The year was 1955. The Canadian Red Ensign was the national flag, the St. Lawrence Seaway was under construction, Princess Royal Mary (the aunt of young Queen Elizabeth II) was on tour from Quebec to British Columbia and gas cost about eight cents a litre.
Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz was cautiously introducing a luxury automobile to a country of just 16 million people. The initial foray was a small display of Mercedes-Benz vehicles in 1954 at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto – the first time the company’s vehicles had been shown in Canada since before World War II. But the introduction of the soon-to-be legendary 300 SL Gullwing Coupe, whose futuristic ’50s styling created a buzz around the company, led to the opening the following year of the company’s first two Canadian retail outlets, at 100 Davenport Road in Toronto and 3475 Park Avenue in Montreal. By 1956, an independent distributor on Georgia Street in Vancouver was serving Western Canada. In 1957, dealerships in Ottawa and Quebec City were up and running.
Still, the success of Mercedes-Benz in Canada was far from assured. The core clientele consisted of German ex-pats who already knew the brand well and appreciated its value. Indeed, even around Mercedes-Benz Canada headquarters, German was the lingua franca for many years, recalls one long-time employee. “It was a really strong team in the sense that everybody knew everybody else,” says the employee, who worked in Warranty when she started in the 1950s, then for the VP of finance, and now handles trademark defence and corporate governance. “It was like a large family.”
It was a really strong team in the sense that everybody knew everybody else.”
In the early years, many Canadians were aware of the company’s reputation for quality and reliability, and others were drawn to the slick appeal of coupes like the 300 SL Roadster, the successor to the Gullwing. But price was a factor.
“Don’t forget, a large Mercedes-Benz sedan like the 600 cost as much as a house in those days,” adds the employee. That ratio is no longer the case, even for the company’s highest-end offerings, but for the first few decades, customers (most of whom came from single-income households) wondered whether they could really justify such a purchase.
One crucial factor in the transformation from a niche brand into the nation’s leading luxury automobile retailer was the evolution of the model line. The introduction of the 190, for instance, the company’s first “small” car and the precursor to today’s C-Class, brought a new generation of customers into the fold. And a series of brilliant ad campaigns care of Mad Men-esque New York agencies like McCaffrey & McCall showed why Mercedes-Benz wasn’t merely an aspirational brand, but a wise investment as well.
The “big push,” however, came in the 1990s with SUVs. Following the introduction of the M-Class, overall sales tripled, and today, with the addition of the smart fortwo and commercial vans, Mercedes-Benz vehicles cover a full range of needs and budgets. The humble headquarters has also grown up. Now located on Toronto’s Vanderhoof Avenue, it accommodates about 200 employees.
“Things have changed. It’s a prestigious brand. It was back in the day, too, but in a new country, you’ve got to prove yourself,” says the staffer.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the “born in Germany, raised in Canada” mantra. And so as Mercedes-Benz celebrates 60 years in a growing country, from early days in Toronto to employing approximately 1,500 people across the nation today, they haven’t forgotten what a challenging – but thrilling – ride it’s been.