The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter: A very special van turns 25

eSprinter-Stadt

A Sprinter’s Tale

At Daimler Magazine, we don’t devote our cover stories to individual model series — not normally, at any rate. However, you could argue that the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter also is way more than just a normal van. During the 25 years it’s been on the road, it has become the perfect example of its vehicle class. How did this come about? We talked with three colleagues who should know the answers.

Admittedly, I hesitated a bit when a colleague from Mercedes-Benz Vans asked me at the beginning of this year whether I could write a few lines about the Sprinter in honor of its 25th birthday.

Why did I then throw my doubts to the wind? First of all, because the Sprinter is simply a great vehicle — a point that has also been made by a Twitter user whose name is known to the editors and who is currently living in California. Secondly, because it is a genuine brand — and that’s confirmed not least by the fact that it has been on the market under this name for a quarter of a century. Its market performance has been fairly successful. In 2016, when it celebrated its 21st birthday, it passed the benchmark of three million units sold. Today it has firmly set its sights on the next million sales — and there’s every indication that the Sprinter won’t have to wait until its 30th birthday to celebrate this milestone. In any case, it’s clear that the Sprinter is familiar with celebrations. After all, its popularity among beverage distributors, party service providers, and food truck operators speaks for itself.

Birthday boy: The big Mercedes-Benz vans called Sprinters have been on the road for the past 25 years. Here’s a panel van of the present generation.
Birthday boy: The big Mercedes-Benz vans called Sprinters have been on the road for the past 25 years. Here’s a panel van of the present generation.
The vehicle has a high recognition value — even if technical and design improvements have been made since the first generation (which is pictured here).
The vehicle has a high recognition value — even if technical and design improvements have been made since the first generation (which is pictured here).
Sprinter models of previous generations.
Sprinter models of previous generations.
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Of course the Sprinter’s short and catchy name has greatly helped to boost the brand’s recognition value. You could almost say that naming it the Sprinter was a pioneering venture, since its forerunner bore the unspectacular model name Mercedes-Benz T1. Indeed, that was so unspectacular that even today many people in Germany simply call that car the Bremer Transporter (van from Bremen), even though the production of this model series moved south from Bremen to Düsseldorf in the mid-1980s. And to make things really complicated, at the same time the Mercedes-Benz portfolio also included the Düsseldorfer Transporter (van from Düsseldorf), whose official model series name was Mercedes-Benz T2. Production of the Düsseldorfer van, in turn, was moved in the early 1990s to Ludwigsfelde near Berlin, where a former East German combine was transformed into a Mercedes-Benz production plant.

A road trip for the ancestral portrait gallery (from left): The “Bremer Transporter” (T1), the “Düsseldorfer Transporter” (T2), and the L 319 were the forefathers of the Sprinter.
A road trip for the ancestral portrait gallery (from left): The “Bremer Transporter” (T1), the “Düsseldorfer Transporter” (T2), and the L 319 were the forefathers of the Sprinter.

The clear and unambiguous naming of the Sprinter put an end to all of this geographical uncertainty at a stroke. The first 500 Sprinters left the plant in Düsseldorf in January 1995, heading for the dealerships in all directions. They all were painted a marvelous turquoise color, which nowadays can be excused by the fact that taste was generally questionable in the 90s. Today the production plant in Düsseldorf is known locally as the Sprinter plant.

A dream in turquoise: The new Sprinters leave the Düsseldorf plant in 1995 on their way to dealerships in many cities. Back then, the critics unanimously agreed that this vehicle was a winner. By contrast, a vehicles’ color could lead to controversial discussions.
A dream in turquoise: The new Sprinters leave the Düsseldorf plant in 1995 on their way to dealerships in many cities. Back then, the critics unanimously agreed that this vehicle was a winner. By contrast, a vehicles’ color could lead to controversial discussions.

However, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter is also built in Ludwigsfelde, which has specialized since 2006 in open designs such as flatbed and chassis for special superstructures. The development and sales operations are combined in the Stuttgart region. And for the markets outside Europe, the Sprinter is now also produced in Charleston, South Carolina and in González Catán near Argentina’s capital city, Buenos Aires. The Sprinter has become a genuine cosmopolitan. Its name is as catchy today as it is always been — in every language.

About 21,000 men and women work at Mercedes-Benz Vans all over the world — and a large proportion of them deal with the Sprinter more or less directly in their daily work. Probably every one of these individuals could spontaneously tell you at least one anecdote about this van, or give you a personal theory as to why the Sprinter has become an icon. Unfortunately, there would be far too many stories to pack into a single article. That’s why I’m limiting myself to three of them — although I realize that thousands of other Sprinter’s tales still remain untold. At least for the moment.

The Sprinter has reached the age of 25 — the prime of life for a van. The 4x4 variant of the big van is even literally riding high.
The Sprinter has reached the age of 25 — the prime of life for a van. The 4x4 variant of the big van is even literally riding high.

One old-timer still remembers three new vehicles in the courtyard

Thomas Konzelmann, 61, has a relationship with the Sprinter that goes back for many years. At Mercedes-Benz Vans he’s what’s generally known as an old-timer, because he began working on the vehicles in 1979. He’s familiar with every component of them, down to the last screw. He’s also known for his frank way of speaking, and he sounds a bit like Leonard Cohen would sound if he spoke the Swabian dialect. In 1995 Konzelmann, a master automobile technician, had just joined the team that maintains the vans that are made available to interested journalists for testing purposes. At the end of 1999 he became the leader of this team, and he stayed in this post for more than 20 years until he retired last April.

Thomas Konzelmann has a reputation as an expert who is familiar with even the tiniest screw of the vans from Mercedes-Benz. He’s been working with the Sprinter since 1995.
Thomas Konzelmann has a reputation as an expert who is familiar with even the tiniest screw of the vans from Mercedes-Benz. He’s been working with the Sprinter since 1995.

So, Thomas Konzelmann, what are your first professional memories of the Sprinter? His reply is rather matter-of-fact: “Well, suddenly there were three brand-new vehicles standing in the courtyard — vehicles for which we were supposed to provide technical support. I had already realized that the Sprinter was going to be something new and special. And it did receive unanimously good reviews. But back then of course nobody could know that it would ultimately have an impact on an entire class of vehicles.” This ignorance may have been due to the public perception of the segment at that time. “As I remember it, back then people didn’t pay attention to vans the way they do now,” Konzelmann says. “Instead, the focus was on the car models from Mercedes-Benz. Vans were simply regarded as beasts of burden. For example, VIP shuttle services using vans didn’t really exist at that time.”

A working life with the Sprinter as a constant

When Norbert Kunz looks back, he says he wasn’t surprised that the Sprinter quickly became an icon after its market launch in 1995. “Everything was just right: the engine, the equipment, and the safety features,” he says. “The Sprinter was by far the most modern van in its segment, and its name expressed that perfectly.”

”At the model’s market launch, everything was just right, the Sprinter was the most modern van in its segment, and its name expressed that perfectly.”

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Norbert Kunz Head of Product Management and Marketing Sprinter

Of course Kunz, who is now 59, couldn’t foresee how closely he would be connected from that time on with this large van with the star. In his function as a Team Leader in Procurement, he was occasionally required to figure out how certain Sprinter components could be optimized — but this was just a “marginal” task, he recalls. But that suddenly changed on January 1, 1999, the day he became the head of Product Management for the Sprinter. He has been heavily involved with the van ever since. He’s going to retire in December 2020, after a working life that has revolved around the Sprinter for more than two thirds of its length.

“As the Product Manager, I supported the sales of the second-generation Sprinter from the first brushstroke to the market launch,” he says. He has good memories of his job. “If you’re responsible for the sales of a new-vehicle project, you are the contact partner for a huge number of areas, ranging from customer requirements regarding the vehicle to volume estimation and price structuring,” he says. “That’s a huge responsibility, but it also gives you a vast amount of leeway to shape things. If you’ve got the right team, you can really get things done. And that’s what makes the job so much fun.”

The Sprinter has been a constant presence in the professional life of Norbert Kunz. Since 1999 he has held a number of different positions at Daimler, all of them connected with the big van. In this photo he’s standing in front of a Sprinter model of the first generation.
The Sprinter has been a constant presence in the professional life of Norbert Kunz. Since 1999 he has held a number of different positions at Daimler, all of them connected with the big van. In this photo he’s standing in front of a Sprinter model of the first generation.

The Sprinter is an all-rounder — all over the world

Norbert Kunz has been the head of Product Management and Marketing for the Sprinter at the sales organization since 2011. Consequently, he has also supported the current generation of this large van from the very start — and when it was launched on the market in 2018, it once again set the standards for its segment. The new Sprinter can be equipped with many safety features that were previously reserved for cars — for example, the radar-based distance assistant DISTRONIC and the Parking Package with a 360-degree camera. The newest Sprinter generation is also at the forefront in the area of connectivity with the MBUX multimedia system.

“The conditions for this model series were very different from those that applied to the second-generation Sprinters,” says Product Manager Norbert Kunz. “We shouldn’t forget that these two vehicles are separated by more than ten years. Most importantly, our business has become much more global during this time.”

”As far as Sprinter bodybuilding goes, I’ve just about seen it all. ”

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Thomas Konzelmann was responsible for the Mercedes-Benz Vans test vehicles for journalists for more than 20 years

However, what remained unchanged is that the Sprinter is a real all-rounder. It has an almost unlimited number of possible applications. And in most countries, at least the lighter Sprinter variants can be driven by anyone who has a standard driver’s license for cars. Norbert Kunz has always regarded that as an incentive: “For many people, the Sprinter is simply the van they rent when they move. Normally these people drive smaller vehicles — but our developers make sure that they can nonetheless handle this van as well as possible although it is much bigger than a car. By contrast, a logistics company owner has completely different expectations regarding the Sprinter: He wants to have a vehicle that is as cost-efficient as possible. And these are only two of very many use cases: Sprinters are used as emergency vehicles, minibuses, and camper vans. And we shouldn’t forget the many bodybuilding companies that use the Sprinter chassis as a base. There are even cases in which the structure on top of the chassis costs many times more than the actual vehicle: just think of a TV broadcasting vehicle based on a Sprinter. In such cases, we as a vehicle manufacturer suddenly turn into a small supplier.”

Thomas Konzelmann agrees: “As far as Sprinter bodybuilding goes, I’ve really just about seen it all. One thing I find quite funny is the semitrailer variant, which is fairly rare: a Sprinter chassis with a short wheelbase and a semi-trailer coupling. And in the US they’ve naturally got some very cool Sprinter conversions, with broad tires. I like that.”

The Sprinter is an all-rounder, and the number of conceivable use cases is probably endless — partly because many superstructure manufacturers use it as a basis for their special vehicles.
The Sprinter is an all-rounder, and the number of conceivable use cases is probably endless — partly because many superstructure manufacturers use it as a basis for their special vehicles.
One of Thomas Konzelmann’s favorites: The Sprinter as semitrailer.
One of Thomas Konzelmann’s favorites: The Sprinter as semitrailer.
The Sprinter also continues to be very popular as a base vehicle for the camping segment. This variant is known as a partly integrated camper van…
The Sprinter also continues to be very popular as a base vehicle for the camping segment. This variant is known as a partly integrated camper van…
... whereas the base vehicle for a fully integrated camper van is only a cowl chassis. As a result, such a vehicle can be recognized as a Sprinter only after you’ve taken a closer look.
... whereas the base vehicle for a fully integrated camper van is only a cowl chassis. As a result, such a vehicle can be recognized as a Sprinter only after you’ve taken a closer look.
There’s no end of variants: What you see here is not the business class of an airplane but the inner workings of a Sprinter — which a bodybuilder has converted into a “wedding bus.”
There’s no end of variants: What you see here is not the business class of an airplane but the inner workings of a Sprinter — which a bodybuilder has converted into a “wedding bus.”
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The Sprinter was the starting point for a van archive on wheels

Some of these rather unusual examples would certainly be standouts in the van collection that Thomas Konzelmann has built up at the field location in Waiblingen, near Stuttgart. This collection includes not only Sprinters from every generation but also an almost complete collection of Mercedes-Benz vans from the past seven decades. All of them are in ready-to-drive condition, except for the oldest model, a 170V from the postwar era. The very existence of this archive on wheels also depends at least indirectly on the Sprinter itself. When he was preparing a Sprinter press event in 2001, Thomas Konzelmann wanted to take a bold look back at the past. “The core message of this event was that from 2002 many variants of the Sprinter would have ESP® as standard equipment,” he recalls. “So we said to ourselves, ‘Let’s simply use some older vehicles to show people that the vans with the star have always been technical pioneers.’”

However, when he looked at the company’s museum, he didn’t find “the right hardware,” as he puts it. So he talked to the head of the Vans division at that time, appealing to his conscience so insistently that the man simply had no choice but to authorize Konzelmann to create a collection of historic vans. Over the years, the team in Waiblingen has acquired these classic vehicles and restored them to their original mint condition. To make sure that this archive on wheels stays up to date, at least two vans are added to the archive whenever a current model series expires.

The vehicle archive of Mercedes-Benz Vans, which was created by Thomas Konzelmann, is located in the hallowed halls of Waiblingen, near Stuttgart. Here you can find not only Sprinters of every generation …
The vehicle archive of Mercedes-Benz Vans, which was created by Thomas Konzelmann, is located in the hallowed halls of Waiblingen, near Stuttgart. Here you can find not only Sprinters of every generation …
 ...but also nearly all the Mercedes-Benz van models of the past 70 years.
...but also nearly all the Mercedes-Benz van models of the past 70 years.
 ... but also nearly all the Mercedes-Benz van models of the past 70 years.
... but also nearly all the Mercedes-Benz van models of the past 70 years.
... sondern so gut wie alle Transporter-Modelle mit Stern aus den vergangenen 70 Jahren.
... sondern so gut wie alle Transporter-Modelle mit Stern aus den vergangenen 70 Jahren.
Konzelmann, who used to head the team that organized test vehicles for journalists, is especially proud of the fact that almost all of his prized vehicles are ready to drive. This is regularly demonstrated at events such as this Sprinter Safety Workshop held in 2019.
Konzelmann, who used to head the team that organized test vehicles for journalists, is especially proud of the fact that almost all of his prized vehicles are ready to drive. This is regularly demonstrated at events such as this Sprinter Safety Workshop held in 2019.
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The vehicle that Matthias Hauser’s daily work revolves around is now also part of this elaborate collection. Hauser is the Project Manager for the development of the eSprinter, the battery-electric variant of the large van. The eSprinter, which has a range of 168 kilometers***, has been on the market since the spring of 2020.

Back in 1995, the Project Manager of the eSprinter was still a schoolboy

When the first Sprinter was launched on the market in 1995, electric vehicles were still a niche product — and Matthias Hauser was still going to school. “But I already knew what a Sprinter was at a relatively early age,” says Hauser, who is now a 36-year-old automotive engineer. “My father was a master automobile technician specializing in trucks at a Mercedes-Benz branch, so I grew up with the brand from my earliest childhood. The first time I remember riding in a Sprinter was in 2000, when my father drove one home from his workplace. It must have been one of the first Sprinters that had a diesel engine with common-rail direct injection. Back then this was a fairly new technology. We drove down to Lake Constance in this Sprinter. I was fascinated by the van’s fantastic driving properties and the ease with which this large van passed many cars.”

Matthias Hauser and the eSprinter; he’s the Project Director for its development. When the first Sprinter rolled off the production line in 1995, Hauser was still in school.
Matthias Hauser and the eSprinter; he’s the Project Director for its development. When the first Sprinter rolled off the production line in 1995, Hauser was still in school.

These are the reasons why Matthias Hauser remembers the drive so vividly even 20 years later. And he is convinced that the eSprinter will give its drivers thrilling moments of this kind. “During their first drive in an eSprinter, many people are enthralled by the feeling that such a large vehicle is moving along in almost perfect silence,” he says. “In spite of its mass and its dimensions, it’s agile and pleasant to drive. One special feature is the four different recuperation levels that the driver can choose between by using the shift paddles on the steering wheel. In one of these driving stages, a forward-looking driver can control the eSprinter practically with the gas pedal alone if he is simply floating along with the city traffic. That saves the service brakes from wear and tear — and above all, it saves resources because large amounts of energy are being recovered.”

”Many people are enthralled by the feeling that such a large vehicle is moving along in almost perfect silence.”

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Matthias Hauser Project Director Development eSprinter

The famous name is a tailwind and an incentive for the eSprinter developers

The team of developers who created the first generation of the eSprinter focused on a single use case: goods transportation in cities, which becomes locally emission-free with the eSprinter. “This is a business area that will continue to experience a fantastic boom,” Hauser explains. “And almost everyone can see the reason for that by simply looking in the mirror. We often order something quickly online, and that order is then delivered by a parcel service — ideally in a Sprinter.” Besides, the customers in the parcel service business are often willing to accept the higher purchase price of an electric van because it is compensated for by the lower overall operating costs throughout the vehicle’s lifetime.

In the second step of this process, the eSprinter developers then of course focus on creating a good offer for customers with other use cases. As Matthias Hauser explains, “One of the questions we’re working on at the moment is how to create an eSprinter that can carry a heavier payload. Another question is how we can electrify the other variants, such as the Sprinter crewbus and the open designs such as the Sprinter flatbed vehicle. There’s certainly a demand for them, as well as for the conventionally powered Sprinter, which is available for good reason in a thousand different variants.”

The eSprinter ensures agile and pleasant driving — so it’s no wonder that the Project Director of the development team really likes to drive this model himself.
The eSprinter ensures agile and pleasant driving — so it’s no wonder that the Project Director of the development team really likes to drive this model himself.
The eSprinter panel van is produced in Düsseldorf — where Sprinter panel vans with conventional drive systems also roll off the assembly line.
The eSprinter panel van is produced in Düsseldorf — where Sprinter panel vans with conventional drive systems also roll off the assembly line.
The eSprinter’s battery is rapidly recharged at the quick-charging station. With a fully charged battery, it can travel up to 168 kilometers*** — without generating any local emissions, of course.
The eSprinter’s battery is rapidly recharged at the quick-charging station. With a fully charged battery, it can travel up to 168 kilometers*** — without generating any local emissions, of course.
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For the project team, the famous name of the vehicle whose electric drive system they have created is an incentive and a challenge at the same time. “Of course we benefit from the fact that the overall vehicle has such a fantastic foundation, which is the result of 25 years of development and know-how. Customers also know that when they buy a Sprinter they’re getting a reliable and excellent van. That will also make the eSprinter a strong seller,” Matthias Hauser says.

A Sprinter’s tale yet to come — involving a camper van

Norbert Kunz, the Head of Marketing for the Sprinter, knows very well that a great brand name generates high customer expectations. As he puts it, “The Sprinter name is just as well-established as the Kleenex brand for tissues, and that is confirmed by market research. Of course that’s initially an advantage, but it’s also an incentive, because holding on to it is hard work. And sometimes the great name can also be a curse. Even if a large van of another brand is involved in an accident, the news reports may still mention the Sprinter in connection with it.”

So, out of curiosity: Does a Sprinter expert like Norbert Kunz sometimes have moments of weakness in which he calls a vehicle of a competing brand a Sprinter? He thinks for a moment, then replies with a smile, “No, because I know the difference.”

Kunz standing next to a vehicle of the present Sprinter generation. Because he will be retiring soon, he has bought a camper van for himself — based on the Sprinter, of course.
Kunz standing next to a vehicle of the present Sprinter generation. Because he will be retiring soon, he has bought a camper van for himself — based on the Sprinter, of course.

That’s certainly the reason why his personal Sprinter story won’t end with his approaching retirement. On the contrary, a brand-new camper van has been standing in front of the Kunz family’s house for a few months now. Is it based on the Sprinter? “Of course,” says Norbert Kunz almost incredulously. “Anything else would be a sin.”

*** The eSprinter’s range was determined on the basis of Commission Regulation (EC) No. 692/2008. The range depends on the vehicle configuration. The actual range also depends on the driver’s individual driving style, road and traffic conditions, the outside temperature, use of air conditioning/heating, etc., and it may vary.

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Sven Sattler

wrote about the Sprinter’s twentieth birthday for the Daimler intranet five years ago and is already thinking about what to write when the Sprinter reaches his thirties.

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