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The Mercedes-Benz Museum, located in Untertürkheim, Germany, claims to have the longest history of any automotive brand, tracing its roots back to the three-wheeled Karl Benz Patent Motorwagen of 1886 and Gottlieb Daimler’s horseless carriage of the same year.
It also claims to be the only museum in the world to present the 120-year history of the automotive industry from day one.
One of the crowd-pleasing fixtures, aside from its permanent exhibition with 160 vehicles dating back to the invention of the motorcar in 1886, is the “33 Extras” display which adds touches of intrigue and whimsy, steering people’s attention to the history of mobility.
For example, there’s a display for the Wunder Baum pine-tree air freshener which was invented in 1951.
One of its displays focuses on the story of the mudguard and how it is a vital body element for any vehicle.
This is what visitors will learn about the meaningful mudguard:
The single mudguard found in the museum display case emphasises how vital this unassuming component is. Its appearance may have changed significantly over the decades. However, to this day, it protects occupants and vehicles from stirred up dirt on road surfaces and spray.
The wheels of the first vehicles were covered by slim strips of sheet metal or wood. As a result of their elegant shape reminiscent of birds’ wings, Germans called them “Flügel” (wings). They protect against all types of dirt; something the most important means of transport before the invention of the motorcar in 1886 left behind.
Early vehicle versions also adopted the mudguards from horse-drawn carriages. The function and design have been the focus ever since. When the wheels got wider, so did the mudguards. From the 20th century they became more closely linked to the main body and have ultimately been fully integrated into the vehicles’ outer shell.
What does the mudguard actually protect us against? English chemist Dr Henry Letheby already analysed the dirt on London’s roads back in the mid-19th century. No less than 30 per cent of the dirt is made up of abraded stone from the cobbles and a further 10 per cent consists of metal particles from wheels and horseshoes. The roads themselves and the vehicles consequently produce a large part of the dust that turns into mud in poor weather conditions.
The issue becomes even more apparent on country lanes. Mudguards play a key role in the success story of this new means of transport, ever since 1888 when Bertha Benz went on the first long-distance trip with a motorcar from Mannheim to Pforzheim. In contrast to towns and cities, country roads feature only a few cobbled stretches and carriageways are made of compressed gravel and surfaces consisting of sand and pebbles. What a stroke of luck then that the history of innovations for vehicles went hand in hand with those for road building. Nowadays road surfaces made of composites with surfaces consisting of asphalt or concrete have long since become the standard.
However, modern carriageways are far from making mudguards obsolete. On the contrary, on these new and smooth roads vehicles these days can drive faster than ever before. And with increasing speeds, tyres stir up even more spray and dust. This correlation made the mudguard one of the favourites of automotive designers in the 1920s and 1930s. Its extended lines, dynamic curves and expressive, shapely design tell a tale of the speed and aesthetics of fast driving. Consequently, the most beautiful Mercedes-Benz bodies produced during this era are far removed from the down-to-earth, fundamental principle of the mudguard for protection against spray. More than ever before, they turn vehicles into works of art.
The mudguard for passenger cars and commercial vehicles continues to develop. Aerodynamics also plays an increasingly vital role as part of this evolution. Early examples in this context include designs with an optimum flow in vehicles, such as the Mercedes-Benz 540 K Streamliner and the Mercedes-Benz 320 “Autobahnkurier” (motorway courier) with its flowing forms. It goes without saying that both vehicles still had mudguards that were clearly separate from the body. From the 1950s the ponton design prevailed in modern Mercedes-Benz passenger cars. Starting with commercial vehicles, a new styling took over in the 1960s featuring cubic shapes.
Many racing cars and in particular formula racing cars have free-standing wheels to this day so drivers can accurately steer into corners. The Mercedes-Benz W 196 R dating back to 1954/1955 took a different route: this Formula 1 car was available both with free-standing wheels as well as with a streamlined body that covered the wheels and, you guessed it, featured striking elements over the front wheels. Depending on the race track, the Racing department would rely more on the specific strength of improved aerodynamics.
The mudguard, formerly a free-standing element, finally became an integral part of the body in the second half of the 20th century. However, its design has more variants than ever before. There is a stylists’ portfolios ranging from a wheel housing with a cheeky lid line in the 300 SL (W 198) and 190 SL (W 121) models dating back to 1954 and the elegant wings of “tail fin” saloons that picked up on the North American zeitgeist of short rear fins to make backing up easier, to the smooth shapes of the traditionally contemporary, compact W 201 series models.
Mudguards have always remained a paramount element of the overall design in each era. Thanks to the Mercedes-Benz model campaign and the differentiation between different body shapes, this variety of forms and styles is as ample today as it ever was.