Mercedes and the boxfish

In 1996, Dieter Gürtler and his colleagues from the Mercedes Technology Center in Sindelfingen, Germany, were looking for a model for a holistically conceived bionic car.

Bill Sharfman
Aug 31, 2006

courtesy of daimlerchrysler ag
inset: © jeffreyjeffords/divegallery.com

In 1996, Dieter Gürtler and his colleagues from the Mercedes Technology Center in Sindelfingen, Germany, were looking for a model for a holistically conceived bionic car, respecting at once physics, design, and aerodynamics. So he turned to Ronald Fricke, head of the ichthyology department at the Rosenstein Museum in Stuttgart, with its huge collection of preserved fish.

They were "thinking about a bionic car and ? fish models for it," Fricke recalls. The team's first instincts were to use streamlined sharks, penguins, dolphins, and tunas. But on a visit to the museum, it became clear that their "ideas of tunas and sharks were not useful to design cars, which contain a cubicle for passengers, while swiftly-swimming fishes are compressed," Fricke says. "It was our idea to choose a slowly but steadily swimming fish, and the boxfish was the first option."

The boxfish,...