Nallinger pressed on with his plans for a smaller Mercedes-Benz, but things did not progress quickly. The technicians and designers were way ahead of the countdown to the decision – but the road to the W 201 model series, which first appeared in 1982 with the 190 and 190 E models, was to be a difficult one.
Commenting in October 1977, when the basic decision for a third model series was made, the chairman of the supervisory board at the time, Wilfried Guth, said: „The birth of the idea that smaller cars can also be built, and that Daimler can enter another market segment with them, was a very, very laborious and very slow process.“ The technicians and designers had already provided the hard facts a long time ago. But without impetus from the USA, presumably these activities would not have been carried out either. That was where the requests for a Mercedes-Benz as a second car were coming from. In addition, the environmental legislation of the Clean Air Act laid down clear specifications for fleet consumption (Corporate Average Fuel Economy, CAFE) and also for the fuel economy of the model ranges sold in the USA. So in 1985, for example, an average consumption of 27.5 miles per gallon (equivalent to 8.6 litres per 100 kilometres) was stipulated. It was not possible to comply with this figure with the model range available at that time.
The specifications for the W 201 model series presented in February 1974, under the direction of Hans Scherenberg, already clearly laid out the key elements and dimensions of the future smaller Mercedes-Benz.
The dimensions were so clearly defined that the series production vehicle that was launched on the market almost nine years later hardly deviated from the specifications. And the specifications also laid down one other thing at that time: „Due to the characteristics expected of the brand symbol by customers in terms of quality, safety and refinement, the 201 should consciously differentiate itself from the other vehicles of the mid-range series.“
Werner Breitschwerdt, still head of bodywork in Sindelfingen at the time, under Scherenberg, did not waste much time and in 1974 had a vehicle from the W 115 model series cut up lengthwise and breadthwise and pieced back together based on the reduced dimensions of the planned W 201 series. In this way he was immediately able to gain an initial impression of the space.
The W 201 model series represented the clear signal for the start of a new age: the brand was becoming younger. The new smaller Mercedes-Benz proved this by not only setting an example in terms of technology, comfort and safety, but by also heralding the start of a new era in terms of its design. Werner Breitschwerdt and Bruno Sacco came from a new generation of management who turned their understanding of a new modern Mercedes-Benz into reality with the W 201 model series. As such, they can be justifiably described as the fathers of the third model series.
The first designs from 1974 still looked somewhat like small S-Classes from the W 116 model series. These so-called „Mercedesle“, as they were once appropriately described by designer Andreas Langenbeck, did not correspond to Sacco’s concept because they did not convey any formal individuality. He brought a halt to proceedings and prescribed some time-out from the project for his staff in order to gain a fresh, clear view of things. Claus Hieke, who subsequently became responsible for AMG design, still believes that Sacco’s biggest contribution was recognising that simply scaling down the dimensions of cars does not really achieve the desired aim.
In order to distance themselves from the project in creative terms, Breitschwerdt and Sacco let staff handle other projects, so as to be able to make a fresh attempt after a certain period of time had elapsed. The race was won in 1978 by a design from Peter Pfeiffer, which although still implemented as a coupé at the time, also comprised all of the essential elements of the subsequent W 201 bodywork, such as the inconspicuous kink running from the roof through the rear window and into the edge of the boot lid. But this design was also characterised by details which were only incorporated much later, such as the door handles, which went into series production in the C 126-series SEC Coupé in 1981; the contrasting colour plastic side parts, incorporated into the range with the facelift in 1988; or the integrated grille, implemented in the W 140-series S-Class in 1991. At the board meeting in Sindelfingen on 6 March 1979, the executive board gave the final approval for the design. The bodywork was impressive, with its formal coherence, and became the trademark of a new design era at Mercedes-Benz. The new smaller Mercedes-Benz, affectionately named the „Baby Benz“ in the USA, still impresses with its fresh appearance many years on.
As trend-setting as the design of the W 201 model series proved to be for Mercedes-Benz at the time, equally impressive were its handling, ride comfort and of course its passive safety too, all of which were just as good as the larger models. Making its debut was the introduction of independent multilink rear suspension, which helped to provide a high degree of driving safety with a level of ride comfort previously unknown and which is still basically produced today, albeit in an adapted form on the later models. The combination of agile handling, previously unheard of in Mercedes-Benz passenger cars, and ride comfort was unique in such a compact vehicle and acknowledged worldwide.
The W 201 model series was produced up until 1993. It evolved into the C-Class, with the development of the 202 series, which in the meantime has become available in a wide variety of body and engine variants.
NAFA – the „local transport vehicle“
Congested roads, the need for parking spaces and long traffic jams raised new questions in terms of vehicle research. Mercedes-Benz responded to these issues in 1981 with the „local transport vehicle“ concept study, or NAFA for short (after the German „Nahverkehrsfahrzeug“). Measuring 2.50 metres in length and 1.50 metres in both width and height, the innovative two-seater contradicted everything that the company had previously been known for.
Thanks to four-wheel steering, the car could also be driven forward into narrow parking spaces, and its turning circle was no more than 5.7 metres. Even when clearance at the sides was restricted, two sliding doors helped make getting into and out of the vehicle convenient: they opened forwards and the exterior mirrors folded in automatically. The car featured front-wheel drive and an automatic transmission. Air conditioning, power steering and seat belt tensioners were also included. The comparatively high seating position, low beltline and large window areas also ensured it enjoyed optimum all-round visibility.
The NAFA study was not developed further into a series production vehicle. But it did not simply vanish into obscurity: the knowledge gained from it went into the design of the A-Class, the prototype of which made its debut in 1996. And the concept of a compact city car celebrated reaching the production stage in the form of the smart City Coupé, introduced in 1997 and known today as the smart fortwo, which has since gone on to be mass produced in large quantities.
Mercedes-Benz A-Class (W 168, 1997 to 2004)
The desire for a car with very small external dimensions, and at the same time all of the values of the Mercedes-Benz brand, started to take shape at the start of the 1990’s. Mercedes-Benz introduced the sandwich principle, in which the body is divided into two horizontal planes: the drive unit is located in front of and under the floor pan, so that in the event of a crash it is pushed down and out of the way and does not penetrate into the interior.
In September 1993, Mercedes-Benz gave the public a foretaste of the A-Class at the International Motor Show (IAA) in Frankfurt/Main. Here the brand presented its Vision A 93, a front-wheel drive car featuring an innovative body design in which the engine, transmission, tank and axles were located below the passenger compartment: the sandwich principle had become a reality, and the combination of small external dimensions (length of 3350 millimetres) with a large, variable interior, and a Mercedes-Benz-standard level of safety, proved impressive. The Vision A 93 incorporated elements of the F 100 research vehicle, for example. The body of the one-off vehicle was made completely of aluminium. The concept of intelligent lightweight construction was later developed for the A-Class. It combined different materials such as steel, plastic, aluminium and magnesium. As such, the vehicle design was optimised just as much in terms of weight and environmental compatibility as it was in terms of costs.
The Vision A 93 demonstrated the versatility of vehicle design with three different engine variants. In addition to an economical petrol engine producing 55 kW and a direct-injection diesel engine producing 44 kW, there was also a version featuring a 44 kW electric drive. The one-off vehicle also boasted variability in the interior: the car could be modified depending on the situation – from a comfortable four-seater through to a cargo maestro with a stowage compartment volume of 1000 litres. This revolutionary space concept was once again based on the innovative, high horizontal frame floor assembly, which helped to ensure a level of crash safety previously unavailable in this vehicle category.
In 1994, Mercedes-Benz displayed a version of the concept vehicle named „Studie A“, modified in a number of details, at the Geneva Motor Show. The American magazine „Motor Week“ awarded it the title of „Best Concept Car 1994“.
The positive response from the press and public lead to a quick decision being made by the Mercedes-Benz executive board. It was only in December 1993 that it had decided on series production of the A-Class. The project was assigned the model series number W 168, and the vehicle was to be produced at the Rastatt plant. At the International Motor Show in Frankfurt in September 1995, two years after the world premiere of the Vision A 93, the interior design of the A-Class was presented. Compared with the one-off vehicle, the overall length of the vehicle had in the meantime grown by 225 millimetres – and this was even before respectable space requirements increased further, particularly in terms of the luggage compartment.
The sandwich concept proved successful in 1996 in various crash tests at the development centre in Sindelfingen. The tests proved that even a vehicle with small crumple zones can still achieve the high safety standards of Mercedes-Benz. Furthermore, the A-Class not only fulfilled future EU guidelines for frontal impacts, but also complied with the strict safety specifications of the USA and the European Union for side collisions.
The A-Class finally made its official premiere in March 1997. Mercedes-Benz presented the five-door version at the Geneva Motor Show. The commercial release followed eight weeks later in May 1997, and the car was then available in dealerships by October. Despite the „elk tests“, the A-Class was extremely successful. As part of a facelift in 2001, a version with a longer wheelbase was also introduced. The second generation of the A-Class followed in 2004 in the guise of 169 model series. This was available as a four-door Saloon and a two-door Coupé. The A-Class also formed the basis for the Compact Sports Tourer from Mercedes-Benz which was launched onto the market in 2005, designated as the B-Class, which also went on to became a very successful model.
Source: Daimler AG