The lightweight among commercial vehicles: The history of the Mercedes-Benz vans
Stuttgart
Mar 31, 2010
New vans from Düsseldorf and Bremen
  • Considerably enlarged potential
  • Model range increasingly diversified
  • Introduction of sloping side windows
In January 1967, Daimler-Benz AG presented the new L 406 D and L 408 large-capacity vans as well as the O 309 minibus, which was built on the same basis. These so-called “Düsseldorfer” vans replaced the popular L 319 post-war van, added considerably to its potential and stylishly continued the success story of what had been
Mercedes-Benz's first large-capacity vans. Up until the end of production in 1986, just under half a million units rolled off the production line at the Düsseldorf plant.
A class of its own
Larger and more powerful than a delivery van, more manoeuvrable and lighter than a truck: these characteristics were the key to its success. With their high payload capacity, Düsseldorf vans were in a class of their own and set the standards in their sector from the outset.
If these vans had never existed, somebody would have to have invented them. The German postal service ordered numerous panel vans in deep yellow as parcel delivery vans. The new large-capacity van was also welcomed by furniture store owners, many of whom had capacious box-bodies fitted on the Düsseldorf van chassis and appreciated the fact that the combinations still had a low loading edge.
On the other hand, the crewcab pickup was a hit with construction workers. The boss and his team could all fit into the cab, while the pickup's platform had room for anything from a sack of cement to roofing panels, i.e., the vehicle could carry everything needed for the job. And often enough, a compressor or even a whole site caravan was attached to the trailer coupling.
A combination of bus and truck, the crewcab model was also popular with municipal services that had to transport teams of people and a lot of equipment at the same time. No wonder that the fire service quickly discovered the benefits of the large-capacity van for its own purposes and gladly made use of the speedy petrol-engined L 408 as a crew fire-fighting vehicle.
A mobile bank serving village communities
As if this wasn't enough, the Düsseldorf vans even put the banks on wheels. Converted into a mobile branch, the large-capacity van served as a savings bank that toured the villages. In general, then, anyone with a product to sell at markets and therefore relied on mobility was delighted with the new model – a vehicle that lent itself perfectly for conversion into a mobile shop and yet never bowed under the weight of on-board stock.
Additional career as a minibus
It goes without saying that the Düsseldorf vans also made a career as minibuses. They were ideal for shuttle services. In far-off countries they were all-rounders, functioning as enormous taxis or compact expedition vehicles. Bodybuilders such as Ernst Auwärter conjured up luxurious club buses from Düsseldorf vans, such as the legendary Teamstar.
The timeless stylistic vocabulary of the design, which made a clean break with the emphasised roundedness of its predecessor, the L 319, was entirely new. With elegant and practical charm, the emphasis of the new design was on functionality. The “button nose” bonnet testified to a very compact design with an engine that extended a short way into the cab. However, in keeping with the light-weight truck series presented in 1965, the steering axle was positioned far towards the front, facilitating lower and more comfortable entry into the vehicle.
The vehicle offered a generosity of visibility quite unknown before in van design. Only thin pillars acted as connecting elements between the high, slanting windscreen and the lateral quarterlights. As if seated in a cockpit, the driver enjoyed a commanding view of the action taking place around him – an unusual perspective by the standards of the day.
Continuity of components
However, Mercedes-Benz continued to use tried-and-tested components that had proven their effectiveness under this timeless outer shell. The successful predecessor, the L 319, of which around 120,000 units had been produced, had already demonstrated the extent to which customers appreciated robust and sound engineering. And so the L 406 D diesel model came on the scene in 1967, fitted with a familiar two-litre pre-chamber diesel engine called the OM 621, which had already powered the L 319 and developed 40 kW. Likewise, the 59 kW 2.2 litre petrol engine in the L 408 was already known from the L 319 – although it hardly featured in the sales statistics.
Ride comfort increased considerably. In the highly sensitive ambulance and rescue vehicle sector, at least, the Düsseldorf vans had what amounted to a virtual monopoly in their weight category. As a result of extensive detailed work and fine-tuning, the engineers had succeeded in fundamentally improving the handling and ride qualities compared to those of its predecessor. U-section frame side members with cross-members and leaf-sprung rigid axles front and back were the distinguishing marks of the chassis on the new generation of vans, which continued in the successful tradition of their predecessors in this respect.
Subtle modular system for increased universality
From the start, the new Düsseldorf vans’ trump card was their enormous universality. The key to this was a versatile modular assembly system that was refined over the years. The Düsseldorf plant produced the van in a choice of three weight categories, 3490 kg, 4000 kg and 4600 kg. Six chassis, with or without cabs, were provided for purpose-built bodies and vehicles.
With short-wheelbase panel vans, the customer had the choice between a normal roof giving an interior cargo space height of 1600 millimetres and a slightly higher roof giving 1750 millimetres height in the cargo area. By contrast, Mercedes offered the panel van with the long wheelbase exclusively in the particularly spacious, higher variant with 1750 millimetres interior height. Hinged and sliding doors were also on offer, as well as a large range of door combinations.
In 1968, the OM 615 pre-chamber diesel engine with 2.2 litres displacement and an output of 44 kW replaced the original OM 621 two-litre engine. In 1974, the new OM 616 diesel engine, which had a displacement of 2.4 litres and an output of 48 kW, came on the scene. The model designations changed accordingly. From now on this newly strengthened Düsseldorf van was known as L 407 D rather than L 406 D. In 1982 a 53 kW variant of the OM 616 entered the field.
The base engine had already had competition from an engine with greater displacement for a long time. From 1968 onwards a new model enriched the programme, the L 408 D. The L 408 D's 59 kW were developed by a unit from the 300 engine series. New weight variants came along equipped with this 3.8 litre engine: the large-capacity van now conquered the five and six tonne categories.
Swiftly on to higher weights
The desire to be freed from the constraints of the truck had thus been aroused. In 1977, Mercedes-Benz extended the choice of engines by adding a big-brother OM 352 six-cylinder unit with an output of 96 kW to the OM 314 four-cylinder engine. Meanwhile, the maximum permissible weight for the six-tonner had risen from 5900 kilograms (1970) to 6500 kilograms (1973). More than ever before, the 5.7 litre six-cylinder in-line engine with 96 kW rated output made it possible for the 6.5-tonner to perform impressively, even in difficult circumstances, e.g., with a heavy site caravan in tow.
And yet it was not just the engines that grew in diversity and power. In 1972, a particularly long wheelbase of 4100 millimetres extended the possibilities for the L 508 D and L 608 D pickup models. The panel vans of the same model were also able to benefit from this wheelbase from 1974 onwards. An extra-high panel van version made 1900 millimetres of interior height possible instead of the previous maximum of 1750 millimetres.
In 1980, the 5 and 6-tonne panel van versions with 4100 millimetre wheelbases also grew in width. As an alternative to the 2100 millimetre wide models and with volume-oriented customers in mind, Mercedes-Benz offered another model with an exterior width of 2400 millimetres and interior height of 1930 millimetres. This increased load volume by almost 20 percent from 17.5 to 20.8 cubic metres. The German postal service welcomed this with open arms.
The O 309 bus also profited from the long 4100 millimetre wheelbase, which was available in the bus sector from 1975 and which from 1979 could be combined with the option of a particularly spacious variant, featuring an exterior width of 2450 millimetres instead of the usual 2100 millimetres. Among the positive consequences of the long 4100 millimetre wheelbase for passenger transport were its “25+1” instead of “21+1” seats.
Careful model refinements
Careful refinements throughout the long course of their production period ensured that the Düsseldorf vans always remained up-to-date. In 1977, for example, the series went through an extensive model refinement process, which resulted in the addition of modern tail lights and rubber-protected bumpers to its outward appearance. On the inside, life was made easier for the driver by a new dashboard and wind-down windows instead of the sliding windows that had been standard up till then. The quarterlights in the doors were made into ventilation windows. In addition to this, there were new control levers and handles, as well as a steering wheel with a pleasant-to-the-touch, easy-to-grip cover.
Finally, in 1981 came a new, anthracite-coloured plastic radiator grille and a wide bumper made of plastic. At the same time, the Düsseldorf plant also refurbished the interior panelling of the large-capacity vans, which greatly reduced noise level in the cab.
The Düsseldorf vans proved to be virtually indestructible, not only individually but also as a species. Production, which had started in 1967, lasted for almost 20 years (without counting 20 units produced in 1966) and only ceased in 1986. Precisely 496,447 units with the internal code numbers 309 and 310 were released into the big wide world and made a name for themselves during this period. Mercedes-Benz also delivered almost 50,000 parts kits for assembly to plants in Argentina, Spain, Tunisia, Iran and Turkey.
The question of whether the successor model, the T2 presented in 1986, had a hard act to follow or whether it was born with all the advantages of a large and successful family is purely academic. One thing is for sure: above the Sprinter and T1 model series, the T2, with gross weight ratings of up to 7.5 tonnes, covered an even wider range of applications than its predecessor and continued to capitalise on the niche between classic van and light-weight truck.
Even though the model series has gone through further modifications over time and now bears the name Vario, it still successfully carries on exactly this tradition. Its individual “button nose” provides a direct reminder of the Düsseldorf vans presented in 1967 – this typical characteristic living on in the Vario large-capacity van series today. Just like the Düsseldorf van and the T2 before it, the Mercedes Vario is proving to be a true all-rounder and still forms a class of its own.
L 206/L 207 round off the programme at the lower end
Until the lightweight counterpart called the T1 followed the “Düsseldorfer” in 1977, the scene was occupied for seven years by a kind of “Tempo with star”, as commercial vehicle chronicler Werner Oswald put it. The Matador delivery van, built by Tempo-Werk in Hamburg-Harburg, survived relatively unscathed until the 1960s thanks to three model refinement cycles. Having taken over Tempo-Werk in 1965, in 1969 Rheinstahl-Hanomag AG combined all its vehicle activities in Hanomag-Henschel-Fahrzeugwerke GmbH (HHF). This conglomerate included the Hanomag parent plant in Hanover-Linden, the former Tempo-Werk factory in Hamburg, the former main Borgward plant in Bremen, and the Henschel truck factory in Kassel.
Daimler-Benz in turn took a stake in HHF, initially 51 percent, and then completely took over the company on January 1, 1971. The sole surviving HHF product would be the light van that descended from the Tempo Matador. From 1970 on it also was available with the three-pointed star on the grille.
This vehicle now rounded off the Daimler-Benz range a further step down the scale and remained on sale until 1977. During the Hanomag-Henschel era, this light van in the (approx.) 1.5 tonne class was available with either a 37 kW two-litre diesel unit from Mercedes-Benz or a British Austin carburettor engine. Under the names L 206 D (2.4 and 2.7 tonnes gross weight) and L 307 D (3.0 and 3.3 tonnes gross weight) the vehicle then entered the Mercedes-Benz range from 1970, now powered exclusively by a 40 kW diesel with 2-litre displacement. In January 1972 this engine was replaced by the appreciably more powerful 2.2 litre diesel which, like its predecessor, was still designated OM 615.
In January 1973 Daimler-Benz then gave this van a chassis of simpler design, but left the face of the vehicle unchanged. Steering and brakes were optimised. The front-wheel drive remained too. From 1972 the cab featured an improved seat and pendant pedals; new exterior mirrors were fitted.
And so this oldie survived until 1977, when the new T1 light van finally brought about its demise.
Sloping side windows appear for the first time in the TN
The TN series was announced by Daimler-Benz as “the Mercedes among vans” – a new vehicle concept launched in 1977 with models in the gross vehicle weight range between 2.5 and 3.5 tonnes. The distinctive short-nose vans, soon to be joined by a 4.6 tonne GVW version and produced at a later stage in Düsseldorf, remained in production for 18 years and set the standards through to the mid-1990s. Design-wise, with their sloping side windows they even blazed a trail for the entire truck and van range.
The special emphasis placed on the brand was quite deliberate. The new, extremely versatile TN series had more in common with passenger cars – in terms of ride and operational comfort – than any van series before it.
At the time, globalisation as we know it today was becoming an increasing phenomenon and in a sense was already beginning to leave its mark on the new van series. The latter's range of application was wider than that of any other vehicle category. The vans, produced in Bremen, were to prove themselves as large-capacity passenger cars, crewbuses and minibuses, as mobile homes and ambulances and as hard-working panel vans, pickups and tippers.
Broad-based product portfolio
The vans' geographical spectrum of application was also broader than that of the majority of other vehicle categories. They were to move along smoothly with the traffic in big European cities and cope as express delivery vans on the major international European highways, as well as on the poor, bumpy roads and tracks in overseas export markets. No fewer than 252 variants available as standard ex factory formed the smallest common denominator in meeting all of these demands at the time the series was launched in 1977.
The specifications docket requested additional virtues in the new TN series with models 207, 307 D, 208 and 308, namely outstanding economic efficiency and reliability, ease of servicing and repair and rational production including suitability for CKD (completely knocked down) assembly. The time the development engineers had invested in this difficult task paid off: the new vans were soon known as vehicles without virtually any teething troubles.
It was for a good reason that Daimler-Benz abandoned the previously customary configuration of cab-over-engine with front axle drive and frame for the new van series, later popularly referred to as T1. On the new light vans from Bremen, the short nose was clearly more distinctive than on the large L 406 D and L 408 vans launched in 1967 and produced in Düsseldorf – and they benefited from this new design in two different ways. First, it was possible to fit the doors behind the front axle, thereby keeping the entrance at a conveniently low level. And second, the short nose greatly facilitated the regular and not so regular inspection and servicing work. Rather than having to fumble inside the vehicle, all that was required with the short-nose vehicle was to open a flap at the front to check on oil, water and brake fluid levels.
Making life easy for the mechanics
This design also made it easy for workshop mechanics to carry out the entire range of repairs – through to engine replacement. A 1977 brochure discretely pointed to this advantage, saying: “Should the engine have to be replaced at some stage, the favourable front-end design reduces removal and installation times considerably.” It goes without saying that Daimler-Benz also used this short-nose design for enhancing passive safety: the front end was designed to absorb impact energy, giving the TN a crumple zone that was unique among vans at the time.
Drivers and co-drivers welcomed the accommodation of the engine under the short bonnet, because this meant that it did not take up any space in the interior. In the Bremen vans, through-cab access to the other side and to the load compartment in panel vans was no problem whatsoever.
Several reasons spoke in favour of a return to conventional rear-wheel drive – as a commercial vehicle, the van needed tractive power, and that was best generated where the load is placed and the greatest weight acts on the axle: at the rear. Rear-wheel drive with propeller shaft also recommended itself for reasons of economic efficiency, since this allowed Daimler-Benz to use the manual and automatic transmissions already produced in large numbers. And finally, the new self-supporting body concept (integral design of frame and box body) ensured that the loading edge was kept at the desired low level despite having rear-wheel drive.
Distinctive yet functional design
The design may have been distinctive, but first and foremost it was down to earth and functional. The side windows extending far down and forwards continued the rising bonnet line, while at the same time providing an unimpeded view. The load compartment's cubic shape was designed to provide as much load space as possible: 9.6 cubic metres in the largest version, with practically vertical walls and box-shaped wheelhouses. It was therefore easy for drivers to stack parcels securely.
Another characteristic feature of the crewbus, minibus and panel van was a lateral roof frame that rose towards the rear, giving the van a certain stylistic appeal and permitting the use of large doors of uniform size. The hinged rear-end doors always reached up to the roof and provided access to the load compartment over the latter's entire width. The Bremen vans were thus also well prepared for the transport of bulky items. Sliding doors in the left-hand, right-hand or both sides were optionally available ex factory, as well as hinged rear-end doors with an opening angle of 270 degrees (standard: 90 to180 degrees).
The driver's workplace was generous in its comfort features. The new vans were equipped as standard with a driver's seat that was adjustable along the longitudinal axis as well as for height. Behind the two-spoke steering wheel with thick foam padding was the clearly structured instrument panel, providing all the relevant information at a glance and directly within the driver's field of vision. The large windscreen offering an excellent angle of vision ensured a panoramic view of what was happening in front of the vehicle. Heating and ventilation operated with a two-stage blower, and the synchronised four-speed transmission made light work of smooth and precise gearshifts. The new recirculating ball steering did its job with both ease and precision, and the turning circle of just 10.9 metres could put some passenger cars to shame. The company didn't exaggerate when it promised its customers that: “driving the new Mercedes van feels much like driving a car.”
Powerful engines, five-speed manual transmission
Powerful engines played their part in making the driver's job behind the wheel as easy as possible. There was a choice of two, already tried-and-tested four-cylinder units: a highly responsive, smooth-running 2.4 litre diesel with an output of 48 kW and a 63 kW petrol engine with 2.3 litre displacement and a low (8:1) compression ratio, ensuring that the engine could get by on regular grade petrol. With the introduction of the 407 D 4.6 tonne variant in 1981, the engine range was complemented by a 2.4 litre version of the OM 616 pre-chamber diesel engine with its output boosted to 53 kW; this engine was also installed in vehicles with gross weights between 2.5 and 3.5 tonnes from 1982.
The new OM 617 five-cylinder with 3-litre displacement and an output of 65 kW was optionally available for all weight categories from 1982. Similarly, output figures for petrol-engined vans also increased: the M 102 carburettor engine produced for all weight categories from 1982 developed 70 kW. The new engines were introduced at the same time as five-speed manual transmissions replaced the original four-speed gearboxes, and a four-speed automatic transmission was also brought in at this time.
The Bremen vans did well out of being kept up-to-date in this way. By 1986, the number of units sold was approaching the half-million mark. Strictly speaking, they were no longer entitled to the name “Bremen” vans, since the corporation had moved production of the TN series to the Düsseldorf plant, the production site for large vans, in 1983 and 1984, so as to use the former Borgward plant in Bremen for car and estate production. Düsseldorf had started producing T1 vans in parallel as early as 1980.
Major facelift in 1989
In Düsseldorf, the TN series was subjected to a comprehensive model refinement in 1989, enabling it to continue on its successful course with slightly modified looks and new engines until it was replaced by the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter in 1995. The head of Commercial Vehicle Testing, Ernst Göhring, had announced the new OM 601 and OM 602 engines as “milestones in diesel engine combustion” – they had been designed for higher output and torque, greater fuel economy and reduced pollutant emissions. The new engine generation was closely related to the passenger car diesel engines, but had increased displacement per cylinder.
The 2.3 litre four-cylinder developed 55 kW, the new five-cylinder with 2.9 litre displacement 70 kW. Not only had rated engine speed dropped (from 4400 rpm to 3800 rpm) but engine weight also: the new diesel engines weighed about 50 kilograms less than their predecessors. And their high torque ratings made it possible to use high-geared transmissions, cutting engine speeds by up to 24 percent. This significantly reduced both noise level and fuel consumption.
Externally, the model-refined vans could be recognised above all by the front pillar panelling of the high-roof versions, additional fairing on the rain runnel on all other models and a new bumper without slots. These modifications alone improved aerodynamic efficiency by between eight and 25 percent, depending on the type of body. More economical engines, reduced engine speeds and more streamlined bodies: all these factors combined to reduce fuel consumption – e.g. by just under 23 percent in the standard-roof panel van driven at a constant 100 km/h.
The T1 remained in production for 18 years; the last of the 969,751 vans produced of this successful series came off the assembly line in 1995. The record year – following German reunification – was 1991 with more than 71,000 units produced.
But even in the last year of T1 production, capacity at the Düsseldorf plant was still fully utilised. The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, successor to the T1 and also produced in Düsseldorf, would follow in its predecessor's footsteps with style.
Advent of the MB 100
During the year 1987, Mercedes paired the T1 with a lightweight brother, which was built at Vitoria in the Basque region of northern Spain. This was the MB 100, the hallmarks of which were a tubular frame, COE design, longitudinally mounted front engine, front-wheel drive, and major assemblies supplied by Daimler-Benz. To all intents and purposes the MB was a child of Auto Union, which once owned a plant there in northern Spain. Having undergone several changes of hands, this plant finally came entirely under the umbrella of Daimler-Benz – the Group had acquired Auto Union back in 1959. In Germany the MB 100 began its career as a 2.8-tonner; in Spain it was available with up to 3.5 tonnes GVW.
Typical characteristics of this van were its angular body and a number of technical features that could be traced to the history of the series: tubular frame, front-mounted engine in the cab of the forward-control body, drive to the front wheels. The engine was a typical representative of the brand with the three-pointed star: the diesel was very familiar from the 240 D passenger car (“taxi diesel”) and as a four-cylinder unit developed 53 kW from a 2.4-litre displacement.
A few years later, having undergone an external makeover, an MB 100 D caused something of a sensation as a technology carrier in 1994: The NECAR (New Electric Car) was the world’s first car equipped with fuel cell drive. The NECAR remained a one-off, although the Spaniards produced no fewer than 207,000 examples of the series as a whole.
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