Now things look much different. When Daimler's supervisory board meets in a few weeks, its members are likely to renew Zetsche's contract, which runs out in December.
Zetsche, 56, an ebullient executive easily identified by his trademark mustache and wire-rim glasses, was back to his old self at a media event in Abu Dhabi last month.
He could point to a string of successes since the German press had started to write him off in the summer.
• Sales of Daimler's core Mercedes-Benz unit were up 19.1 percent in November, led by the new E-class, which is doing better than expected.
• His plan to cut costs by 4 billion euros ($5.8 billion) in 2009 was on target.
• 2010 launches such as the SLS AMG, E-class convertible and CLS coupe-styled, four-door sedan will keep up a new product momentum.
Most importantly, Zetsche has stabilized the company's liquidity problems by bringing on board the wealthy Gulf state of Abu Dhabi as an investor with a 9 percent stake for 2 billion euros ($2.9 billion).
Zetsche is confident that Mercedes will sell 1.5 million cars a year by 2015, about 500,000 more than now, and reach his postponed operating margin goal of 10 percent in the mid term.
When asked last year about speculation that he might not remain CEO when his five-year contract expires, Zetsche said: "I am having fun in my job and am not interested in another one."