Mercedes the Lucky

Emil Jellinek insisted that that the “reliable but uninspiring” Daimler car he was representing be named after his daughter. He believed that her nickname, Mercedes, would be lucky for the car and for him. And who are we to argue? For well over a hundred years–ever since it dominated Nice Week in 1901 to the present day, Mercedes is the car to beat on the race track. It is a luxury car; the kind wealthy people all over the world drive. The name has certainly been lucky.  Indeed, the Mercedes luck failed just once, in 1938.

In Faster, Neal Bascomb tells the story of how that year, noted racecar driver Rudi Caracciola raced the Mercedes against a relatively unknown French car, the Delahaye driven by a Jewish driver named René Dreyfus. Mercedes, backed by what was already the Nazi war machine, lost that year’s Grand Prix.

It’s appropriate that luck should have run out just then. Mercedes, after all, was named after the grand-daughter of Rabbi Adolf Aharon Jellinek, a prominent Austro-Hungarian rabbi and Jewish scholar. And yet, by 1944, Mercedes would be so overwhelmingly devoted to the anti-Semitic Nazi regime that almost half of Daimler Benz employees were civilian forced laborers, prisoners of war or concentration camp employees. So it is only right that in 1938, just before the Second World War, Mercedes, the Nazi car, should be beaten by a Jewish driver piloting a French car. Mercedes, is after all, probably the best-marketed Jewish name thanks to the rabbi’s middle son, Emil Jellinek.  

Emil was something of a playboy and black sheep in a family of scholars who loved racing and promoting cars. His love of the automobile enabled him to become a very successful dealer and promoter. It was thus entirely in character that when he represented Daimler, a company that made steady but pretty ordinary cars with a top speed of 15 miles per hour, he worked with the factory to redesign the engine and make the cars lighter to achieve the extraordinary speed of 25 miles per hour.  A tireless promoter, Jellinek offered to buy 36 of the cars if they bore the name of his daughter and if the factory gave him an exclusive sales agency for America and parts of Europe. Daimler agreed and a star was born.

Mercedes Jellinek however was not lucky at all. She and her first husband (a baron) were so ruined during the first World War that she was forced to beg in the streets to feed her two children. Her second husband (another baron) was penniless. She died of bone cancer when she was 39 and is buried next to her grandfather.

It’s as if all her luck went to her father’s car and none was left to her.

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