When in 1896 the very first Daimler motor truck was delivered to London and the "motorized goods vehicle" rolled along the streets of Paris, they no doubt caused quite a stir. The motorized transportation of goods was intended to improve everyone's standard of living – and it has done just that. It is well known beyond expert circles that Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler got the history of the automobile under way. But they also developed the first precursors of the modern-day truck. Mercedes-Benz is celebrating "120 years of the truck" this year, drawing attention to the fact that this milestone also bears the company's name.
A horseless carriage
A common trait of early commercial vehicles was that they looked like a horse-drawn carriage with the shafts missing, while the "virtual" horsepower was housed at the rear. The engineering was very rudimentary compared with that of present-day trucks: The "motorized goods vehicle" by Benz & Cie. was designed to carry 600 kilograms. It was derived from the Phaeton passenger car. Gottlieb Daimler's first truck carried a payload of 1.5 tonnes and was powered by a 4 hp 2-cylinder Phoenix engine. However, it would be some time before this motorized carriage succeeded in ousting its horse-drawn counterpart.
The engine migrates to the front
Only two years later, Daimler presented a 5-ton-truck with the engine and the radiator at the position in which they are predominantly still to be found today, at the front. Initially, Daimler and Benz & Cie. only introduced their commercial and goods vehicles to their international clientele in homeopathic doses, however. Daimler and Benz nevertheless remained convinced that motorized transport would eventually prevail, given that this mode of goods transport was faster, more flexible and more efficient than the customary horse-drawn carriages, ships and railways.
From 1905 until the taking over by Benz in 1911, today's Mercedes-Benz factory in Gaggenau operated under the name of "Süddeutsche Automobilfabrik GmbH". Here, the S.A.G. "Gaggenau" C/36 truck was built. A host of technical advances, such as the sectional steel frame, cast steel wheels, upright valves and pinions instead of belt drive made the early trucks more reliable, giving rise to a steady increase in sales figures.
Technological advances for trucks also were brought also by the massive military build-up during the First World War. A vehicle bearing witness to this epoch is the 45 hp, pinion-driven 4.5-tonne Daimler truck with the model designation DM 4½b, which was built at the Berlin-Marienfelde factory. Innovations such as the cardan shaft drive, the first pneumatic tires and above all the "crude oil engine" (former term for diesel engine), whose development at the Benz factories had reached production maturity by 1923/24, soon turned the truck into an economical means of transport suitable for business use.
When the two companies founded by Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz merged to form Daimler-Benz AG in 1926, they also pooled their activities in the field of commercial vehicles. Before the year was out, a surprised industry witnessed the unveiling of a complete range of commercial vehicles with a payload capacity from one to five tonnes at the Deutsche Automobil-Ausstellung motor show in Berlin.
One example from this range is the L2 model powered by a 55 hp carburettor engine. It was one of the first truck models to bear the new Mercedes-Benz brand name. The brand's central truck production plant was now in the town of Gaggenau in Germany's Baden region. Gaggenau was soon to become synonymous with the success story of the diesel engine truck.
While this new drive technology had yet to become established in widespread use in 1931, some 90 percent of German diesel trucks sported the Mercedes star on their radiators. The company had recovered quickly from the slump in sales during the Great Depression of 1929. The final breakthrough for the compression-ignition engine came in 1932 with the presentation of the Mercedes-Benz L 2000 - the world's first light-duty truck with a diesel engine.
The forward-looking two-tonner and its successors defined the light-duty segment of a comprehensive truck range culminating in the imposing three-axle L 10000 designed to carry a payload of ten tonnes. With its long-snouted hood, this was the top-of-the-range model from 1936 until 1939. Signature feature of the diesel trucks of Mercedes-Benz: the lettering "Diesel" on the radiator under the Mercedes star.
Fewer models - large numbers
The Second World War and the Schell Plan which entered into force in 1939 to reduce the variety of models caused Daimler-Benz's commercial vehicle range to shrink considerably. Along with the lighter-duty L 1500 and L 3000, new additions to the range which were produced in substantial numbers up to the end of the war such as and the robust L 4500 (right). It was powered by a 6-cylinder diesel engine producing an output of 120 hp. Summer 1944 saw the start of state-ordered L 701, which originally was an Opel Blitz 3-tonner.
Post-war boom from 1949
Production of the licensed L 701 model resumed as early as June 1945 at the Mannheim factory, which emerged from the war comparatively unscathed. Two months later brand-new L 4500s were rolling off the production line at the sister factory in Gaggenau. They were desperately needed for the reconstruction of Germany.
The UNIMOG universally applicable motorized implement was also developed at this time. During the Second World War, Albert Friedrich, who was in charge of aircraft engine development at Daimler-Benz AG for many years, came up with the idea of building an agricultural motorized implement which could boost productivity in farming. In the autumn of 1946 trials for the Unimog prototype no. 1 duly began. At first, serial production began in Göppingen at the machine tool factory of the Boehringer Brothers. In 1951, it was shifted to Gaggenau.
Daimler-Benz AG's commercial vehicles division was finally in full swing in 1949, when the L 3250 was presented as its first new development in the post-war era. With the L 3500 with a payload of 3.5 tonnes the cab-behind-engine truck began its conquest of the German market in 1950 and swiftly became a globally successful export model. It formed the basis for an entire spectrum of state-of-the-art Mercedes-Benz commercial vehicles, which from the middle of the "economic miracle" decade also included the first cab-over-engine models.
From the agile L 319 city runabout, the new transporter of Mercedes-Benz, to the quirky LP 333 "Centipede", the rounded, hoodless trucks provided a foretaste of future trends in truck design. It was the modern LP 315 cab-over-engine truck that heralded the gradually demise of the classic conventional cab truck starting in 1955.
Semi-forward control trucks
Loathe to do away entirely with the built-in crumple zone, in 1959 Mercedes-Benz' designers launched the first models of the semi-forward control series. Represented here by the medium-duty L 322, over a good three decades this design duly became the worldwide epitome of the robust and durable trucks from Mercedes-Benz, in countless variants spanning all weight categories.
But in long-distance haulage at least, from the mid-1960s the age of the conventional-cab truck was finally over: strict length regulations and weight-dependent minimum outputs expedited the development of modern cab-over-engine trucks and powerful diesel engines, which were offered as efficient direct-injection engines across the Mercedes-Benz truck range.
The first exemplar of the 'Cubic Age' - as insiders referred to the era of strictly functionally designed Mercedes-Benz trucks with angular cabs which extended from 1963 until around the middle of the following decade - was the LP 1620.
The beginning of this era tied in with the opening of the new production plant in Wörth, in Germany's Rhineland-Palatinate region. From 1965, this pioneering, state-of-the-art truck factory was initially the home of the light- and medium-duty LP model series, before heavy-duty truck manufacturing operations were subsequently also transferred here from Gaggenau.
On the way to the modern-day truck
The "New Generation" model series, featuring a complete overhaul in terms of engineering and appearance, was presented in Wörth in 1973. Its modular design covered the medium- and heavy-duty weight classes with one and the same basic model.
The extensively enhanced successor model series NG 80 from 1980 and the SK and MK series from 1989 were also based on the original 1973 version.
In 1996 the completely new Actros heavy-duty truck was presented. It came up with especially economic and environmentally friendly engines and a broad range of innovations. The Actros initiated a generation change in the truck programme and paved the way for the following decade.
This path was continued among light and medium duty trucks by the Atego, which was presented in 1998. The programme is supplemented by the innovative disposal vehicle Econic.
In 2004 Mercedes-Benz presented the eco-friendly diesel technology BlueTec, which reduced noxious emissions of the Actros effectively. In 2005, the light and medium duty model series Atego and Axor followed.
In 2006, Mercedes-Benz presented the safest truck on earth: the Safety Truck. It was equipped not only with the Telligent headway control and track assistant from late 2000 and the Telligent stability regulation from late 2001 but also with the groundbreaking emergency brake assist Active Brake Assist (ABA), an important milestone on the way to accident-free driving.
Today, names with an international ring, such as Actros, Atego, Antos, Arocs, Econic, Zetros and Unimog represent the comprehensive model range of Mercedes-Benz trucks. Tailored to any consumer demands, equipped with economic and seminal engines and guided by state-of-the-art driver assistance systems they are in service on the roads all over the world.
Looking into the future, there are innovations ahead that will change trucking fundamentally - like in the past 120 years. The Mercedes-Benz Future Truck FT 2025 gives a preview. Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler would no doubt be amazed what has developed from their horseless vehicles with four horsepower and wooden wheels.