Rigorous realisation of innovative vehicle concepts
Body design polarised in appearance
Automotive industry of the day injected with important new ideas
The rear-positioned engine was the driving force behind the earliest pioneering vehicles. Created independently of one another in 1886, the world’s first two automobiles, the Patent Motor Car of Carl Benz and the Motor Carriage of Gottlieb Daimler, both had rear engines. The construction principle of the four-wheeled rear-engine car was widely used up to the turn of the twentieth century, above all in two-seater sports vehicles. Thereafter it became the exception, and the great majority of cars had engines positioned in front of the passengers.
The concept was revived in 1934, when Mercedes-Benz presented the 130 model. This was the first fully-developed mass-produced rear-engine car both in brand history and indeed in the entire history of the automobile – a tradition that now spanned almost half a century.
The starting point for the development of the 130 model was the difficult economic situation of the early 1930s and, in particular, the hoped-for mass motorisation, in which all automotive manufacturers were keen to have a slice of the action. This forced all of them to develop smaller and more affordable vehicles – the Mercedes-Benz brand, in particular, was reputed for producing mainly elegant and expensive models. Germany increasingly focused on the concept of the Volkswagen or ‘people’s car’, a designation which at the time denoted a category and general orientation rather than a specific vehicle.
Daimler-Benz AG did not blind itself to the requirements of the day, however, producing instead a fundamentally new concept, the rear-engine car. The principle reasons, viewed from its own perspective, were documented in the original sales brochures of the 1930s: a rear-mounted engine permitted better use of space. In cars with a relatively short wheelbase, this not only afforded passengers more leg room, it also improved comfort by creating optimum springing between the axles. In addition, the entire drive unit could be focused in a single unit and required no propshaft, giving vehicles the additional benefit of reduced weight and transmission losses.
It was perhaps to be anticipated that although the concept underwent continual refinements over the years, finally reaching maturity in the shape of the Mercedes-Benz 170 H of 1936, ultimately the rear-engine car never really caught on. What follows on these pages, therefore, is a fine example of the consistent application of progressive vehicle concepts throughout the long history of Daimler AG.
Launched by the then DaimlerChrysler AG in 1998, the smart city-coupé, known from 2004 onwards as the fortwo, was also based on the basic idea of a rear-engine vehicle, with optimum use of space and rigorously advancing the concept in the form of a two-seater city vehicle.
The 130 model has the honour of being the concept that took rear-engine design to a new level and made it more widely known, following its earlier implementation in a few individual mini cars – even before the car that would later achieve fame as the “VW Beetle”. The first Beetle prototype did not get under way until October 1935. In 1937 Daimler AG was commissioned to build a further 30 prototypes at the Sindelfingen plant for the purpose of more intensive testing. Volkswagenwerk GmbH was founded in 1938, although with the outbreak of war, series production of the Beetle did not begin until 1945. The rear-engine vehicle finally went on sale to the public in 1946, around twelve years after the Mercedes-Benz 130.
A successor to the 130 model appeared in 1936. As the only rear-engine model available, the Mercedes-Benz 170 H was unique in carrying the letter “H” (for “Heckmotor”) in its model designation, in order to distinguish it from the front-engine Mercedes-Benz 170 V presented at the same time. The 170 H, which remained a part of the model range until 1939, put an end to many of the disadvantages of its predecessor, and offered much improved handling characteristics.
The two-seater Mercedes-Benz 150 with coupé body was also entered for the “2000 km through Germany” event of 1934. This car was based on a mid-engine concept, but nevertheless ranked alongside these distinctive vehicles. Designed specifically for sports events, it played a special role, since the 130 and 170 H models were passenger cars for everyday use. The open-top variant of the competition car, the Mercedes-Benz 150 Sport Roadster, subsequently made its debut at the IAMA in Berlin in 1935. It became part of the official sales range and was offered until 1936 – although built only in extremely small unit numbers.
The rear-engine models were the rigorous realisation of a technical vision. Part of this rigour also involved body design, for with a front radiator no longer required the entire vehicle could now take on a different shape. The models therefore differed fundamentally in appearance from the traditional front-engine vehicles, which – particularly in the case of Mercedes-Benz – had traditionally been heavily determined by the classical, almost iconographic radiator grille. Now, the front end of all rear-engine vehicles appeared rounded, some with three-pointed star mounted inside a circle
(130 model), others with a three-pointed star without circle (170 H model), and yet others with the free-standing Mercedes star (150 model) still familiar today.
Without doubt, these divergences from traditional design concepts played a significant part in the failure of rear-engine vehicles to gain the expected foothold in the market. But when one looks at these cars today, particularly the 170 H model, it is impossible to deny their progressive nature – all the more apparent when they stand alongside other cars of their generation.
As a result of their weight distribution, rear-engine cars are often criticised for poor handling characteristics. If corners are taken too quickly, there is a tendency for the vehicle to oversteer – in other words, for the rear end to slide towards the outside of the turn. Since the laws of physics are at the root of the phenomenon, it is a tendency that exists in rear-engine vehicles of all manufacturers. Contemporary driving reports on Mercedes-Benz vehicles tested this tendency and were not sparing in their criticism. But they also said that drivers could – and indeed had to – adjust to this phenomenon in order to drive safely at all times. It was also noted that in the 170 H, a late evolutionary stage of the rear-engine vehicle, handling characteristics were more balanced thanks to a comprehensive range of design measures. And compared with its counterpart with front-mounted engine, the 170 V, the 170 H even came off better in terms of suspension comfort, noise, drag and performance.
In the sum of their qualities, the rear-engine vehicles were also in line with the traditional Mercedes-Benz claim of giving customers the best whatever the vehicle model. As such, these vehicles offered active proof of the technological leadership of Daimler-Benz AG.