The Mercedes-Benz 130 (W 23) was unveiled in March 1934 at the IAMA in Berlin. At the time of its presentation it was not only the smallest production passenger car, the first rear-engine car and the first four-cylinder model from Daimler-Benz AG, but also the first volume-produced German rear-engine car, leaving aside various micro cars.
Officially it never bore the letter “H” in the model description, even though this was often used in internal plant documents. The 130 model was of an entirely new design. An original brochure summed up the idea behind the vehicle: “Designing the Mercedes-Benz 130 model has without doubt been one of the most interesting challenges ever faced in automotive design; this was to create a car with the ride characteristics of a large swing-axle model, the ride comfort of a modern mid-sized car and the running costs of a small car.”
The brochure also provided the reasoning behind the rear engine concept: “The engine has been positioned at the rear in order to improve spatial design, focus the entire powerhouse in one place and reduce weight and technology.” This offered three advantages: “First, the engine formed a closed and easily accessible assembly with the transmission, differential and rear axle. Secondly, positioning the engine at the rear meant there was more space for passengers. Thirdly, the housing for all four passengers could be positioned between the two axles, making driving significantly more comfortable.”
The reduced weight came, for example, from the fact that a propshaft was no longer required; this in turn cut transmission losses and thereby improved yield from the engine output.
In 1934 another brochure advertised the vehicle’s merits: “This model is a quality utility vehicle suitable for a broad circle of users; thanks to its use of patented swing axles front and rear, its low-slung design, rear-positioned engine, broad track and favourable weight distribution, it boasts incomparable handling characteristics.”
Those who approached the Daimler-Benz stand at the IAMA expecting to be welcomed by the familiar sight of the Mercedes-Benz radiator grilles was in for a surprise. Visitors encountered a new and very unfamiliar face, one which signalled the start of a new era in vehicle design. The only indication that the visitor was at the right stand was the traditional Mercedes star. The new, smaller Mercedes-Benz, with its still largely unfamiliar rear-mounted engine, a four-cylinder assembly and new design proportions proved a source of considerable interest and reflection. Compared with its narrow-tracked and high-wheeled classmates, this stocky, untippable vehicle stood on its four individually sprung wheels with great self-assurance.
The new model aroused curiosity and the expectation of being bigger inside than out. It did not disappoint, for its surprisingly spacious interior was not much smaller than that of the six-cylinder Mercedes-Benz 170, previously the smallest vehicle made by Daimler-Benz. The large, unsplit windscreen provided an unrestricted view to the outside. In combination with the folding front seat rests, the two large side doors gave excellent access to the raised rear seat bench, behind which there was still room for a sizeable suitcase. The front bonnet housed the horizontally stowed spare wheel along with tools and smaller travel accessories. One exceptional feature for the time and vehicle category was the car’s standard-fit heating system.
The 1.3-litre four-cylinder engine was a new design with side valves and updraught carburettor, developing 19 kW at 3400/min and a top speed of 92 km/h. That made the vehicle marginally faster than the 170 model. It cut a fine figure with what were considered for the day highly aerodynamic lines. With a drag coefficient of cd=0.516 it was on a par with a Mercedes-Benz 230 SL of 1963 with hardtop, which achieved figures of cd=0.515, and much better than the popular pre-war Mercedes-Benz Stuttgart with cd=0.662. Even the drag coefficient of cd=0.498 for a 1966 VW Beetle, which had the advantage of flush-mounted headlamps, was not so significantly better as one might have expected after a period of 32 years.
The 30-litre fuel tank was located to the right of the engine. Positioned in front of the rear axle for better axle load distribution, the three-speed transmission also featured a fourth option, which, in line with the trend of the period, fulfilled an overdrive function. This overdrive was preselected without use of the clutch and selected by releasing the accelerator. The overdrive automatically engaged as soon as the accelerator was depressed. Hydraulic four-wheel brakes, another feature that was by no means standard for this class of vehicle at the time, provided reliable braking.
The engine offered impressive displacement reserves and in the 1950s reached both its highpoint and endpoint as a 1.8-litre engine in the 180 and 170 S-V models.
The 130 model was available as a two-door Saloon and a two-door Convertible Saloon. For special official purposes, there were also versions as open-top touring cars and Kübelwagen. In addition, plans were made to offer the chassis alone for special bodies, but there are no surviving records that prove this actually happened.
The roof of the saloon, pressed in a single piece, was not commonplace at the time. Most car roofs of the day had a fabric-covered wooden frame supporting the large central section. At the Sindelfingen plant the company had to purchase a special hydraulic press with corresponding mouldings to produce the large, new pressed part.
The designation Convertible Saloon characterises the second vehicle type precisely. The folding fabric soft-top opened up the roof and rear section if required, while the vehicle’s side walls remained fixed.
Even before the date of the official unveiling, it had been agreed not to allow the 130 model to stand alone in the model range, but to develop it as part of a family of rear-engine vehicles. Already under discussion were a model with 1.6-litre engine and four doors as well as a sports car.
New concept calls for a new design
For the rather conservative-minded Mercedes-Benz customer, the exterior of the new car required complete readjustment, since the rear-engine vehicle no longer needed the classic, front-mounted radiator – and Daimler-Benz resisted the temptation to give the vehicle the appearance of a conventional front-engine car by fitting a dummy radiator. After considerable testing and in-house deliberations, the decision was taken to proceed on the basis of a clear rear-engine design. This also included the addition of an encircled Mercedes star embedded in the raised beading that ran up and over the front bonnet.
Another distinctive element of the new vehicle’s look were the intake louvers in the side panels below the rear side windows, which channelled air towards the radiator positioned above the rear axle. The rounded engine lid featured three longitudinal vents with cover plates, which gave the vehicle a distinctive and unmistakeable rear aspect.
Thus the 130 model was unveiled to reveal an entirely unique design, lending it what was considered a thoroughly avant-garde appearance for the time – although this did little to boost the vehicle’s market success. Nevertheless, the rigour with which the decision to pursue such design independence was taken earned considerable respect, not to mention tributes published in the contemporary press. For example, in issue 53 of Motor und Sport in an article entitled: “Form? Reflections on the new MB 130”, Wolfgang von Lengerke wrote in 1933:“A familiar shape is always attributable to tradition. But tradition presupposes there is a process of development. However, since what we are dealing with here is an entirely new and viable shape for motor vehicle production, it would be unreasonable to expect the design at this stage to have already reached classical perfection. The possibilities that lie at the heart of this commonplace development of the future are best demonstrated by the feeling one has when one rides in this car. It has comfortable seating, and the large, broad windows offer an unimpeded view over the surrounding countryside. The suspension is so soft and accomplished that it is barely possible to determine the nature of the road surface. Those who perhaps harbour a dislike for the vehicle’s exterior, because it deliberately sets a revolutionary idea against hitherto traditional formal elements, will be forced to recognise its certain future supremacy as soon as they take a ride in it.”
Contrary to later frequent assertions, the 130 model, as shown by the company’s production statistics, enjoyed considerable success. Records show that in the year of preparation for series production, 1933, precisely one example of the two-door 130 Saloon was built, by 1934 numbers had risen to 2,205 units, offered for sale at a price of 3,425 Reichsmarks. 1,781 units (RM 3,680) were built in 1935, and another 311 units in 1936 (RM 3,200).
By way of direct comparison, in 1933 the 170 (W 15) had production figures for the four-door saloon of 3,130 units (RM 4,400). 2,508 units (RM 4,150) were produced in 1934, a total of 3,020 units (RM 3,950) in 1935, and 497 units (RM 3,950) in 1936.
Sales of the rear-engine car were perhaps all the more impressive, since the entirety of its design embodied a highly avant-garde concept that left many long-standing Mercedes-Benz customers with great reservations.
A fundamentally new design
For the 130 model a new tubular backbone chassis was designed, forked at the rear to accommodate the engine. The crossmembers to hold the body were mounted below the backbone chassis for a lower centre of gravity. The seats were positioned in the area of the car offering optimum suspension – between the axles. As with the 170 model, the front axle design incorporated independent suspension, two superjacent leaf spring packages which were attached to the front chassis crossmembers, and lever-type shock absorbers. The dual-joint rear axle had two coil springs.
As designer Josef Müller recorded in his memoirs, the original idea behind the rear-engine car is clearly attributable: “Max Wagner recalled his ‘Benz Teardrop’ with rear-positioned engine, actually a mid-positioned engine.” The design of this new vehicle was difficult – above all, because until then there had been no real lessons with rear-engine cars to learn from. Müller reported: “Using an experimental version with an air-cooled boxer engine we had already learned not to bolt the engine and transmission unit directly to the tubular backbone chassis, but instead to mount it elastically in a bifurcated frame and if possible for it to be water-cooled. Unfortunately, in selecting the engine type, we gave in to the temptation to use the longer, if simpler, in-line four-cylinder unit rather than the short boxer engine. The first test drives were anything but satisfactory. The […] birth defect of the swing axle had a greater than expected impact in combination with the excessive rear-end weight. Nevertheless, after carefully tuning tyre and spring softness between front and rear axles and solving the noise problem, we succeeded in creating a serviceable vehicle out of what was initially a rather stubborn mule.”
Handling characteristics remained a subject for internal discussions. In November 1933, for example, the grave concerns expressed by Untertürkheim plant director Hans H. Keil during a technical meeting were recorded in the minutes: “Mr. Keil reported that both he and Mr. Uhlenhaut had noted the poor roadholding ability of the rear-engine car and that he harboured the gravest concerns for the vehicle model.”
Fine-tuning improves handling
The company nevertheless found technical solutions to improve the vehicle’s ride characteristics. For example, the fine tuning mentioned by Müller proved successful, as demonstrated by initial driving reports. The trade press was at first rather sceptical of the new vehicle, before recognising the efforts that had been invested and also the early stage of development of the concept. In the following account, journalist Joseph Ganz, who had the opportunity to drive a pre-series car before its official presentation, also considered the ride characteristics of the new 130 model: “I had the opportunity to take the car recently for an extended test drive. In engine terms, the MB 130 rear-engine car behaves almost exactly like the MB 170 [with front engine]. Even the performance of the two vehicles is almost identical. It is interesting to note that when inside the car, the rather noisy engine is not in the least bothersome. Idling, acceleration
and endurance: excellent.
And now to the most important aspect, its roadholding characteristics: In truth, the MB 130 is not a rear-engine car in its purest form. It is more a car with an “outboard motor” The engine is overhanging to the rear, causing undesirable tail weight. This feature makes front shock absorbers necessary, which in a sense has removed the icing from the cake in terms of handling, as we have come to expect from uncompromising rear-engine cars. This results in shortcomings that irritate the sensitive driver, the connoisseur. But once one has overcome any feelings of disquiet caused by the sensation of floating the car gives, or the manner in which its rear end struggles to get round corners, and one then compares this car with any other front-engine vehicle, you will without doubt come down in favour of the MB 130. The suspension is unique. There is absolutely no jolting. All that remains is a gentle rocking, rendering the journey a sheer delight. And steerability is just about perfect. The car reacts to every touch of the steering wheel. This is driving of the utmost refinement. Brakes soft and highly effective. Good visibility, excellent ventilation. No petrol odours in the interior.
In order to test the full potential of the rear-engine car, I drove on snowy and at times icy tracks on the Feldberg in the Taunus region, an area that has been almost completely abandoned by other motor vehicles in recent days. The four-day-old snow was still virginal. Only on one occasion did the car deviate by a few degrees from the intended direction – the result of a snowdrift – but I was immediately able to bring it back on track again. Otherwise it holds its line better than many others on a gravel track. The MB 130 is a quite remarkable vehicle. For me, it is way ahead of any other vehicle I know in this class. Nevertheless, there is still room for further development, by extending the wheelbase rearwards and shifting the weighty engine mass closer to the car’s centre of gravity.”
Ganz’s colleague Stephan von Szénasy gave the car a similar test rating in 1934 for the trade magazine Motor und Sport, writing in Test Report No. 105 in issue 14: “As with any car that breaks the mould, one takes a good long look before setting off on a test drive. The 130 model from Mercedes-Benz is innovative in every respect. A rear-mounted engine means having the bulk of the vehicle’s mass in your back. Theoretical considerations alone could not instil absolute confidence with regard to the design arrangement opted for by Daimler-Benz. Which renders the thoroughly positive appraisal that is the subject of this test report all the more impressive.
To a certain extent one is required with this car to rethink one’s approach to driving, just as with one’s first test in a front-wheel drive vehicle, and in particular where cornering is concerned. After half a day’s test driving in urban traffic, we headed out onto the open roads. By the end of the first hour’s driving the car had clocked up exactly 67 kilometres, including the drive through Spandau and Nauen. Effectively that says it all. With the 130 Mercedes one achieves average speeds approaching those of the outstanding 170 model, even though the power source is an engine with a displacement 400 ccm smaller. In every respect, therefore, I have nothing but praise for the car’s performance. A top speed of 92 km/h – timed on the Avus – represents a far from everyday performance for a car of this size.
And so to roadholding? Under all conditions encountered – it was, nevertheless, only possible to test the car on dry roads – the Mercedes-Benz 130 demonstrated a very high degree of safety. Roadholding was excellent, so too was the car’s insensitivity to poor road surfaces. And as for cornering safety, this too deserves fulsome praise – so long as one has taken the trouble to acquaint oneself a little with the car’s idiosyncrasies, since it calls for a somewhat modified driving technique.”
Six Mercedes-Benz 130 cars took part in the “2000 km through Germany” in 1934. Three of them reached the finish and were awarded one gold medal (for finishing in the allocated time), a silver medal (finishing less than 30 minutes over the allocated time) and a bronze medal (finishing less than 60 minutes over the allocated time). The brand was well represented at the event, which attracted entries from around 650 passenger cars, as well as from an equally large field of motorcycles: Taking part in addition to the compact rear-engine cars were also Mercedes-Benz SSK, SS, 500 K, 380, 290, 200, 170 and 150 models.
Model refinement with detailed improvements
In 1935 the new small Mercedes-Benz underwent improvements, above all in terms of body and interior equipment. For example, revisions were made to the instrument panel: two large circular instruments with ivory-coloured dials were positioned directly in front of the driver, and on the front passenger’s side was a large glove compartment with a clock built into the lid. The upholstery of the front seats was improved and were now easily adjustable thanks to a “quick adjusting mechanism” – the previous archaic solution involving loosening screws was now a thing of the past. The rubber floor mats were replaced with carpet mats. At the front end beneath the A-pillars a vent was inserted for each footwell, recognisable on the outside by two slits above the right and left front wings. The tuning between springs and shock absorbers and the camber of the front wheels were altered in order to improve handling. Also under discussion was a more indirect steering system, although it remains unclear as to whether or not this was actually realised. Even before the start of the new model year the 130 model had been fitted with Vigot vehicle jacks. In addition, modifications had been made to the front bonnet, which in this rear-engine car of course housed the luggage compartment. This front bonnet now no longer incorporated the vertical side elements, but instead rested on top. With the exception of the all-black variants, vehicles built in 1935 were mainly two-tone, the wings being optionally available in black or in the car’s second colour.
Remaining stock of the original variants were initially also available as “Model 34” and remained in the price list until July 1935, reduced by 225 Reichsmarks for the Saloon and Convertible Saloon. On the other hand, prices for the “Model 35” were positioned higher, at RM 480 and RM 500 respectively.
In October 1935 another technical modification was made to the 130, which permitted operation of the fuel cock from the driver’s seat. At the same time, the price of the so-called “Autumn model 1935”, which did not yet include this feature, was reduced by RM 580 and RM 600 respectively. A price reduction for the “Winter model 1935” introduced just two months later, on the other hand, paved the way for the launch of the successor model. In February 1936 the 1.3-litre car was replaced by the more powerful and, in many respects, redesigned 170 H model. The 130 remained on the price list as a discontinued model until February 1937.
The 130 was also linked to a further innovation, since it marked the start of foreign production at Daimler-Benz AG. In 1935 the first rear-engine cars were assembled in Denmark in response to a steep rise in demand there. All vehicle parts were shipped from Germany.
Mercedes-Benz 130 (W 23 series)
Cylinders: 4 (in-line)
Displacement: 1308 cm³
Output: 19 kW at 3400/min
Max. speed: 92 km/h
Production period: 1934 – 1936
Source: Daimler AG