Mercedes-benz World: Past, Present And Future

I still walk into main dealerships with apprehension. It’s that feeling of the salespeople looking at you as though you don’t deserve to be there: how could you – you – possibly buy one of my precious cars? The idea of wandering in to simply have a look round, and be welcomed by the staff to do just that, is a confusing concept. But things are changing, and surprisingly it’s the brands at the higher end of the market that are leading the charge – particularly the German marques with impressive museum edifices in their respective domestic headquarter cities.

So how about a lower-key place where you’re not only encouraged to browse a marque’s entire range, but also to soak up the brand’s heritage and do so even whilst just hanging out over a cup of coffee? Part dealer, part history lesson, part driving experience, part café – all automotive enjoyment. It sounds like the perfect combination for any petrolhead. Welcome to Mercedes-Benz World, the company’s flagship residence in the UK.

Construction started in 2005 on the site of the famous Brooklands oval racing circuit in the UK, taking up a large section on the inside of the Railway Straight and backing onto the Brooklands Museum. This was a very deliberate choice of location: Mercedes-Benz World is nothing if not a very loud, proud statement and reiteration of the brand’s long and illustrious heritage: 127 years to be precise. The famous Blitzen Benz set its Land Speed Record at Brooklands in 1909 (measured down the Railway Straight), and Mercedes-Benz racers competed successfully at the track throughout its history.

M-B World has also been an important part of the modern revitalisation of Brooklands as a whole, stopping the further encroaching of commercial interests by not only using but also restoring parts of the original oval track. 155 acres were purchased, and the crumbling Railway Straight cleared of vegetation and stabilised. Removing an old aircraft hangar also meant the full length of straight could be seen for the first time in 50 years.

The interior Campbell Circuit was also integrated into the design, with their modern test circuit tracking parallel with the Sahara Straight and inside the 135-degree left that then led onto the Solomon Straight (and now runs into the lobby of the luxury Brooklands spa hotel). That testing course helps set the scene even as you arrive, with the sound of grunty AMGs bellowing up and down on your right on the drive in. The fact that Brooklands again echoes to the sound of performance cars is directly attributable to Mercedes-Benz.

The building itself is an impressive sight, with elongated arms reaching out from the raked central tower. The left arm contains the modern cars, the right the historic collection on the upper levels and the customer service centre below.

Moving through the entrance, you’re immediately hit with the overwhelming triple-height atrium – and smiling staff ready to greet you. They must be used to most people coming through the doors and immediately stopping, jaws open, as their heads turn skywards to take in the epic size of the interior.

Once inside, choices become the main problem. What first? The historic collection? A ride around the test track in an AMG SL63? A fine meal, surrounded by Mercedes memorabilia?…

…the technology displays or perusing the complete range of Mercedes-Benz road cars? The temptation of the howling V8s outside has to be put to one side, and the free-floating escalator beckons you up to the top floor. Start at the top, work your way down: the simple answer!

I had the freedom of M-B World after public closing, so was able to spend quality time with each display area. The only drawback was that after spending an hour on the AMG-centred third floor alone I realised how easy it would be to lose a day here… M-B World rewards repeat visits though, especially as the collections rotate their contents on a regular basis. The AMGs will be coming up as a separate story, so here I’ll concentrate on the modern cars and the technology displays on offer.

It’s eminently clear that Mercedes have undergone a major rebranding programme over the last couple of years: the lines on all the cars have become sharper, the performance engine options even more powerful and the general feel of the marque is just generally more stylish.

With the street cars, it’s as simple as A, C, E, S. Or maybe, A, AMG, C, CL, E, S… Okay, maybe that doesn’t work. Still, the new shape A Class seems to be aggressively targeting the A3-size market: a big change from its Smart-on-steroids, mini-MPV origins.

Though a C Class is still the obvious choice of the regular single-letter range, the larger models seem more lithe and graceful…

…with even the flagship S Class a more streamlined iteration of this luxury highway battlecruiser.

But it’s when you start adding secondary and tertiary letters that it seems Mercs get particularly interesting. There are few letter combinations in the automotive world with more heritage than SL: starting with the legendary Gullwing 300SL Coupé in 1954, those letters (Sportlich, Leicht) have graced some of the most amazing cars to come out of Stuttgart.

But it wasn’t all about power and glory: downstairs in the prow of the building was the Smart line-up, with a particular emphasis on new, green technologies.

In fact, in the parking outside were several bays with electric Smarts jacked into the grid for charging.

Taking the full tour in the prescribed top-down manner would mean beginning in the prototypes and technology section on the third floor: a fantastic selection of interactive displays and exhibits…

…that also included a number of virtual racing pods for when all the technical information got too overwhelming. A lap around the Top Gear Test Track against David Coulthard? Bring it on!

That area was complemented by further examples down on the ground floor: technology is something that runs through all of M-B World. The company produced its first electric vehicle back in 1906, before it became clear that the petrol engine would dominate for the next century, and is now investigating plenty of alternative fuel sources for the future to supplement the existing battery hybrids.

The company began developing ABS systems as far back as 1958, but the first time electronics allowed the system to be installed on a car was with Merc’s S Class ABS system of 1978; it was standard by 1992.

Similarly, stability control came along in 1995, again in an S Class, through this innocuous unit, before becoming standard on all cars in 1999.

The list of firsts went on: four-wheel brakes (1924), hydraulic brakes (1931), conical pin locks to stop doors flying open in accidents (1949), rain sensing windscreen wipers (1995 E Class), air bags (standard on all cars by 1984), and so on.

But it wasn’t all hard science: for every hard-edged piece of technology, Mercedes seem to have come up with a classic example of exquisite design.

From the phenomenal methanol-dripping monsters that were part of the inter-war Silver Arrows onslaught through the gloriously curvaceous streamliner bodies of the 1950 sportscars and F1 single-seaters, the racing programme has always produced incredible cars. This streamliner body model was a perfect example of their driving heritage.

And driving is the key point here. Naturally Mercedes-Benz would love that every visitor walked out several tens of thousands of pounds lighter and holding the keys to a sparkly new C Class or whatever, but the interesting thing to see is their understanding that getting people involved is key.

With a platoon of AMGs outside just waiting to be taken around the track, it’s no surprise that there was a constant stream of people queuing to have a go.

Although the C63 Black or AMG SLS might be the choice for most of us, another great thing to see is the promotion of under 16s driving courses. In fact, the only limit is a height restriction of 1.5-metres, so you can reach the pedals on an A Class. There are also off-road and handling courses on the Railway Straight and rough ground the other side. The more time you spend there, the more difficult it is to leave – especially with the hotel opposite! Those devils.

So the history then. How have Mercedes-Benz got to 2013’s models…

…from this: a Benz Patent Motor Car from January 29 1886, acknowledged as the world’s first ever automobile, with one cylinder and less than one horsepower? And this is where Mercedes-Benz World really comes into its own.

Those 127 intervening years provide plenty of material for Mercedes-Benz to celebrate: it’s back to that design pixie dust that they sprinkle on cars. I’ve saved the best till last, as a taster of what’s to come. The entrance lobby kicked off with over half a dozen gorgeous classics that includes this 190 SL…

…and then the second floor delivered the knock-out blow of historic saloons, exotic sportscars and racers…

…plus a range of Formula One cars both in situ…

…and in exploded, suspended detail. All of this to come!

Everywhere was open to access – except for the Maybach suite, though that’s purely because it’s used for conferences and meetings.

After all that, it’s enough to make you require a serious sit-down and some refreshment. The Café 1886 on the ground level takes care of cake and coffee, but for something more substantial there’s the option of the Gullwing Restaurant on the top floor…

…where you can sit and eat in comfort surrounded by collages of classic headlights and steering wheels. Sadly for me, 10pm in the evening meant enjoying the aesthetic rather than the culinary delight. Another time.

Mercedes-Benz seem to have really got a handle on how to present themselves to a new generation at Mercedes-Benz World. I’ve dropped by several times, and on each occasion the building has been alive with people: families and groups enjoying the whole relaxed experience, not just people being hustled into buying cars. With its engrossing combination of the modern and the historic, maybe that three-pointed star deliberately points to the past, present and future of the automotive experience?

Jonathan Moore

Instagram: speedhunters_jonathan