My first stop was Mercedes, which presents a captivating walk through the birth of the automobile with the kind of historical sheet-metal eye candy that will wow an automotive fanatic. It’s a tale the company is allowed to own because a founder, Karl Benz, is credited with making the first car, and its other founder, Gottlieb Daimler, was not far behind.
But before I even entered the museum, I was stunned by the building. It’s a double-helix design by the Dutch architects UNStudio and sits like a round jewel on Mercedes Street. It opened in 2006.
Though Henry Ford made the expensive automobile popular with his affordable Model T in the early 20th century, it was Mr. Benz, an engineer and inventor, who got things started in 1885, when he installed the almost-one-horsepower internal combustion engine he invented into a three-wheel buggy.
The building provides a floor-by-floor circular walk through Mercedes history over its nine floors and 177,000 square feet of exhibition space, with the timeline starting on the top floor. There I found a reproduction of that first car, with the real Daimler car next to it. Actually, a horse, thankfully another reproduction, greeted me as I began my tour at the start of the automobile age, when one horsepower meant what it advertised.
To my jaded 21st century eyes, those cars looked more like contraptions than useful transportation, but the engines were evidence of the true genius of these men. As the technology improved, internal combustion engines got the world moving and quickly ended up in buses, trucks, boats, airships and tractors, some of which are on display here. A descendant of those engines is sitting in your driveway.
Within a few years cars started to look like cars instead of horse-drawn carriages — for example the museum’s 1902 40 HP, the oldest-existing Mercedes-branded car. Still, the industry used carriage types to describe its models, like phaeton (a light, open carriage), shooting brake (a carriage meant for gamekeepers and sportsmen) and cabriolet (a light carriage with a foldable hood drawn by one horse). Even dashboard is a leftover carriage term — it was the board that insulated the driver from rocks and dirt from the road.
The walls of the ramps that connect the floors are also part of the show. As I made my way down to the fourth floor, which highlighted safety, I learned that the ramp walls were made of polyamide, an airbag material. Clever.
“It is the only museum in the world that can document over 130 years of automobile history complete from the very first day,” Miriam Weiss, a Mercedes spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
Frankly, the museum can seem overwhelming because there is so much of that history to take in and so many beautiful cars to sigh over, like the 1955 300SL Coupe, known as the Gullwing. You will learn that Mercedes was the name of an important customer’s daughter, Mercédès Jellinek (interesting that her father, Emil, eventually changed his last name to Jellinek-Mercedes), and that the company’s logo, the three-pointed star, symbolizes earth, water and air.
I traveled to the museum by train, but left with a strong urge to drive, something from the AMG performance division preferably, but alas, there was no opportunity. I went to the dealership on the bottom floor, but was told test drives must be scheduled about a week in advance.
There is no such problem at the Porsche Museum, about seven miles away from Mercedes. The Porsche building, which sits on three V-shape columns, is striking and seems to float above the ground. It was designed by Delugan Meissl Associated Architects of Vienna and opened in 2009.
Representatives in the lobby will let you drive, say, a 911 for about $165 an hour and up to about 60 miles, but be aware you have to leave a $3,000 deposit.
No matter — see the museum first. It’s more straightforward than Mercedes’s, with everything on one floor and a loft. It contains more than 60,000 square feet of exhibition space, and the displays are spread out. You can follow the development of Porsche’s models, from the design ultimately used for the Volkswagen Beetle, first created by Ferdinand Porsche, the company founder, to the car that defines the company, the 911. You can see how the sleek Type 64 racecar from the late 1930s led to the beloved Porsche 356 and then to the 911.