As another motor industry luminary takes a final bow, we look back at the career of the man dubbed, Mr. Mercedes.
Jürgen Hubbert passed away last week at the age of 81. Best known for his tenure at the helm of Mercedes-Benz AG from 1997 to 2005, a period of considerable expansion and no small amount of tumult. Indeed, when one looks back at the Mercedes-Benz products of the time, one cannot but wonder what manner of legacy Hubbert leaves behind.
So let us examine a little more closely. Born in Hagen (Westfalia) in 1939, Hubbert, like all of his generation, lived through the war, his home having been the victim of bombing raids on two separate occasions. Graduating as a Chartered engineer, young Jürgen joined Daimler-Benz in 1965 as a process engineer, supervising the expansion of the Sindelfingen plant, and later overseeing the setup of Mercedes’ Bremen factory.
A rising star within the Stuttgart-Unterturkheim firmament, he joined the executive board in 1989, rising to the post of managing director of the Mercedes-Benz Car division in 1992. Hubbert had been in the running for the CEO post by then, but caught up in the messy blame game over the perceived failure of the W140 S-Class, he was overlooked in favour of Helmut Werner. Five years later, after Werner lost a power struggle for the role of Daimler-Benz Chairman to Jürgen Schrempp, Hubbert’s time finally came.
Mercedes’ position as perhaps the most prestigious series production car brand (outside of the handmade specialist marques) had been under unprecedented threat for some time, and in the wake of a report commissioned from US analytics firm, McKinsey, a major rethink of the entire carmaking organisation was prioritised.
“Once I’d gained an overview of the situation, it became clear to me that we were in trouble. Due to internal debates, we’d neglected our cars. The focus was on becoming an integrated technology concern“, he told chroniclers. Hubbert was convinced that new product was vital to turning Mercedes’ fortunes around, placing an emphasis upon Mercedes models aimed towards a younger demographic.
Much of these changes were orchestrated in hand with his predecessor, Werner, but the product expansion plans, cost cutting measures and the shift away from an engineering-first ethos were not only direct consequences of the McKinsey report, but carried forward by Hubbert during his tenure as Mercedes MD.
These included highly controversial model actions like the Smart Car, and the first generation A-Class – both huge loss-making programmes, not to mention the fault-riddled M-Class SUV. The SLK and CLK models however were more fruitful gambits. Following the acute embarrassment of the A-class elk-test debacle, Hubbert offered his resignation, allegedly to save that of Dieter Zetsche, upon whose watch it is believed to have occurred, an offer that was rejected by Chairman, Jürgen Schrempp.
But while the latter was plotting a vastly enlarged purview with the so-called merger of equals with Chrysler, Hubbert concerned himself with improving the image of the three pointed star, taking brand-Mercedes back into frontline motor sport for the first time since the 1950s. First in DTM, and later in Formula One, telling journalists, “I hoped that we could polish up the image of the brand by means of motor sport. There were always times when the company was not doing all that well and it was motor sport that gave the brand an extra push.”
Throughout his period as CEO, Mercedes sales doubled. However, the quality issues that afflicted cars of this era bearing the three pointed star also landed at Hubbert’s door. Whether this, or other factors explain Schrempp’s decidedly lukewarm send-off when Hubbert stepped down in 2005 is unclear, not that the flamboyant former DaimlerChrysler chairman, famous for describing Mercedes-Benz motor cars as “over-engineered” emerges from this period with much credibility himself.
Hubbert’s intended successor, Wolfgang Bernhard, rather ill-advisedly described the Mercedes-Benz Car Group as a basket case, resulting in his official appointment being annulled shortly afterwards. Eckard Cordes, who was appointed in his stead, being forced to oversee intense restructuring efforts to improve both profitability and quality.
Following his retirement, Hubbert found time to put something back, so to speak, lecturing engineering students at the Technical University of Karlsruhe, and becoming quietly involved in charity work. Regarded as a decent individual in a business not necessarily renowned for this quality in its proponents, how do we summarise his tenure at Sindelfingen?
“With integrity, innovative spirit and great success, he shaped Mercedes-Benz forever“, Daimler chairman Ola Kallenius told journalists in a press release following the announcement. Those words are perhaps truer than intended, because it must be said that the carmaker is still dealing with the legacy issues from the Hubbert/ Schrempp era.
Because there is little doubt that many of the product actions taken during this period did immense harm to the standing of Mercedes-Benz as the best bar none, whatever the rationale behind some of the corporate decisions made for the business at the time. But perhaps it was always going be this way, given the nature of entropy. Time after all, exacts its toll.
Prof. Jürgen Hubbert 1939 – 2021. RIP
 As a toddler, baby Jürgen was given a Steiff teddy, which was all he had left after his home was destroyed. Adult Jürgen retained the teddy, which led over time to him being given other Steiff toys as gifts. By his retirement, his collection comprised some 3000 Steiff toys.
Sources: Autocar/ Autosport/ Christopher Butt – (with thanks).