceties are: ‘Your engineers should be locked up in an insane asylum,’ ‘You are completely incompetent,’ ‘Your third-rate factory,’ ‘You make trash,’ and ‘Is your head engineer obsolete?’ Or slightly more polite: ‘Your car is a cocoon and I want the butterfly,’ ‘I do not want the car of today or tomorrow, but the car of the day after tomorrow.’ The French agent of Daimler was Emile Jellinek. His son, Guy, would write later: “My father sent telegrams like jack-hammers. He won endless battles by telegram, alternated with anarchistic attacks.” Sooner or later the relationship just had to break down. Even so, in 1982 the company restored the grave at Nice of someone who, in the pioneering years, had called their management ‘donkeys,’ ‘hypocrites’ and ‘Jesuits’. The full name of this unusual man was Jellinek-Mercédès.
Emile Jellinek was born at Leipzig in 1853 of Czech-Hungarian parents who later moved to Vienna. His father, Adolf, was a rabbi who enjoyed great fame as a preacher and an author of philosophical and theological works. The whole family was learned: uncle George was a professor of international law at Heidelberg, uncle Max taught philology at Vienna, uncle Moritz was a well-known economist who had established the tram company of Budapest. But the little Emile simply refused to study and for years moved from one school to another. On one fine day he put a mysterious powder in the chamber pot of his landlady which caused her to be startled by spats of bubbling blue foam the next time she used it. His despairing father arranged an office job for him with the railway. He was sent packing from there because he had encouraged engineers to have a dangerous train race at night. ‘Assistant to the Austrian Consul at Tangiers’ sounded interesting to the family. Then at least he would be out of Europe. There the young Jellinek married, established himself as a merchant and opened a tobacco business at Oran. Subsequently, his work in Algeria for a French insurance company seems to have earned him good money. Later he opened a branch office for the same company at Vienna.
After his North African adventures, Vienna was too cold for him in the winter. Thus he moved back and forth between Vienna and Nice. At Vienna, during the summer, he walked around wearing a safari helmet, and at Nice he gave the impression of being an Englishman with his long side-whiskers and British suits. There he was called ‘the crazy Englishman’.
His insurance activities flourished. Emile had a good nose for business and he was successful at trading on the stock market. He bought the most modern bicycle and then obtained the license for selling it in all of Europe. He bought a two-wheeled and a three-wheeled motor bicycle and an early Benz automobile. On 1 September 1889 his first daughter was born. She was given the charming forenames: Maria de las Mercédès, Adrienne, Manuele, Ramona. Jellinek was crazy about the forename, Maria de las Mercédès (literally translated: Mary of Mercies). Nothing indicates that this was because of piety. He thought the name brought him good luck and he eventually gave the name to all of his seven children. His residence in Baden, near Vienna, was named Mercedes and his residence at Nice followed. “He was as superstitious as the ancient Romans,” said one of his children. “Mercedes was like her father,” they thought. “She had his temperament, his fits of anger, and his zest for life.”
In the well-known satirical weekly Fliegende Blätter, Emile read a small advertisement of Daimler Motors in 1896. A couple of days later he was standing at their door in Cannstatt. The fastest automobiles during the first races in 1894 could reach about 20 km per hour. In 1895 this increased to 25 km per hour. When he returned home to Nice, Emile ordered six cars from Daimler on condition that they could go 40 km per hour. The manufacturers, including Gottlieb Daimler himself, couldn’t believe their eyes. Jellinek telegraphed: “From here I can already hear you saying, ‘not possible’, etc. But go ahead and try to solve the problem anyway and be sure not to put it off!” From then on he pumped a stream of telegrams with coarse encouragement in the direction of Cannstatt. The two men had the same goal, but the craftsman Daimler looked only at the goal, while the amateur Jellinek could see farther. “Daimler wanted to gain a certain affluence, my farther longed for fortune and fame,” wrote his son, Guy, the chronicler of the family.
Jellinek entered races himself with his first Daimler cars under the pseudonym, Mercédès, and he liked to be called Monsieur Mercédès. In 1899 he was first in his category with his Daimler automobile at 34 km per hour. With much ranting and raving he succeeded at getting Daimler to use the new ignition system of Bosch. In 1900 the German inventor, Gottlieb Daimler, died. After that, the only person in Cannstatt who still trusted Monsieur Mercédès was Wilhelm Maybach, the head engineer.
Automobiles were extremely expensive at that time. The Azure Coast, where the wealthy of the earth spent the winter months, was an ideal spot for early automobile sales. The automobile club of Nice had the grand total of 150 members in 1900. And it was Emile Jellinek who supplied the cars.
At the beginning of 1900 he signed a contract with the Daimler Company that granted him an exclusive dealership for France, Austria, Hungary, Belgium and the United States. The contract also stated: “A new type of engine shall be developed that will bear the name ‘Daimler-Mercedes.” And: “Only orders from the German ministry of war have precedence over orders from the firm, Jellinek.” He promptly ordered 36 cars at a value of 550,000 gold marks, an inconceivable amount. Every day he sent new technical instructions to Cannstatt. He ‘made’ the car from a distance. Sometimes he received a dutiful reply: “The differential will be installed entirely in accordance with your specifications. Also the wheels will have the dimensions that you require.” He drove the manufacturers crazy. Often, they objected as well. Then Emile would have outbursts of rage that did not always look very nice on paper.
On New Year’s Eve of 1900-1901 his dream, his first Mercedes, was at the station in Nice. His son Guy says: “My father embraced the car. He felt the car on all sides as though he was afraid it was a mirage that might disappear. This was the dream car for which he had fought so fiercely. He had achieved it through the genius of Maybach. It was exactly what he wanted: something distinctive.”
An argument between two men who are hard-of-hearing
In Cannstatt they tried to get rid of the strange name, Mercedes (written with two accents in France). Jellinek responded: “The name of my daughter has certain propagandistic characteristics that would be lost on the use of some other name. That name is both exotic and attractive. It can be easily pronounced and it sounds good. You can call these cars whatever you want, but the cars that I sell will be called Mercedes!”
In the first race with the new Mercedes in 1901, the vehicle reached 58 km per hour. Jellinek ordered cars in lots of one hundred and he financed the race drivers for the many different, difficult races that were held at that time. The roads were simply not suitable for racing. Often there were fatal accidents. Each month there was a kind of Paris-Dakar for that time. Jellinek’s children seldom saw their father. He was, as a manner of speaking, hyperkinetic and superdynamic. His life itself had become a race. Guy Jellinek: “Each introspection was laden with depression and each moment of contemplation revealed the vanity of things.” Thus he was constantly working toward a new goal. Only his friendship with Maybach kept the relationship with Germany in tact: “For the rest, the discussions with the manufacturer were like a comic dialogue between two men who are hard-of-hearing.”
At the big automobile exhibition of Paris in 1902, Emile hung a large picture of his daughter Mercédès, with her hair hanging loose and ‘a strange melancholy in her eyes’. Mercedes automobiles won everything that could be won. And Jellinek was the main sponsor. The factory at Cannstatt grew from 340 employees in 1900 to 2200 in 1903. And Monsieur Mercédès, who turned 50 that year, extended millions in credit to the Daimler firm. He bought and sold on the stock market with success, he shaved off his famous side-whiskers and in Vienna had his family name changed officially to Jellinek-Mercédès: “This is probably the first time a father has taken his daughter’s name.” After that he usually signed with E.J. Mercédès.
He had Daimler engines built into all kinds of yachts, which were of course called Mercedes I, II, III or even more originally: Mercedes-Mercedes. “The future of Mercedes is on the water,” he decreed. His oldest son, Adolf, died in 1904 and none of his other children were interested in automobile racing. The girl, Mercédès, was then fifteen. She had a difficult personality and had no interest whatever in racing for her father. She played music and had a good soprano voice. Like an experienced horsewoman, she rode a mare that had been given to her by a prince. She had her own car in the flower parade that was held in Nice each year, but that was it. “What advertising that would have been,” thought her father, “Mercédès in a Mercedes!”
In 1905 he again ordered four hundred cars. He was more dynamic than ever. One day at noon he got nothing to eat: “There is nothing to eat,” explained his wife, “because you have sent everyone to the postoffice with telegrams.” Behind his residence at Nice he had built large workshops, even a smithy, where he had all repairs done for his customers. As usual, they were acting ‘like donkeys’ at Cannstatt. He defended his customers. If a buyer had a complaint, he was always right. Because of carelessness, steering wheel shafts and rear axles broke, drivers had fatal accidents. Jellinek could or would not accept responsibility for the accidents. The dignitaries, the princes, the kings to whom he had sold his cars, became uneasy. The Mercedes cars were not doing as well in races either. Maybach, his confident, left Daimler in 1907. Because he no longer had enough say in how things were done at the Daimler factory, he had broken all ties by 1908.
Head of German espionage?
He sought a husband for his daughter, Mercédès, and found a baron, Karl Schlosser, an official in a Ministry at Vienna, whom his daughter married in February, 1909. Only the Bishop of Monaco was good enough to bless the marriage. After they were back from their honeymoon, the young woman was given a Steinway grand piano as a gift. Emile: “Yesterday I lost so much money at the casino, that you can have your Steinway. Now it doesn’t make much difference!”
Emile bought country residences and hotels, among others, the Astoria Hotel in Paris. The First World War was approaching, tension between France and Germany increased, and the Austrian, Emile Jellinek, was suddenly suspected of espionage. Because it was claimed that German saboteurs had been on board, the French government confiscated his largest yacht. Vandals smashed the gravestone of his eight-year-old son, René, who had just died and Jellinek had to flee with is family to Austria. Because his French wife in turn was suspect in Baden, they then went to Switzerland.
There, at Geneve, Jellinek was even arrested for a short time at the end of 1917. All of his French possessions were placed under legal restraint. Doing nothing was fatal for the dynamic man. On 21 January 1918 he died at Geneve from a brain haemorrhage and was buried there. His wife, “the French widow of a German spy,” was not allowed to return to France after the war, although she had two sons in the French army.
In 1923, after fourteen years of marriage, the young woman, Mercédès Jellinek-Mercédès, deserted her baron Schlosser and two children, and ran off with the sculptor-baron, Rudolf Weigl. He was enslaved to drink and died shortly thereafter from tuberculosis. After an extended illness, Mercédès died in a modest apartment at Vienna on 23 February 1929, being less than forty years old. In accordance with her final wish, her body was cremated and her urn was placed in the family grave at the central cemetery of Vienna. It had never made any difference to her that a quality automobile bore her name. It was forty years later before her father’s body was placed in the other family grave at the Catholic cemetery of Nice.
In 1982 the Mercedes-Benz company had his final resting place fixed up, knowing that the autocratic troublemaker from Nice was the real creator of the early Mercedes. In the introduction of an exhibition catalogue, one of the directors wrote: “Many of his requirements are just as applicable today.” Under the influence of the eccentric Emile Jellinek, the automobile for the first time no longer looked like ‘a buggy from which the horses had run away’.
The three-pointed star
When Daimler still worked for Deutz near Cologne, he sent his wife a picture postcard one day with a view of the city from the tower of the cathedral. In the foreground you see the Old Market, farther back the Rhine and the Rhine Bridge. Above the spot where in the distance the Deutz factories would have been, Daimler drew a star with the message: “From here a star will rise!” Daimler worked at Deutz from 1872 to 1881 but it is not known exactly when the card was sent. In 1900 the sons of Daimler, Paul and Adolf, remembered that picture postcard. In 1902 the Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft registered both a star with four points and a star with three points as trademarks. Because the three-pointed star could also serve as a symbol for motorisation on the land, on the water and in the air, as Daimler had in mind, it was selected. At the beginning of the sixties, Mercedes advertised: “Your good star on all roads,” reconnecting the symbol with its original meaning.