Ästhetik der Aerodynamik: Mercedes-Benz 540 K Stromlinienwagen von 1938. Aesthetics of aerodynamics: Mercedes-Benz 540 K Streamliner dating back to 1938.

Mercedes-Benz 540 K Streamliner dating back to 1938.

You may think mudguards lack a certain degree of fascination, but there are folk at the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart who can tell you so many interesting things about mudguards that by the time you get back home and are asked about your time in Germany you’ll talk of little else. Have you ever wondered how the dashboard got its name? Or why car designers talk of dead cat space? There is so much you need to know.

The wheels of the first vehicles were covered by slim strips of sheet metal or wood. These protected the wheels, the wagon’s underside and its occupants against all types of dirt including horse manure, which was ubiquitous. Horse manure everywhere, and the ever-present smell of both it and horse urine, is something the invention of the motor car pretty much consigned to history.

Early vehicle designs took their ideas for mudguards from those horse-drawn carriages and, as the wheels got wider so did the mudguards. Through the 20th century mudguards became more closely linked to the main body and have ultimately been fully integrated into the vehicles’ outer shell.

Mudguards aConsider what mudguards do for you. English chemist Dr Henry Letheby analysed the dirt on London’s roads back in the mid-19th century finding it consisted of more than just horse manure. No less than 30 per cent of the dirt was made up of abraded stone from the cobbles and a further ten per cent from metal particles from wheels and horse shoes. Modern roads and vehicles produce a large part of the dust that turns into mud in poor weather conditions. This issue becomes even more apparent on country roads, and on unsealed roads, and were the reason mudguards played a key role in the success the motor car. In contrast to towns and cities many modern country roads are still unsealed, made of compressed gravel, sand and pebbles. It explains why windscreens can be starred or cracked by flying stones on such roads.

But modern sealed roads still fall far short of making mudguards obsolete. On the contrary, on these roads vehicles go faster than ever before and with increasing speeds, tyres stir up even more spray and dust. This made the mudguard one of the favourites of automotive designers in the 1920s and 1930s. Their extended lines, dynamic curves and expressive, shapely designs implied the speed and aesthetics of fast driving. Consequently, the most beautiful cars of that era had taken the mudguard’s down-to-earth, fundamental principle of protection against spray and used it to turn cars into works of art.

And mudguards continued to develop. Aerodynamics played an increasingly vital role in this evolution. Early examples of form meeting function are designs which optimise airflow, such as the magnificent Mercedes-Benz 540 K Streamliner. The vehicle still had mudguards that were clearly separate from the body, but from the 1950s mudguards were incorporated into the overall shape of the car. By the 1960s this cubic shape became universal with a few notable and quirky exceptions, such as Morgans.

Where you frequently don’t find mudguards is in motor racing. Many racing cars and in particular formula one racing cars have free-standing wheels to assist drivers to accurately steer into corners. This why they’re known as ‘open wheelers’.

While the mudguard finally became integrated into the body in the second half of the 20th century, its design has more variants than ever before. Mercedes-Benz’s 300 SL and 190 SL models, dating back to 1954, began this trend and tail fins were probably its most extreme execution with the North American zeitgeist of rear body elements that lacked all subtlety but made backing up easier.

Mudguards have always been an important element of overall car design since cars began in 1886, and their evolution is easy to see demonstrated in the permanent exhibition of 160 vehicles at the Mercedes-Benz museum, housed in a stunning purpose-designed building at Mercedesstrasse 100, 70372 Stuttgart, Germany. Opening hours are Tuesdays to Sundays 9 am to 6 pm, and admission is 10 euros.

Mercedes museum

And if you’re still wondering about dashboards, well these were originally devices at the front of horse-drawn wagons upon which the driver rested his feet. They kept mud and road waste (collectively known as dash) thrown up by the horses’ hooves from spraying onto the driver. Mudguards developed from these dashboards and while their appearance has altered substantially over the years, their major function – protection from dirt, stones and slush – hasn’t altered. Dashboards have changed a lot too.

And if you’ve ever met a car designer you’ll know that they worry about how much visible space there should be between the top of the tyres and the car body itself. They call this gap the dead cat space. Truly.

Posted January 2020


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