The desire for vehicles with a compact exterior and at the same time the “inner values” of a high-quality interior has been a constant underlying theme throughout the entire history of Daimler AG and its predecessors.
The Stuttgart-based company – whose own domains have traditionally comprised product segments occupied by the luxury and upper mid-range classes – has also enjoyed repeated success in applying its innovation and development expertise in the lower range segments for compact, reasonably-priced vehicles too.
Not every example of the smaller passenger car on which the engineers and designers worked survived through to the production stage, however. This is down to a variety of different reasons which make telling this chapter in the story of the compact car all the more interesting.
Carl Benz, alongside Gottlieb Daimler, is not just the inventor of the automobile. In 1894 he also introduced the small, light “Velo” model: some 1200 units of this vehicle were produced, making it the first volume produced vehicle in automotive history.
In 1911 Benz & Cie. then launched the 8/18 hp model, which was not only more reasonably priced than its predecessor, the 10/18 hp, but also represented 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 model was therefore more efficient and also helped to save on tax – the luxury car tax introduced in 1906 was based on engine displacement.
At the start of the 1920’s, during the period after the First World War, the focus once again fell squarely on compact, reasonably-priced vehicles. As a result, the “Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft” (DMG) built the 6/25 hp supercharged passenger car, specifically designed as a compact and relatively reasonably-priced vehicle – yet the large-scale distribution of what was a technically sophisticated car failed to come about due to its price. A further attempt came in 1926 with the founding of Daimler-Benz AG, a company into which both Benz & Cie. and DMG were merged. This was a vehicle with a displacement of 1.4 litres, created in 1926 under the internal designation W 01. It was shelved, however, just like the 5/25 hp model which was produced as part of a trial series production run in 1928.
Nevertheless, success was with the 170 model (W 15), on the other hand. The inexpensive and technically innovative entry-level model celebrated its premiere in 1931 – and was a tremendous success in terms of sales. In fact the W 15 played a large part in ensuring Daimler-Benz successfully overcame the difficult economic times of the early 1930’s.
Even before the W 15 model series was introduced, the engineers and technicians at Daimler-Benz once again embarked on the task of developing an even more reasonably priced and compact entry-level model as part of the Mercedes-Benz passenger car range. The result was the rear-engined Mercedes-Benz 130 (W 23), introduced at the beginning of 1934. It was considered to have a groundbreaking, modern design; nevertheless, it was unable to establish itself in the market, no doubt partly due to its shape which was rather unusual for a Mercedes-Benz. Two years later it was replaced by the 170 H model (W 28), which was more powerful and somewhat larger, but at the same time also more expensive. The role of entry-level model was now taken over by the front-engined Mercedes-Benz 170 V (W 136), which was introduced at the same time as the 170 H model as the successor to the 170 model (W 15). The 170 V model was able to build further on the success of its predecessor to rank among the Mercedes-Benz models produced in the greatest numbers during the period prior to 1945. Furthermore, it also formed the basis for the resumption of passenger car production after the Second World War. Immediately after the War too, the company’s thoughts once again turned to producing smaller cars. Several vehicles were created, in some cases only on the drawing board, but some interesting configurations emerged. Things then became more definite in the 1950’s with the announcement of the W 122 and W 118/W 119 model series, which due to corporate policy reasons however were not launched on the market.
In 1982, following a long development history, all of the planning finally came to fruition with the introduction of the so-called Mercedes-Benz compact class (W 201 model series), which was initially available in the form of the 190 and 190 E models. It was credited with having established the smaller vehicle on the market, with all of the interior values of the brand. Since its second generation, the 202 model series introduced in 1993, the compact class has been known under the name C-Class, which has continued the great success story of the “190” model.
The line-up of smaller vehicles also includes the NAFA (from the German “Nahverkehrsfahrzeug”) short-distance vehicle of 1982, a groundbreaking concept based on a history of ideas which to some extent have been used in the two-seater smart car, now also a product of Daimler AG.
In 1997 the A-Class (W 168) then celebrated its market launch. Here the engineers succeeded in accomplishing quite a feat by bringing onto the market a vehicle incorporating the typical characteristics of a Mercedes-Benz, such as comfort and safety, in a body with more compact dimensions. As such, it represents a brilliant coup in the history of Daimler AG, forming part of an exciting chapter in the story of both the company and its technology. Following the major facelift which took place in 2001, it became a small family comprising different body variants – a concept which was continued in a modified form in the successor model series, the 169.
Source: Daimler AG