Fascinating innovation and ingenious disregard for convention: using modern technology to produce such a groundbreaking vehicle has always been the engineer's desire. In the history of Mercedes-Benz this vision has been realized time and again. Since 1997 also the A-Class has represented this engineering achievement and ambition. Before the A-Class there was the Vision A 93 in 1993 and the Study A based on it in 1994. Both vehicles already demonstrated the concept to a large extent.
Looking further back in DaimlerChrysler's history shows that the ideas which were most important in the design of the A-Class have always inspired inventors. The Benz Velo and Mercedes-Benz 130 models given as examples in the following do not serve as actual precursors, however they are the best illustration of the inventiveness of the design engineers. The Benz Velo set the car world on its head in 1894 just like its great-grandson did a good hundred years later - the world had never seen such a compact and simultaneously state-of-the-art automobile at the end of the 19th century. And the Mercedes-Benz 130 of the 1930s with its rear-mounted engine is an example that engineers get off the beaten track in order to achieve completely novel concepts.
The Benz Velo initiated a paradigm change
Carl Benz wanted to develop an inexpensive and preferably lightweight motor car. To do this the design engineer looked beyond current automobile design which was still influenced by coach construction and borrowed from the bicycle. The Velo took its name from the latter as well as its wire spoke wheels. The modern Ackermann steering however came from the luxury-class Benz Victoria car, launched in 1893. The filigree Velo, launched in 1894, weighed barely 280 kilograms and was thus much lighter than the Benz Victoria. In its first version with a 1045 cubic centimeter displacement, its single-cylinder engine developed as much as 1.5 hp (1.1 kW) at 450 rpm and accelerated the car to a top speed of 20 km/h. Three forwards gears and one reverse gear provided distribution of the engine power.
With the Velo, Benz became the world’s biggest motor manufacturer. With more than 1200 units produced, it was considered the first ever series-produced automobile. This figure may not sound like a lot today but if we think back to those times it takes on a whole new perspective: the automobile was still very much a novelty - it was only eight years since its invention in 1886. It was still a very rare sight on the streets; individual mobility on wheels was still dominated by the horse-drawn carriage - for many people this was the only thing they knew. The automobile completely redefined the world of transport - and, as for every person and every thing, which radically changes long-held ideas it did not have an easy start. Everywhere there were restrictions on the new means of transport, and many people were still very afraid of coming into contact with this machine which sought to move people about by means of controlled explosions inside a strange-looking machine rather than with a real live horse. Could it work?
It worked extremely well, as we now know. Carl Benz (and also independently of him Gottlieb Daimler) managed to have their idea and finally also the Velo accepted - the 1200 units produced thus testified to the paradigm change from the horse-drawn carriage to the automobile. The appearance alone clearly illustrated this: next to horse-drawn carriages the Benz Velo appeared extremely light and agile with its filigree steel construction.
With series production, Benz opened up a completely new chapter for the automotive industry. This was because series production allowed efficient manufacturing which resulted in a comparatively low purchase price. With these qualities - readily available and favorably priced - the Velo was a milestone on the way to mass motorization.
The profit margin may have been lower than for a large, expensive automobile yet multiplied many times it turned into a sum which was a very positive addition to the balance sheet. Likewise increased was the brand equity which became better known and this in turn had a positive effect on sales of the larger models from the same company. These rules, as applied for the first time in the automotive industry with the Velo, were still valid many decades later in the design of the A-Class just as they were on the first day.
After the Velo, the ideal of the small and light car was pursued in the 8/18 hp Benz and 8/20 hp Benz models amongst others. Benz & Cie. built mainly large and heavy cars in the first years of the 20th century. However, Wilhelm Kissel in particular championed lighter vehicles which were produced using rationalized manufacturing. Kissel correctly predicted the technological and economic future of the automotive industry. In 1925 he became a member of the Boards of Management of Benz & Cie. and Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG). After the merger in 1926 Kissel was a member of the Board of Management of the newly formed Daimler-Benz AG and later became chairman of the Board of Management.
Mercedes-Benz 130 (W 23): An innovative design
In February 1934, at the Berlin Automobile Show, Mercedes-Benz presented the 130 model. This car was a sensation and with various innovative designs it showed the way of the future: the sedan, known in-house as W 23, was the first Mercedes-Benz with a rear-mounted engine as standard and the first Mercedes-Benz of the small-car class. The model stood out with its aerodynamically optimized bodywork and small exterior dimensions (2500 millimeter wheelbase, 4050 millimeter vehicle length).
Hans Nibel began designing the 130 model in 1930. Once again the engineers followed unconventional paths to produce the new automobile. One prototype was the W 17 of 1931 with an air-cooled horizontally-opposed piston engine (1200 cubic centimeter displacement) in the rear. In 1933 a diesel variant was also tested, the 175 model (W 25 D) with a three-cylinder diesel engine.
The 130 model was therefore a radical contrast to anything else in the world. Rear-mounted engine, small exterior dimensions, aerodynamically optimized bodywork - the combination of technical innovations was impressive. At the same time Mercedes-Benz indicated that with this car new customer groups were to be addressed below the previous traditional clienteles for all car categories upwards of, and including, the upper medium-size category. The 130 model was joined in 1934 by the 150 model, whose engine was situated in front of the rear axle - known today as the mid-engine concept - and which was designed to be more powerful and sporty.
It was soon found that the compact rear drive unit in the 130 model was in fact favorable for the aerodynamic design of the bodywork, but was not advantageous for handling as a lot of the weight rested on the rear axle. The engineers developed the concept further. In 1936 the 130 became the 170 H with improved cornering behavior. The "H" stood for rear-wheel drive ('Heckantrieb' in German) and served as a differentiation. When Daimler-Benz decided to produce this rear-engined car in series, nobody was able to predict how buyers would react to the unusual model. So the Stuttgart-based company developed in parallel an equivalent 1.7 liter car with a front-mounted engine. The 170 V came onto the market at the same time as the 170 H - and was so successful that it soon eclipsed the 170 H. The desire to obtain new customer groups by means of a vehicle with an unconventional design was thus put on hold. And yet it paid off: the 170 V was the small Mercedes-Benz which the brand needed in difficult economic times to boost unit figures. The Mercedes-Benz rear-engined car of the 1930s had the considerable merit of encouraging fresh thinking in order to break new ground.
Sandwich for safety
The desire for a car with very small exterior dimensions but with all of the Mercedes-Benz values began to take shape in the early 1990s. Mercedes-Benz introduced the sandwich principle where the bodywork is separated into two horizontal planes: the drive system unit is situated in front of und under the floor plate so that in a crash it dives downwards and does not penetrate the interior. This concept had its world premiere in the Mercedes-Benz A-Class at the start of 1997.
1993 - Vision A 93 and Study A
Mercedes-Benz gave the public a foretaste of the A-Class in September 1993 at the Frankfurt International Motor Show. Here the Stuttgart-based company presented their Vision A 93, a car with front-wheel drive and a novel bodywork concept, in which the engine, transmission, tank and axles were situated beneath the passenger compartment. The sandwich principle had become reality - the combination of small exterior dimensions (3350 millimeter length) with a large and variable interior as well as the Mercedes-Benz standards of safety was impressive. The Vision A 93 incorporated for example elements of the F 100 research car. The bodywork of the design study was still constructed completely from aluminum. The concept of intelligent lightweight design was developed later on for the A-Class. This is a combination of different materials such as steel, plastic, aluminum and magnesium. The vehicle design was thus optimized with regard to weight and environmental-compatibility factors as well as from a cost perspective.
The versatility of the concept was demonstrated by the Vision A 93 with its three different engines. In addition to an economical gasoline engine with 75 hp (55 kW) and a direct-injection diesel with 60 hp (44 kW), there was also a model with electric drive, which developed 44 kW. The study also showed variability in the interior. The car could be modified to suit the situation, from comfortable four-seater to flatbed with a load volume of 1000 liters. The basis for this revolutionary spatial concept was once again the novel raised floor assembly which provided a level of crash safety which had not been attained in this car category before.
In 1994 Mercedes-Benz showed the concept car, modified in details, under the name ' Study A' at the Geneva Motor Show. The American magazine "Motor Week" awarded the Study A the title "Best Concept Car 1994". And the production start-up was drawing ever nearer.