The secret Jewish history of the Mercedes name

Mercedes and Jewish roots? Weren’t open Mercedes the rides of choice for the Nazi set in the 1930s? Yes, they were—but Hitler and company were riding in cars named after the granddaughter of a Hungarian rabbi.

There is a famous photo of Adolf Hitler from 1934 which shows him standing in the rear of a 7.6-liter inline-eight Großer Mercedes, leading a parade of Nazis down the first completed stretch of the Autobahn between Frankfurt and Darmstadt, the stretch of road which would see Rudolf Caracciola set the public road speed record of 268.8 mph, which stands to this day. Perhaps Germany’s Nazi leaders were more ironic than a fixie of hipsters or perhaps they were completely unaware of motoring history, but one thing is certain: the Mercedes 770 sedans they preferred carried the name of the granddaughter of the noted Hungarian rabbinic scholar Adolf Jellinek.

As for how that came to be, it’s best to refer to L.J.K. Setright’s 2004 masterpiece Drive On!: A Social History of the Motor Car, where the story is told on page 28. It has to do with Adolf Jellinek’s son Emil, who was an early racing driver and later became what in modern times would be called a PR executive:

There were Germans in the sport, too, and representatives of what might be called the other half of Greater Germany, which was the Austro-Hungarian Empire. One of the latter used to do quite well in the events of the Nice Speed Week (a race, a sprint along the Promenade des Anglais, and a climb up the hill to La Turbie) The secret Jewish history of the Mercedes name where the cream of society flocked each winter. The diplomatic Emil Jellinek, Austro-Hungarian Consul in Nice, moved in these high circles, and drove heavy Daimlers at high speeds with good results, all of which made him exceedingly influential in the sale of cars to the polite and prosperous. The only handicap he encountered was the Teutonic name of Daimler, distasteful to the French; so he insisted that the new Daimler model for 1901 be named after his daughter…

The son of a distinguished Hungarian-born rabbi, Jellinek led an adventurous early life, later settling for some time in Morocco, where he swept up a beautiful Sephardic bride—and that is how the car came to be called Mercédès. How would Hitler have reacted as he paraded in the world’s most German car, forty years later, had he been told that it was named after a rabbi’s grandchild?

Emil Jellinek didn’t stop at naming Daimler’s 1901 car after his daughter: he appended her name to his own in 1903, and he lived out the rest of his years as Emil Jellinek–Mercédès.

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In February 2011, the Tel Aviv branch of Y&R, made a series of ads, that end up being pretty exaggerations of the lateralization of brain function and are about as un-Mercedes-like as humanly possible. A casual glance at the names of the people who made it suggests that they could not have taken this job in any decade. You can view the images large by clicking on the gallery above. It’s not a stretch to imagine Emil and Mercédès to have been quite happy with them.