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Published: May 26, 2009

 
 

Epics of Enterprise

The Star and the Laurel — the name refers to the Mercedes-Benz logo — is a must-read for any automobile enthusiast. Here you see photographs of early models, pictures from the races that established both the Benz and Daimler cars, old advertisements and posters, postage stamps featuring the cars, and photos of famous race-car drivers like Barney Oldfield and Alfred Neubauer, as well as the royal personages and millionaires who were the early buyers. Harris Lewine, a celebrated art director and book designer, was responsible for the graphics.

In the 1890s, most of Daimler’s sales came from motorboats. But American piano maker William Steinway promoted the cars in his catalogs: “Daimler motor vehicles do away with [the] heavy expense and unpleasantness connected with horses, such as stable smells, harness and feed bills, [and] clouds of dust from horse hoofs [that] smother you while out riding.” In 1893, when Chicago held its World’s Columbian Exposition, Daimler had the automotive section all to itself — and Gottlieb Daimler, accompanied by his new bride, attended the fair. Another interested visitor was Henry Ford. Carl Benz, meanwhile, was selling cars all over the world. By 1899, with 2,000 cars produced, he ranked as the world’s largest automaker. The merger of Daimler’s company and Benz’s took effect in 1926 (26 years after Daimler’s death), uniting the two companies that had ushered in the automotive age.

One of the prime movers in the early years of Daimler was Emil Jellinek, the son of a Bohemian rabbi, who sold cars to wealthy people on the French Riviera. He produced so many orders that the company acquiesced to his demand that the cars carry the brand Mercedes, the name of his daughter. It’s not clear whether Adolf Hitler knew that his favorite car had been named for a Jewish girl.

Some readers might be tempted to dismiss The Star and the Laurel because of its omissions. For example, it contains almost nothing about the Nazi era. (Other histories, like Neil Gregor’s Daimler-Benz in the Third Reich [Yale University Press, 1998], have documented the company’s role as an arms manufacturer, and its harsh treatment of the Jewish men and women forced to work in its plants.) And of course, this book was published 12 years before the company’s disastrous acquisition of Chrysler.

Nonetheless, The Star and the Laurel stands as a rich chronicle of a company that started with two garage tinkerers (the Hewlett and Packard of their era), ushered in the automotive age, set a standard for performance and luxury, and survived while 5,000 other automotive companies fell by the wayside.

The Culture of Deere
John Deere’s Company: A History of Deere & Company and Its Times also falls into the blockbuster category. An 880-page tome with 275 illustrations, it celebrates rural Americana and the growth of the iconic farm equipment manufacturer founded by blacksmith John Deere in 1837 when he invented the self-cleaning steel plow. It’s an absorbing story, well told by the late Wayne G. Broehl Jr. (a professor for 33 years at Dartmouth College’s Amos Tuck School of Business Administration), who spent six years researching and writing it. Deere funded the project, imposing only one caveat: no release of information about products under development.

John Deere’s Company should serve as a model for any company contemplating a history. Despite its ponderous size, it’s not dull, in part because of the wonderful illustrations, but also because Broehl always places the company’s history in the context of world events. For example, the flood of immigrants to the United States during the first decade of the 20th century is reflected in the following statistics on the 2,500-strong workforce at Deere’s main plant in Moline, Ill.: Swedes and Norwegians, 36 percent; Belgians, 18.6 percent; Russians and Jews, 10.5 percent; Germans, 4.1 percent. During the Great Depression, Deere made special efforts to take care of farmers (suspending their installment payments) and laid-off employees (continuing their health insurance). The author also describes business lines that didn’t work out. Did you know that Deere twice made an effort to enter the bicycle market?

 
 
 
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Corporate History Resources
Works mentioned in this review.

  1. Wayne G. Broehl Jr., John Deere’s Company: A History of Deere & Company and Its Times (Doubleday, 1984), 880 pages
  2. Donald R. Katz, Just Do It: The Nike Spirit in the Corporate World (Random House, 1994), 344 pages
  3. Maggie Keswick, editor, The Thistle and the Jade: A Celebration of 150 Years of Jardine, Matheson & Company (Octopus Books, 1982), 272 pages; revised and updated by Clara Weatherall (Frances Lincoln, 2008)
  4. Beverly Rae Kimes, The Star and the Laurel: The Centennial History of Daimler, Mercedes, and Benz, 1886–1986 (Mercedes-Benz of North America, 1986), 368 pages
  5. Robert Lacey, Ford: The Men and the Machine (Little Brown, 1986), 798 pages
  6. David Magee, The John Deere Way: Performance That Endures (Wiley, 2005), 234 pages
  7. Jeffrey Rothfeder, McIlhenny’s Gold: How a Louisiana Family Built the Tabasco Empire (Collins, 2007), 260 pages
  8. Barbara Smit, Sneaker Wars: The Enemy Brothers Who Founded Adidas and Puma and the Family Feud That Forever Changed the Business of Sport (HarperCollins, 2008), 400 pages
 
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