The lightweight among commercial vehicles: The history of the Mercedes-Benz vans
Stuttgart
Mar 31, 2010
Major strategic product initiative launched in 1995
  • New vans set the ball rolling
  • Sprinter van sets new standards
  • Alternative drive systems brought to production standard
In the first half of the 1990s almost all Mercedes-Benz commercial vehicle series were beginning to get on in years. MB 100 D, van or medium-duty truck: all were past their prime. The T1, for example, dated back to 1977; the light Wörth trucks, to 1984. And even the T2 would soon turn ten. The SK likewise was getting a bit long in the tooth.
Daimler-Benz decided to make a clean sweep of things. Getting this radical cure under way under the slogan “grand strategic product initiative” was a new van which would be the company's first commercial vehicle to be known by a name instead of an abbreviation or combination of numbers. The newcomer was called “Sprinter” and took up the technical concept of its predecessor with a longitudinally installed front-mounted engine and rear-wheel drive.
The Sprinter arrives
When Mercedes-Benz introduced the Sprinter in spring 1995, it heralded a strategic model initiative for commercial vehicles the like of which had never before been experienced at the company. In an unprecedented tour de force, with the Sprinter making the start, and with Vito, Vario, Actros and Atego soon to follow, within 36 months completely new vans and trucks were on the market in all weight classes. Even though all have been thoroughly further developed or even entirely reengineered in the meantime, to this day they form the backbone of the Mercedes-Benz brand’s commercial vehicles.
The Sprinter had a hard act to follow in 1995. It was the successor to the T1 van, also referred to internally as the “Bremen” van, named after the site in North Germany where it was first manufactured. This Bremen van was regarded as a paradigm of longevity, solidity and reliability. In 18 long production years Mercedes-Benz built almost a million units of this model series with the distinctive, angular, short bonnet.
Target in the 3.5-tonne class
Similar to its predecessor, the Sprinter began its career with four gross vehicle weights from 2.59 to 4.6 tonnes. It was available as a panel van, crewbus, chassis, pickup, and with a crewcab, all of these versions in three wheelbase lengths, and the closed-body variants additionally with two roof heights. The Sprinter targeted mainly the 3.5 tonne GVW class, this tonnage marking an important dividing line in a great many European countries as far as driving licences and traffic regulations were concerned. The Sprinter was already in a class of its own at its 1995 launch: semi-forward control, high-traction rear-wheel drive, timelessly modern looks, spacious cab, an extensive engine range rounded off by a direct-injection diesel unit which was as powerful as it was economical.
The Sprinter lined up with three different engines. Interest focused mainly on the OM 602 DELA, a direct-injection turbodiesel with 2.9 litre displacement and five cylinders. With its output of 90 kW and peak torque of 280 Newton metres it took performance to new record levels for vans of this type. Distributor pump, electronic control and exhaust gas recirculation are characteristics of this engine.
It was complemented by a tried and tested, smooth-running pre-chamber diesel engine developing 58 kW from 2.3 litres piston displacement and by a zippy four-cylinder petrol unit (likewise with a displacement of 2.3 litres) delivering power of 105 kW. A newly developed five-speed manual transmission transferred the power to the rear axle. For each version there were at least two different final drive ratios to choose from. As alternative to the manual box, a fully automatic four-speed torque converter transmission followed a short time later.
The new Mercedes-Benz van was good for a road speed of up to 160 km/h and not only lived up to its name, but quickly put tyre manufacturers on the spot, since few tyres at the time boasted the proper speed index.
Highest safety standards
Not just high performance, highest safety too played a crucial role in the Sprinter. From the outset the Sprinter had disc brakes on all wheels. The anti-lock braking system ABS and an automatic brake differential (ABD) were standard equipment in many countries. And then there was the driver airbag, also a standard feature in Germany and many other countries. With that the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter set new standards for safety in its category, as it did in many other areas.
Along with investing intensive effort in the advancement of conventional drive technology, the engineers also developed alternative drive systems to the production stage in combination with the Sprinter. One year after the launch of the new van it was already available as the electrically powered 308 E Sprinter. The water-cooled asynchronous motor, output 40 kW, got its energy from maintenance-free lead-gel batteries. The energy rating of 29 kWh sufficed to travel a distance of 65 to 80 km.
Natural gas drive to match the petrol engine
At the same time the first NGT Sprinters with natural gas drive (NGT=Natural Gas Technology) were being used by customers. The engine, featuring a new kind of sequential injection technology, developed 92 kW and practically could take on the conventional petrol engine for performance. With gas cylinders mounted underfloor, the vehicles had a range of 200 to 250 km. In spring 1997 this Sprinter with natural gas drive went into series production. Five years later, liquefied gas – also called liquid petroleum gas or LPG – was the fuel for ten Sprinters which Mercedes-Benz tested in a long-term study beginning in 2002 in Dortmund and would later deliver as an alternative to NGT. Owing to a bivalent drive system these vehicles can operate alternatively with liquefied gas or petrol.
But this was all still up in the air when Mercedes-Benz introduced a Sprinter version with all-wheel drive in 1997. This Sprinter for difficult traction conditions, as could be encountered in snow or at building sites, had an electro-pneumatically engageable front-wheel drive – optionally also an additional off-road ratio and a locking differential – and was built much higher off the ground for more clearance. Permanent all-wheel drive would follow later.
150,000 units built by 2005
What with all these innovations, no wonder the Sprinter quickly set out to outstrip the proven T1. At the Düsseldorf van plant where the T1 was manufactured during the second half of its life, Mercedes-Benz initially planned the daily output of 400 Sprinters in two shifts. However, after a very few years the annual production levelled out at more than 500 vans per day in three-shift operation. Production pushing the limits of capacity became the normal case for the Sprinter. At the end of its career, in 2005 the Sprinter even attained a new production record with around 150,000 units – a great compliment for a very mature van in the prime of life.
It owed this to a tailor-made concept. The numerous body and weight variants of the Sprinter scored a bull's-eye with potential buyers. At the same time the Sprinter impressed through engines with outstanding capabilities. The characteristic features of the Sprinter furthermore included its timeless-progressive design and the spacious, very functionally equipped cab whose appointments now almost reached passenger car level in terms of their design and material.
Behind this success were both individual buyers, from craftsmen through self-employed courier service operators to the owners of fine camper vans like the Mercedes-Benz James Cook, as well as fleets like that of Deutsche Post AG: the postal service ordered more than 9000 Sprinters in one go in the year 2000. But equally at the root of this success was the ongoing, well-aimed improvement of the bestseller.
An updated Sprinter takes the field in the second half
With the start of the second part of the lifecycle in 2000, Mercedes-Benz further upgraded both the outward appearance and equipment of the cab. The Sprinter was now characterised by a deeply drawn-down bonnet into which the star harmoniously extended. A lengthier front end stretched the Sprinter's silhouette. Newly designed headlamps illuminated the road ahead better; the front apron was given two integrated steps to permit easier cleaning of the windscreen.
In the cab, the eye was drawn above all to the redesigned, curved instrument panel. In its design and the quality of its material it attained passenger car standard, especially in the Sprinter crewbus variants with a soft, leatherlike surface (“Softlook”), available for the other Sprinters as an optional extra. Along with added comfort details such as a cup holder and stowage facilities, particularly the shift lever in the form of a joystick caught attention. Positioned within easy reach on the centre console, it permitted full through-cab access.
As of the comprehensive facelift the driver airbag was included in the standard equipment of the Sprinter. A co-driver airbag was available as an optional extra; as a double airbag it also protected the passenger seated on the inside of a twin seat. Now all seats of the Sprinter were fitted with three-point seat belts, even the centre seats in the rear of the crewbus and the inside seat of a twin co-driver's seat. The longer front end further enhanced crash safety. Windowbags were soon also available. Headlamps with free-form reflectors lit up the roadway better. A new generation of the ABS with a still higher performance level also arrived, in conjunction with which the automatic brake differential (ABD) evolved into the acceleration skid control (ASR).
New generation of diesel engines
At the same time a new generation of diesel engines and the automated Sprintshift transmission were put to work in the Sprinter. The CDI engines with four and five cylinders and displacements of 2.15 and 2.7 litres had outputs ranging from 60 to 115 kW. The most powerful engine not only offered the highest power rating in its class; it also featured the impressive (for that time) maximum torque of 330 Newton metres. Common-rail injection, four-valves-per-cylinder technology, and in the higher output categories an exhaust gas turbocharger with variable turbine geometry were the latest cry in technology. With an eye to safety the stop speed was limited to 160 km/h.
Alternatively to the shift lever of the manually operated five-speed transmission power transmission could now be handled by Sprintshift, an automated six-speed manual transmission featuring electrohydraulic gearshifting and automatic clutch actuation.
The Sprinter grows to become a six-tonner
But things didn't stay that way for long. At the start of 2001 Mercedes-Benz substantially enlarged the range with the Sprinter 616 CDI. It was available as chassis, pickup and with crewcab, with 5.99 tonnes gross vehicle weight and with a load-derated 5.0 tonnes GVW. Characterised by a straight frame from front to back (without the offset otherwise customary in the Sprinter), a twin-tyred rear axle with high load-carrying capacity, and a particularly wide track, the top-of-the-line model appealed to users who depended on high payloads to transport heavy goods.
With tailor-made industry solutions of its bestseller, Mercedes-Benz also reached the trades, service providers and courier services. The vehicles were manufactured in close cooperation with specialised body-builders. Vehicles specifically for electricians, plumbers, refrigerated transport, bodies for the construction field completed the range in this way. Courier services were happy with the lightweight box body with a load capacity of up to 16.6 cubic metres from Daimler subsidiary Westfalia Van Conversion, or the detail of a practical folding seat on the co-driver's side for easier through-cab access.
Next milestone is ESP®
In 2002 the Sprinter was upgraded again. Clear-lens headlamps and red-and-white tail lights emphasised the distinctive lines of the van and improved its functionality. The light output of the headlamps increased once more. A modified radiator grille and white side indicator repeaters rounded off the new look.
But more important still were the innovations under the sheet metal. They included a larger brake booster and, in particular, the use of the Electronic Stability Program ESP® as standard equipment (in Germany and many other countries) in all closed-body versions of the Sprinter up to 3.5 tonnes GVW – another first in safety in this vehicle class. Two years later ESP® was also part of the standard equipment of all Sprinter chassis models up to 3.5 tonnes GVW.
A look at the future of the van
Paralleling these developments for the series, again and again exciting studies pointed the way to future transport solutions for light commercial vehicles especially in short-range distribution work. The ambitious 1998 study “Vanessa”, for example, opened the doors for the driver when he got in or out. A space-saving inward-folding door on the right side of the Sprinter was tailored to meet cramped inner-city traffic conditions, as was the reversing camera. GPS for positioning and an order management system in the vehicle, combined for up-to-the-minute, flexible trip planning, was still a long way off in the series. Essential elements of the study were realised in the second generation of Sprinter from 2006.
Two years later Mercedes-Benz presented the Lightweight Sprinter, developed in collaboration with the University of Stuttgart. A body made of aluminium, plus as much weight-saving light alloy as possible in the bodyshell, springs made of glass fibre-reinforced plastic as well as an optimised driver's workstation pointed a way to the future of parcel service.
A further year on, the Mobile Black Office study underscored the versatility of the Sprinter for special professional uses. Conference seating, DP and multimedia equipment, a folding bed in the rear, a compact galley and fine materials describe a mobile workstation of first-rate quality.
The Innovative Safety Vehicle defined this workplace from a very different perspective at the 2004 IAA International Commercial Vehicle Show: low-view windows in the cab, reflecting side strips, exterior mirrors with direction indicators, bi-xenon headlamps with Add-Light system and cornering light function, poor-weather and daytime driving lights showed what was currently feasible in terms of van safety equipment, as did a partition made of advanced composites and, for load securing, rails in the floor, sidewalls and roof with locking bars or braces. The adaptive Electronic Stability Program ESP® responds to differing vehicle loads, the active roll stabilisation counteracts heel.
A lane-change assist with short-range sensors and the Distronic proximity control assisted the driver, as did a tyre pressure monitoring feature or the variable-ratio cross-drive steering system. Here again, many of the innovations would reappear in the future generation of the Sprinter as standard or optional equipment items.
Glittering debut in the New World
The Sprinter had long since conquered the New World too, establishing itself in the USA and Canada since 2002. The North American group brand Freightliner handled final assembly and distributed the vehicle under its own name and for the Dodge brand. Sharply rising new-registration figures (18,900 units at the last count) show the growing interest in the equally safe and economical Sprinter. In China a new van plant is emerging whose purpose will be to open up the Asian markets to the Sprinter.
Sprinter is now on the road in more than 100 countries around the globe. The King of Tonga is chauffeured around in a Sprinter boasting a particularly fine finish; extreme athlete Hubert Schwarz is rounding the globe by bicycle with an all-wheel-drive Sprinter as back up.
Little wonder that with successes like this to show the Sprinter has been the recipient of numerous prizes and trophies in the course of its career. Winner of “Van of the Year” in various countries, the “German Commercial Vehicle Prize”, multiple winner in the van category in the voting for “Best Commercial Vehicles”, and in the category “Camper Van of the Year” in the James Cook camper van version – the Sprinter is one of the most highly decorated vans of all time.
With a total of almost 1.4 million vehicles sold, the first-generation Sprinter of 1995-2006 was the bestseller in its class in Europe and acquired a legendary reputation: meanwhile, the 3.5 tonne gross vehicle weight commercial vehicle category has been named Sprinter class after it.
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