In 1886, Carl Benz invented the automobile. His patent motor car was the first step towards individual mobility as we know it today. Following the successful introduction of the “Viktoria” and “Vis-à-Vis” models in 1892, he made a significant contribution to popularising the new type of vehicle with the Benz Velo in 1894: this small car became the first volume produced vehicle in automotive history, with some 1200 units being produced.
With the “Velociped” engine, called “Velo” for short, Benz’s aim was to build a lightweight yet resilient vehicle which at the same time was also reasonably priced, and which also stood out from the heavy motorised carriages of that time. That is why Benz, himself a keen cyclist, also called it the “Velo”, thus creating a link with the bicycle. Fitted with spoked wheels, the vehicle also gave the impression of being appropriately sized, measuring no more than 2.25 metres long and weighing 280 kilograms at the time of its launch. Over the course of the model’s history, due to various modifications, admittedly it gained some weight: the Comfortable model dating from 1902, towards the end of the model’s long career, weighed 425 kilograms. The power of the engine also increased as a result of customer requirements. The 1.1 kW of the original model became 3.3 kW over the years, while the displacement remained the same.
Optional extras were also even available at the time, at an additional cost: with the basic 1.1 kW engine, the Velo cost 2000 Marks. The 2 kW engine pushed the price up by 10 percent to 2200 Marks. The “Velo Comfortable” also offered this level of performance and cost 500 Marks more than the basic model. From 1896, the Velo could also be ordered with a three-speed transmission, at an additional cost of 200 Marks. Useful accessories offered by Benz included pneumatic tyres (350 Marks), a half roof in spray leather (200 Marks) or a parasol (100 Marks) to protect against the sun.
The basic version of the Velo was built until 1900, and the Comfortable variant until 1901. It was one of the most important mainstays of the Benz & Cie. vehicle range in its day – and made a significant contribution to establishing Benz as the world’s largest automotive manufacturer at the turn of the century. This fact is also reflected in the company’s production figures compared with those of DMG: in the years from 1894 to 1900, Benz built 2248 vehicles, as opposed to DMG’s 302 vehicles.
Benz 8/18 hp (1911)
The Benz 8/18 hp, another smaller vehicle, was introduced in 1911. The saloon version of the 8/18 hp was available at a price of 8500 Marks and thus more reasonably priced than its predecessor, the 10/18 hp Saloon, which carried a price tag of 11,000 Marks. The 8/18 hp model enjoyed widespread sales success. At the same time it was an early example of “downsizing”. Compared for example with the Benz 18 hp of 1905, the four-cylinder model delivered the same output but with a displacement which was almost 40 percent less. The 8/18 hp was therefore more efficient and also helped to save on tax – the luxury car tax introduced in 1906 was based on engine displacement.
The 8/18 hp model was the result of an internal company competition to build a smaller car which was less expensive, more robust and cheaper to run than all of its predecessors in this class. These requirements were most closely met with the design submitted by Benz designer Karl Ketterer. He adopted an approach based on the division of labour: production and material costs were calculated by a colleague from purchasing who would later play a special role in the history of Daimler-Benz AG – Wilhelm Kissel. Ketterer won the competition and between 1911 and 1921 the 8/18 hp model became a mainstay of the passenger car range of Benz & Cie. In 1912 it received a facelift and at the same time took on the designation 8/20 hp.
With a displacement of two litres, the engine produced an output of 13 kW at 1800/rpm which was delivered to the rear wheels via a four-speed transmission. The maximum speed was quoted as 62 km/h. Benz offered an unusually extensive body range for the 8/18 hp model. Customers could chose from versions including a runabout available in two equipment variants, a two-seater sports car, a saloon and a landaulet. The advertising statements of the time captured it in a nutshell, using the characteristic style of language of that era: “As the best of the good, we have quietly, stayed true to the principle we represent with our car: the 8/18 hp.” The vehicle enjoyed widespread appeal among many of existing customers, and also enabled the company to win quite a few new ones and as a result Benz significantly increased its lead over DMG in terms of production figures. Between 1911 and 1914, Benz produced 9980 passenger cars, compared with DMG’s 6327 units.
Mercedes 6/25 hp and projects in the 1920’s and 1930’s
At the end of 1921, DMG surprised everyone in Berlin at the first automobile exhibition in Germany after the First World War with the small supercharged 6/20 hp model. The new entry-level Mercedes model, designated the 6/25 hp, was the first series produced passenger car featuring a supercharged engine – together with its sister model, the 10/40 hp. The innovative engine technology stood for efficiency, but was also sophisticated and expensive. This proved an obstacle to achieving high sales, particularly in the case of the entry-level 6/25 hp which saw only 350 units being built between the end of 1922 and 1924. Nevertheless, the 6/25 hp model managed to secure its place in automotive history by forming the basis for the unique success of the Mercedes-Benz supercharged cars of the 1920’s and 1930’s.
A new attempt at producing a smaller vehicle followed immediately after the merger of Benz & Cie. and DMG into Daimler-Benz AG. Below the equally newly-developed six-cylinder Mercedes-Benz 8/38 hp (W 02, 1926 to 1928) with a displacement of 2 litres, a vehicle with a displacement of 1.4 litres was also planned – this too was to be a six-cylinder car, designated internally as the W 01. Eight prototypes were made of this car, however it did not reach the series production stage.
It was a similar story with the second attempt at producing a smaller Mercedes-Benz. A total of 28 prototypes were produced of the four-cylinder 5/25 hp model, which reached the planning stage in 1928. However, the vehicle fell victim to a lack of financial resources, which were needed to extend the production facilities. Despite being quite contemporary, this small Mercedes was somewhat conservative in terms of its technical design, particularly with regard to the suspension which had rigid front and rear axles, as well as its box section frame.
Basically, for Mercedes-Benz these small vehicles were closely related in design terms to the existing six-cylinder models with displacements of 2 and 2.6 litres (called the Stuttgart model from the end of 1928) as well as those with a displacement of 3.1 and 3.5 litres (called the Mannheim model from the end of 1929).
In the beginning of 1929 Hans Nibel, who came from Benz in 1926, became the sole chief engineer. He was also joined by the head of design Max Wagner, and the head of testing Fritz Nallinger, from Mannheim. Nibel and Wagner had already familiarised themselves with advanced vehicle designs at a very early stage. One such example which springs to mind is the Benz mid-engined racing car of 1923, which was way ahead of its time. Now the two men put their ideas and experience into practice.
The first project was the W 17 model series. Twelve prototypes of this test model were produced in 1931. It had a rear-mounted air-cooled four-cylinder horizontally opposed engine in the rear with a displacement of 1.2 litres and an output of 18 kW, key specifications which were already similar to the subsequent VW Beetle. However the operating noise of the engine was too loud, and so this concept was not pursued any further. Other interesting projects to emerge from this time were a very early prototype using experimental bodywork, which would have done credit to an oversized coal box on wheels, and also a near production standard and rather appealing test car with various formal similarities to a vehicle which appeared quite a number of years later – the VW Beetle.
Mercedes-Benz 170 (W 15, 1931 to 1936)
Success was achieved with the 170 model (W 15), on the other hand. The inexpensive and technically innovative entry-level model celebrated its premiere at the Paris Motor Show in October 1931 – and was a tremendous success in terms of sales. By 1932 no fewer than 4438 units were produced, more than the previous year’s entire production figures for all Mercedes-Benz passenger car models. As such the W 15 played a large part in ensuring Daimler-Benz successfully overcame the difficult economic times of the early 1930’s.
The latest technical achievement entailed equipping the car with front and rear swing axles, namely independent wheel suspension. The modern technology and appealing shape of the car proved just as popular as the low price, despite its six-cylinder engine. The four-door Saloon variant of the vehicle cost 4400 RM (Reichsmark), almost 1600 RM less than the most reasonably-priced version of the Stuttgart model. As such, as the vehicle featuring the smallest displacement and the most reasonable price, it successfully occupied the low-end position in the Mercedes-Benz passenger car range.
In its first year of production the 170 model was only offered as a four-door Saloon and a four-seater Cabriolet C. Striking features included that the small but standard external luggage case, initially available in a free-standing design and subsequently incorporated directly into the bodywork from 1934. From April 1932 the chassis was also made available for fitting third-party bodies. In September 1932 a two-seater “special-edition Roadster” was added to the range, followed a year later by the “Special Cabriolet A”, which became the most expensive variant of the 170 model with a price tag of 7000 RM. In February 1934 another two-door touring car with four seats was introduced, which was optionally available with either a body fitted in Sindelfingen or third-party body. During the same period, the four-door Saloon also came with an optional roll-back roof fitted at the Sindelfingen production works.
In February 1935, a two-door saloon also made its debut which already hinted at the body design of the successor model, the Mercedes-Benz 170 V; at the same time, the existing flat radiator was replaced on all body variants by a radiator featuring a flat wedge shape.
In addition to the body variants mentioned, between 1932 and 1935 the 170 models was also offered as a box van with a payload of 300 kg. The model designation, L 300, followed the naming convention used for Mercedes-Benz truck models.
The 170 model was replaced in the spring of 1936 by the 170 V (W 136 until 1942), which had nothing in common with its predecessor apart from the displacement class. Completely redesigned in technical terms, the 170 V model was fitted with a four-cylinder engine.
A total of 13,775 units of the Mercedes-Benz 170 were produced. On top of this some 126 examples of the L 300 van variant were also produced.
Source: Daimler AG