The lightweight among commercial vehicles: The history of the Mercedes-Benz vans
- First attempts at Benz, Daimler and SAG
- Rebirth of independent category with the L 319
- Vario, Sprinter and Vito are the icing on the cake
When Gottlieb Daimler introduced his first truck in 1896, Carl Benz was simultaneously working towards a very different type of commercial vehicle in Mannheim.
His focus was on buses and what nowadays would be called vans. Benz’s first runabouts of 1896 were called “combination delivery vehicles” in the jargon of the day.
As “small coaches with a detachable box body”, the vehicle had a chain drive and three-speed transmission as well as narrow solid rubber tyres.
Three engine variants were available, with 1.8, 2.6 or 3.3 kW.
The first vehicle Benz built was sold to France. A Paris department store bought the small box van, derived from the “Velo” passenger car.
It featured a rear-mounted 1.8 kW engine, had a payload of 300 kilograms, including driver, and a top speed of 20 – 30 km/h.
Benz’s French general distributor Emile Roger, together with a businessman from Birmingham, Léon L’Hollier, devised a plan in late 1896 to set up extensive workshops in the Digbeth district of Birmingham, as counterpart to Daimler Motor Syndicate Ltd., located in Coventry, and to build trucks and delivery vehicles there.
Several vehicles were produced, but the company fell apart when Emile Roger died in 1897
From 1896 Benz also offered a somewhat larger variant of “delivery car”, described as a “coach with closed body” and initially with a two-stage belt drive, but supplied from 1898 onwards with a three-speed transmission.
This vehicle also rolled on solid rubber tyres with good ground clearance. With a payload of 300 kg, (and 400 kg from 1898 onwards, not including the two drivers) this vehicle offered a much greater cargo area compared with the combination delivery vehicle.
The drive was supplied by a chain, and the tractive power by a four-stroke engine with initially 2.7 kW, and from 1898 onwards 4.4 kW.
The first Benz vans were built from 1896 until the start of the 20th century.
But then the production of vans petered out at Benz, since all available capacity was taken up with passenger cars.
Daimler expands presence with small panel vans
What Benz referred to as “delivery vehicles”, Daimler called “business vehicles”. These panel vans were available from DMG as lighter weight designs from 1897.[adsense]
There were, however, fundamental differences compared with the fully-fledged trucks for higher payloads: here Daimler used a chain drive (as was the Benz principle), whereas the typical feature of heavy-duty Daimler trucks remained for years to come the pinion drive, with which he equipped his very first truck of 1896.
Characteristic features of these early Daimler vans, which came in five payload variants ranging from 800 to 2500 kilograms, were the engine positioned over the front axle, a raised engine bonnet and a four-speed gear-only transmission.
To begin with Daimler used both a two-cylinder engine with 1.47 kW to 5.9 kW and a four-cylinder unit with 4.4 kW to 8.8 kW. Untertürkheim produced these vehicles as “Daimler business vehicles” from 1897 until 1903.
From 1904 the early Daimler vans focused on the 750 – 1000 kilogram payload segment and now featured exclusively two-cylinder engines.
Production was eventually switched to Berlin-Marienfelde, although the van concept was only pursued until 1905. Marienfelde then specialised solely in trucks and buses.
SAG in Gaggenau takes up the running
A short time afterwards SAG in Gaggenau once again took up the running, concluding a joint venture agreement with Benz in Mannheim in 1907 and trading under the name Benz-Werke Gaggenau from December 1910.
Here, from 1908 until 1910, ten different variants of delivery van for payloads ranging from 300 to 1500 kilograms were produced; these were superseded from 1911 by the Benz D 11 and KL 11 delivery vehicles (500 to 1500 kilogram payload).
Gaggenau then diversified its programme from 1913 onwards, offering altogether four variants for payloads of 500, 750, 1000 and 1500 kilograms, which were produced until 1916.
Daimler vans return to Untertürkheim
Not until 1912 did Daimler start building new delivery vans, their production location being once again Untertürkheim.
This fact was represented by the letter “U” in the designation of the new series launched in 1912, which was clearly of a different calibre to the previous generation.
The light-weight variant – called the U ½ T – and designed for a payload of 500 to 750 kilograms, had pneumatic tyres on both axles, used the tried-and-tested 16 kW four-cylinder unit (Daimler 8) and boasted a propeller shaft.
The heavier version answered to the name of U 1 T, handled 1250 to 1500 kilograms of payload with initially 18 kW, then 23.5 kW (Daimler 10 and 12) and also featured a propeller shaft.
These vans also had pneumatic tyres at the front and traditional solid rubber tyres at the rear.
These two vans were built from 1912 until 1919. The lightweight variants were discontinued in 1920, to be replaced by a U 1 with 18 kW for payloads between 1150 and 1250 kilograms and a particularly heavy-duty U 2 T for 2500 kilograms payload, catered for by the impressive 37 kW output of the Daimler 22.
In contrast to its lighter-weight colleagues, the U 2 T was equipped with solid rubber tyres all round.
Production of these vans was discontinued in 1919/1920 however. Only the U 2 T survived until 1921.
The line between delivery van and truck remained a fluid one. For a short time, delivery vans would be replaced by light trucks such as the DC 1a from Berlin-Marienfelde or the CN 1 Benz truck built at Gaggenau (each having approximately one tonne payload).
After the merger, the company defined the van as principally a truck derivative. Both the L 1 of 1926 (1000 kilogram payload) and the L 45 of 1928 (2500 kilogram payload) were available in a special panel van variant, which kept the van tradition simmering on the back burner until the appearance of the L 1100/L 1500 (in 1941).
But there would now be a long interlude of almost three decades until the emergence of new independent van types.
There were also vans derive from passenger cars, however. From 1927, for example, Mercedes-Benz offered a vehicle with the designation L ¾, which was based on the 8/38-35 hp model
(1926–1928), featured an extra-long wheelbase of 3250 millimetres and was therefore used mainly as a delivery vehicle, ambulance, pickup or minibus.
Technically the L ¾ differed from the passenger car in minor details only, the most significant being a prop shaft instead of a torque tube and horizontal rather than downward sloping longitudinal members at the rear.
From July 1929 the plant in creased the payload of the L ¾ to 1000 kilograms and gave the vehicle the new designation L 1000.
It was built until 1936 and reached a total production volume of 2376 units. From 1932 until 1935 the L 1000 was joined by a smaller van, a modified 170 model in panel van design, which in line with its payload of 300 kilogram appeared in sales literature as the L 300.
New start with vans
- Snazzy racing car transporter and plain and solid L 319
- Panel vans, pickups and buses
- Production far in excess of 100,000 units
In every respect the so-called high-speed racing car transporter launched in 1955 by Daimler-Benz was a little different.
Although designed as something more than a toy, it certainly did not target ordinary commercial vehicle customers, serving strictly the company’s internal needs.[adsense]
Its purpose was to ferry the Silver Arrow racing cars of the days as quickly as possible between factory and racetrack so as to allow the mechanics the maximum amount of time to do their work.
So, naturally, only the best was good enough. The factory gave the transporter a modified chassis of the 300 S road model, and the motive power was supplied by a 41 kW type 198 petrol engine, otherwise found in the Mercedes 300 SL.
Streamlined curves gave the 165 km/h speedster a striking appearance; fuel consumption amounted to 25 litres of premium fuel for every 100 kilometres.
But this little automotive jewel was never given a chance to demonstrate its talents in practice, for in October 1955 a guillotine arrived in the form of the Board of Management decision to cease racing activities.
The high-speed racing car transporter was unceremoniously consigned to the scrapyard.
Debut of the L 319 in 1956
A year later Mercedes-Benz got down to building vans in earnest. Since discontinuation of the L 1100 in 1941, the light segment had been left unattended.
It was now time, it seemed, to turn attention once again to this large market that had emerged during the post-war period. At the Frankfurt International Motor Show in autumn 1955 Daimler-Benz introduced its first genuine van, the new L 319.
Although experts had their doubts, customers received it with enthusiasm.[adsense]
They appreciated in particular the rustic and robust design which had caused offence to certain connoisseurs: a simple chassis with rigid axles and leaf springs, and a choice of 1.8-liter diesel engine with a restrained 32 kW or a 1.9-litre petrol engine with a hefty 48 kW.
In both cases a standard four-speed transmission delivered the power to the rear wheels. The rigid axles front and rear were equipped with so-called half-springs, the braking system was hydraulic. Servo was available at extra cost.
The panel van had a payload of 1950 kilograms, for pickup versions (available in two wheelbase lengths) and low-loaders (each equipped with an extra frame) the payload was 1800 and 1750 kilograms. In the case of the panel van, the body had a supporting function.
In true commercial vehicle tradition Daimler-Benz also brought out a bus variant on the same basis.
The O 319 was a bus which came in three versions – petrol, diesel and luxury bus, each with the same 2850 millimetre wheelbase as the panel van.
Trucks from Sindelfingen, buses from Mannheim
Sindelfingen built the trucks, however, while the buses came from Mannheim.
From autumn 1961 a 37 kW diesel with two-litre displacement replaced the lower-powered premium engine, and a short time later production of vans and buses came under the same roof.
From now on they were both produced in Düsseldorf. Separate production lines in Sindelfingen and Mannheim came to an end in 1962.
In 1963 the plant renamed the small trucks: the L 319 D became the L 405, while the L 319 petrol engine subsequently answered to the name L 407. The LO 319 bus on the other hand kept this designation.
This process of redesignation also saw an increase in the number of variants; more powerful springs and better brakes, for example, enabled a payload of two tonnes, and there was also a twin-cab variant, much loved by construction site workers.
By September 1965 Daimler-Benz was able to celebrate production of the 100,000th example of this new genre, which in total went on to sell 123,234 units.
In addition, the plant shipped almost 19,000 parts kits for assembly in Spain, until the advent of the T1 successor model in January 1967.
New vans from Düsseldorf and Bremen
- Considerably enlarged potential
- Model range increasingly diversified
- Introduction of sloping side windows
In January 1967, Daimler-Benz AG presented the new L 406 D and L 408 large-capacity vans as well as the O 309 minibus, which was built on the same basis.
These so-called “Düsseldorfer” vans replaced the popular L 319 post-war van, added considerably to its potential and stylishly continued the success story of what had been
Mercedes-Benz’s first large-capacity vans.
Up until the end of production in 1986, just under half a million units rolled off the production line at the Düsseldorf plant.
A class of its own
Larger and more powerful than a delivery van, more manoeuvrable and lighter than a truck: these characteristics were the key to its success.
With their high payload capacity, Düsseldorf vans were in a class of their own and set the standards in their sector from the outset.
If these vans had never existed, somebody would have to have invented them. The German postal service ordered numerous panel vans in deep yellow as parcel delivery vans.
The new large-capacity van was also welcomed by furniture store owners, many of whom had capacious box-bodies fitted on the Düsseldorf van chassis and appreciated the fact that the combinations still had a low loading edge.
On the other hand, the crewcab pickup was a hit with construction workers. The boss and his team could all fit into the cab, while the pickup’s platform had room for anything from a sack of cement to roofing panels, i.e., the vehicle could carry everything needed for the job.
And often enough, a compressor or even a whole site caravan was attached to the trailer coupling.
A combination of bus and truck, the crewcab model was also popular with municipal services that had to transport teams of people and a lot of equipment at the same time.
No wonder that the fire service quickly discovered the benefits of the large-capacity van for its own purposes and gladly made use of the speedy petrol-engined L 408 as a crew fire-fighting vehicle.
A mobile bank serving village communities
As if this wasn’t enough, the Düsseldorf vans even put the banks on wheels. Converted into a mobile branch, the large-capacity van served as a savings bank that toured the villages.
In general, then, anyone with a product to sell at markets and therefore relied on mobility was delighted with the new model – a vehicle that lent itself perfectly for conversion into a mobile shop and yet never bowed under the weight of on-board stock.
Additional career as a minibus
It goes without saying that the Düsseldorf vans also made a career as minibuses.
They were ideal for shuttle services. In far-off countries they were all-rounders, functioning as enormous taxis or compact expedition vehicles.
Bodybuilders such as Ernst Auwärter conjured up luxurious club buses from Düsseldorf vans, such as the legendary Teamstar.
The timeless stylistic vocabulary of the design, which made a clean break with the emphasised roundedness of its predecessor, the L 319, was entirely new.
With elegant and practical charm, the emphasis of the new design was on functionality. The “button nose” bonnet testified to a very compact design with an engine that extended a short way into the cab.
However, in keeping with the light-weight truck series presented in 1965, the steering axle was positioned far towards the front, facilitating lower and more comfortable entry into the vehicle.
The vehicle offered a generosity of visibility quite unknown before in van design. Only thin pillars acted as connecting elements between the high, slanting windscreen and the lateral quarterlights.
As if seated in a cockpit, the driver enjoyed a commanding view of the action taking place around him – an unusual perspective by the standards of the day.
Continuity of components
However, Mercedes-Benz continued to use tried-and-tested components that had proven their effectiveness under this timeless outer shell.
The successful predecessor, the L 319, of which around 120,000 units had been produced, had already demonstrated the extent to which customers appreciated robust and sound engineering.
And so the L 406 D diesel model came on the scene in 1967, fitted with a familiar two-litre pre-chamber diesel engine called the OM 621, which had already powered the L 319 and developed 40 kW.
Likewise, the 59 kW 2.2 litre petrol engine in the L 408 was already known from the L 319 – although it hardly featured in the sales statistics.
Ride comfort increased considerably. In the highly sensitive ambulance and rescue vehicle sector, at least, the Düsseldorf vans had what amounted to a virtual monopoly in their weight category.
As a result of extensive detailed work and fine-tuning, the engineers had succeeded in fundamentally improving the handling and ride qualities compared to those of its predecessor.
U-section frame side members with cross-members and leaf-sprung rigid axles front and back were the distinguishing marks of the chassis on the new generation of vans, which continued in the successful tradition of their predecessors in this respect.
Subtle modular system for increased universality
From the start, the new Düsseldorf vans’ trump card was their enormous universality. The key to this was a versatile modular assembly system that was refined over the years.
The Düsseldorf plant produced the van in a choice of three weight categories, 3490 kg, 4000 kg and 4600 kg.
Six chassis, with or without cabs, were provided for purpose-built bodies and vehicles.
With short-wheelbase panel vans, the customer had the choice between a normal roof giving an interior cargo space height of 1600 millimetres and a slightly higher roof giving 1750 millimetres height in the cargo area.
By contrast, Mercedes offered the panel van with the long wheelbase exclusively in the particularly spacious, higher variant with 1750 millimetres interior height.
Hinged and sliding doors were also on offer, as well as a large range of door combinations.
In 1968, the OM 615 pre-chamber diesel engine with 2.2 litres displacement and an output of 44 kW replaced the original OM 621 two-litre engine.
In 1974, the new OM 616 diesel engine, which had a displacement of 2.4 litres and an output of 48 kW, came on the scene.
The model designations changed accordingly. From now on this newly strengthened Düsseldorf van was known as L 407 D rather than L 406 D. In 1982 a 53 kW variant of the OM 616 entered the field.
The base engine had already had competition from an engine with greater displacement for a long time. From 1968 onwards a new model enriched the programme, the L 408 D.
The L 408 D’s 59 kW were developed by a unit from the 300 engine series. New weight variants came along equipped with this 3.8 litre engine: the large-capacity van now conquered the five and six tonne categories.
Swiftly on to higher weights
The desire to be freed from the constraints of the truck had thus been aroused. In 1977, Mercedes-Benz extended the choice of engines by adding a big-brother OM 352 six-cylinder unit with an output of 96 kW to the OM 314 four-cylinder engine.
Meanwhile, the maximum permissible weight for the six-tonner had risen from 5900 kilograms (1970) to 6500 kilograms (1973).
More than ever before, the 5.7 litre six-cylinder in-line engine with 96 kW rated output made it possible for the 6.5-tonner to perform impressively, even in difficult circumstances, e.g., with a heavy site caravan in tow.
And yet it was not just the engines that grew in diversity and power. In 1972, a particularly long wheelbase of 4100 millimetres extended the possibilities for the L 508 D and L 608 D pickup models.
The panel vans of the same model were also able to benefit from this wheelbase from 1974 onwards.
An extra-high panel van version made 1900 millimetres of interior height possible instead of the previous maximum of 1750 millimetres.
In 1980, the 5 and 6-tonne panel van versions with 4100 millimetre wheelbases also grew in width.
As an alternative to the 2100 millimetre wide models and with volume-oriented customers in mind, Mercedes-Benz offered another model with an exterior width of 2400 millimetres and interior height of 1930 millimetres.
This increased load volume by almost 20 percent from 17.5 to 20.8 cubic metres. The German postal service welcomed this with open arms.
The O 309 bus also profited from the long 4100 millimetre wheelbase, which was available in the bus sector from 1975 and which from 1979 could be combined with the option of a particularly spacious variant, featuring an exterior width of 2450 millimetres instead of the usual 2100 millimetres.
Among the positive consequences of the long 4100 millimetre wheelbase for passenger transport were its “25+1” instead of “21+1” seats.
Careful model refinements
Careful refinements throughout the long course of their production period ensured that the Düsseldorf vans always remained up-to-date. In 1977, for example, the series went through an extensive model refinement process, which resulted in the addition of modern tail lights and rubber-protected bumpers to its outward appearance.
On the inside, life was made easier for the driver by a new dashboard and wind-down windows instead of the sliding windows that had been standard up till then.
The quarterlights in the doors were made into ventilation windows. In addition to this, there were new control levers and handles, as well as a steering wheel with a pleasant-to-the-touch, easy-to-grip cover.
Finally, in 1981 came a new, anthracite-coloured plastic radiator grille and a wide bumper made of plastic.
At the same time, the Düsseldorf plant also refurbished the interior panelling of the large-capacity vans, which greatly reduced noise level in the cab.
The Düsseldorf vans proved to be virtually indestructible, not only individually but also as a species.
Production, which had started in 1967, lasted for almost 20 years (without counting 20 units produced in 1966) and only ceased in 1986.
Precisely 496,447 units with the internal code numbers 309 and 310 were released into the big wide world and made a name for themselves during this period.
Mercedes-Benz also delivered almost 50,000 parts kits for assembly to plants in Argentina, Spain, Tunisia, Iran and Turkey.
The question of whether the successor model, the T2 presented in 1986, had a hard act to follow or whether it was born with all the advantages of a large and successful family is purely academic.
One thing is for sure: above the Sprinter and T1 model series, the T2, with gross weight ratings of up to 7.5 tonnes, covered an even wider range of applications than its predecessor and continued to capitalise on the niche between classic van and light-weight truck.
Even though the model series has gone through further modifications over time and now bears the name Vario, it still successfully carries on exactly this tradition.
Its individual “button nose” provides a direct reminder of the Düsseldorf vans presented in 1967 – this typical characteristic living on in the Vario large-capacity van series today.
Just like the Düsseldorf van and the T2 before it, the Mercedes Vario is proving to be a true all-rounder and still forms a class of its own.
L 206/L 207 round off the programme at the lower end
Until the lightweight counterpart called the T1 followed the “Düsseldorfer” in 1977, the scene was occupied for seven years by a kind of “Tempo with star”, as commercial vehicle chronicler Werner Oswald put it.
The Matador delivery van, built by Tempo-Werk in Hamburg-Harburg, survived relatively unscathed until the 1960s thanks to three model refinement cycles.
Having taken over Tempo-Werk in 1965, in 1969 Rheinstahl-Hanomag AG combined all its vehicle activities in Hanomag-Henschel-Fahrzeugwerke GmbH (HHF).
This conglomerate included the Hanomag parent plant in Hanover-Linden, the former Tempo-Werk factory in Hamburg, the former main Borgward plant in Bremen, and the Henschel truck factory in Kassel.
Daimler-Benz in turn took a stake in HHF, initially 51 percent, and then completely took over the company on January 1, 1971.
The sole surviving HHF product would be the light van that descended from the Tempo Matador. From 1970 on it also was available with the three-pointed star on the grille.
This vehicle now rounded off the Daimler-Benz range a further step down the scale and remained on sale until 1977.
During the Hanomag-Henschel era, this light van in the (approx.) 1.5 tonne class was available with either a 37 kW two-litre diesel unit from Mercedes-Benz or a British Austin carburettor engine.
Under the names L 206 D (2.4 and 2.7 tonnes gross weight) and L 307 D (3.0 and 3.3 tonnes gross weight) the vehicle then entered the Mercedes-Benz range from 1970, now powered exclusively by a 40 kW diesel with 2-litre displacement.
In January 1972 this engine was replaced by the appreciably more powerful 2.2 litre diesel which, like its predecessor, was still designated OM 615.
In January 1973 Daimler-Benz then gave this van a chassis of simpler design, but left the face of the vehicle unchanged. Steering and brakes were optimised.
The front-wheel drive remained too. From 1972 the cab featured an improved seat and pendant pedals; new exterior mirrors were fitted.
And so this oldie survived until 1977, when the new T1 light van finally brought about its demise.
Sloping side windows appear for the first time in the TN
The TN series was announced by Daimler-Benz as “the Mercedes among vans” – a new vehicle concept launched in 1977 with models in the gross vehicle weight range between 2.5 and 3.5 tonnes.
The distinctive short-nose vans, soon to be joined by a 4.6 tonne GVW version and produced at a later stage in Düsseldorf, remained in production for 18 years and set the standards through to the mid-1990s.
Design-wise, with their sloping side windows they even blazed a trail for the entire truck and van range.
The special emphasis placed on the brand was quite deliberate. The new, extremely versatile TN series had more in common with passenger cars – in terms of ride and operational comfort – than any van series before it.
At the time, globalisation as we know it today was becoming an increasing phenomenon and in a sense was already beginning to leave its mark on the new van series.
The latter’s range of application was wider than that of any other vehicle category.
The vans, produced in Bremen, were to prove themselves as large-capacity passenger cars, crewbuses and minibuses, as mobile homes and ambulances and as hard-working panel vans, pickups and tippers.
Broad-based product portfolio
The vans’ geographical spectrum of application was also broader than that of the majority of other vehicle categories.
They were to move along smoothly with the traffic in big European cities and cope as express delivery vans on the major international European highways, as well as on the poor, bumpy roads and tracks in overseas export markets.
No fewer than 252 variants available as standard ex factory formed the smallest common denominator in meeting all of these demands at the time the series was launched in 1977.
The specifications docket requested additional virtues in the new TN series with models 207, 307 D, 208 and 308, namely outstanding economic efficiency and reliability, ease of servicing and repair and rational production including suitability for CKD (completely knocked down) assembly.
The time the development engineers had invested in this difficult task paid off: the new vans were soon known as vehicles without virtually any teething troubles.
It was for a good reason that Daimler-Benz abandoned the previously customary configuration of cab-over-engine with front axle drive and frame for the new van series, later popularly referred to as T1.
On the new light vans from Bremen, the short nose was clearly more distinctive than on the large L 406 D and L 408 vans launched in 1967 and produced in Düsseldorf – and they benefited from this new design in two different ways.
First, it was possible to fit the doors behind the front axle, thereby keeping the entrance at a conveniently low level.
And second, the short nose greatly facilitated the regular and not so regular inspection and servicing work.
Rather than having to fumble inside the vehicle, all that was required with the short-nose vehicle was to open a flap at the front to check on oil, water and brake fluid levels.
Making life easy for the mechanics
This design also made it easy for workshop mechanics to carry out the entire range of repairs – through to engine replacement.
A 1977 brochure discretely pointed to this advantage, saying: “Should the engine have to be replaced at some stage, the favourable front-end design reduces removal and installation times considerably.
” It goes without saying that Daimler-Benz also used this short-nose design for enhancing passive safety: the front end was designed to absorb impact energy, giving the TN a crumple zone that was unique among vans at the time.
Drivers and co-drivers welcomed the accommodation of the engine under the short bonnet, because this meant that it did not take up any space in the interior.
In the Bremen vans, through-cab access to the other side and to the load compartment in panel vans was no problem whatsoever.
Several reasons spoke in favour of a return to conventional rear-wheel drive – as a commercial vehicle, the van needed tractive power, and that was best generated where the load is placed and the greatest weight acts on the axle: at the rear.
Rear-wheel drive with propeller shaft also recommended itself for reasons of economic efficiency, since this allowed Daimler-Benz to use the manual and automatic transmissions already produced in large numbers.
And finally, the new self-supporting body concept (integral design of frame and box body) ensured that the loading edge was kept at the desired low level despite having rear-wheel drive.
Distinctive yet functional design
The design may have been distinctive, but first and foremost it was down to earth and functional.
The side windows extending far down and forwards continued the rising bonnet line, while at the same time providing an unimpeded view.
The load compartment’s cubic shape was designed to provide as much load space as possible: 9.6 cubic metres in the largest version, with practically vertical walls and box-shaped wheelhouses. It was therefore easy for drivers to stack parcels securely.
Another characteristic feature of the crewbus, minibus and panel van was a lateral roof frame that rose towards the rear, giving the van a certain stylistic appeal and permitting the use of large doors of uniform size.
The hinged rear-end doors always reached up to the roof and provided access to the load compartment over the latter’s entire width.
The Bremen vans were thus also well prepared for the transport of bulky items. Sliding doors in the left-hand, right-hand or both sides were optionally available ex factory, as well as hinged rear-end doors with an opening angle of 270 degrees (standard: 90 to180 degrees).
The driver’s workplace was generous in its comfort features. The new vans were equipped as standard with a driver’s seat that was adjustable along the longitudinal axis as well as for height.
Behind the two-spoke steering wheel with thick foam padding was the clearly structured instrument panel, providing all the relevant information at a glance and directly within the driver’s field of vision.
The large windscreen offering an excellent angle of vision ensured a panoramic view of what was happening in front of the vehicle.
Heating and ventilation operated with a two-stage blower, and the synchronised four-speed transmission made light work of smooth and precise gearshifts.
The new recirculating ball steering did its job with both ease and precision, and the turning circle of just 10.9 metres could put some passenger cars to shame.
The company didn’t exaggerate when it promised its customers that: “driving the new Mercedes van feels much like driving a car.”
Powerful engines, five-speed manual transmission
Powerful engines played their part in making the driver’s job behind the wheel as easy as possible.
There was a choice of two, already tried-and-tested four-cylinder units: a highly responsive, smooth-running 2.4 litre diesel with an output of 48 kW and a 63 kW petrol engine with 2.3 litre displacement and a low (8:1) compression ratio, ensuring that the engine could get by on regular grade petrol.
With the introduction of the 407 D 4.6 tonne variant in 1981, the engine range was complemented by a 2.4 litre version of the OM 616 pre-chamber diesel engine with its output boosted to 53 kW; this engine was also installed in vehicles with gross weights between 2.5 and 3.5 tonnes from 1982.
The new OM 617 five-cylinder with 3-litre displacement and an output of 65 kW was optionally available for all weight categories from 1982.
Similarly, output figures for petrol-engined vans also increased: the M 102 carburettor engine produced for all weight categories from 1982 developed 70 kW.
The new engines were introduced at the same time as five-speed manual transmissions replaced the original four-speed gearboxes, and a four-speed automatic transmission was also brought in at this time.
The Bremen vans did well out of being kept up-to-date in this way. By 1986, the number of units sold was approaching the half-million mark.
Strictly speaking, they were no longer entitled to the name “Bremen” vans, since the corporation had moved production of the TN series to the Düsseldorf plant, the production site for large vans, in 1983 and 1984, so as to use the former Borgward plant in Bremen for car and estate production. Düsseldorf had started producing T1 vans in parallel as early as 1980.
Major facelift in 1989
In Düsseldorf, the TN series was subjected to a comprehensive model refinement in 1989, enabling it to continue on its successful course with slightly modified looks and new engines until it was replaced by the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter in 1995.
The head of Commercial Vehicle Testing, Ernst Göhring, had announced the new OM 601 and OM 602 engines as “milestones in diesel engine combustion” – they had been designed for higher output and torque, greater fuel economy and reduced pollutant emissions.
The new engine generation was closely related to the passenger car diesel engines, but had increased displacement per cylinder.
The 2.3 litre four-cylinder developed 55 kW, the new five-cylinder with 2.9 litre displacement 70 kW. Not only had rated engine speed dropped (from 4400 rpm to 3800 rpm) but engine weight also: the new diesel engines weighed about 50 kilograms less than their predecessors.
And their high torque ratings made it possible to use high-geared transmissions, cutting engine speeds by up to 24 percent. This significantly reduced both noise level and fuel consumption.
Externally, the model-refined vans could be recognised above all by the front pillar panelling of the high-roof versions, additional fairing on the rain runnel on all other models and a new bumper without slots.
These modifications alone improved aerodynamic efficiency by between eight and 25 percent, depending on the type of body.
More economical engines, reduced engine speeds and more streamlined bodies: all these factors combined to reduce fuel consumption – e.g. by just under 23 percent in the standard-roof panel van driven at a constant 100 km/h.
The T1 remained in production for 18 years; the last of the 969,751 vans produced of this successful series came off the assembly line in 1995.
The record year – following German reunification – was 1991 with more than 71,000 units produced.
But even in the last year of T1 production, capacity at the Düsseldorf plant was still fully utilised.
The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, successor to the T1 and also produced in Düsseldorf, would follow in its predecessor’s footsteps with style.
Advent of the MB 100
During the year 1987, Mercedes paired the T1 with a lightweight brother, which was built at Vitoria in the Basque region of northern Spain.
This was the MB 100, the hallmarks of which were a tubular frame, COE design, longitudinally mounted front engine, front-wheel drive, and major assemblies supplied by Daimler-Benz.
To all intents and purposes the MB was a child of Auto Union, which once owned a plant there in northern Spain.
Having undergone several changes of hands, this plant finally came entirely under the umbrella of Daimler-Benz – the Group had acquired Auto Union back in 1959.
In Germany the MB 100 began its career as a 2.8-tonner; in Spain it was available with up to 3.5 tonnes GVW.
Typical characteristics of this van were its angular body and a number of technical features that could be traced to the history of the series: tubular frame, front-mounted engine in the cab of the forward-control body, drive to the front wheels.
The engine was a typical representative of the brand with the three-pointed star: the diesel was very familiar from the 240 D passenger car (“taxi diesel”) and as a four-cylinder unit developed 53 kW from a 2.4-litre displacement.
A few years later, having undergone an external makeover, an MB 100 D caused something of a sensation as a technology carrier in 1994: The NECAR (New Electric Car) was the world’s first car equipped with fuel cell drive.
The NECAR remained a one-off, although the Spaniards produced no fewer than 207,000 examples of the series as a whole.
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.
New Vito instead of the MB 100 D with a past
- Transverse engine and front-wheel drive
- Commercial vehicle and van in one
- Bestseller among light vans
The MB 100 D, too, was sent off into retirement just a little later than the T1. It was replaced by the new Vito, under whose short bonnet a transversely installed engine drives the front wheels.
The Vito started out like the Sprinter in 1995 (market launch in Germany: spring 1996) and did its part to make that year go down in the annals as the great van year.
In autumn 1995 the company presented the van, which caused quite a stir in the compact
2.8-tonner segment. The Vito – and the V-Class passenger car variant derived from it – had a design feature that was unique at the company in the mid-1990s: transverse engine and front-wheel drive.
There wasn’t anything like it even among the cars; technically, the Vito was truly one of a kind.
Behind this all is an exciting and complicated story, several decades old, thematically and geographically situated on the fringes of the Group and concerning three German motor vehicle manufacturers.
The Vito comes from Spain, or to be more precise, from Vitoria in the Basque country, about an hour away from Bilbao.
In Vitoria a group of entrepreneurs decided to establish a vehicle production facility. They founded a company called Industrias del Moto S.A. (Imosa) and won over Auto Union as partner.
At the time the former company from Saxony in eastern Germany was in the process of putting down roots in western Germany with new factories.
Needing all the support it could get, Auto Union granted Imosa the licence to construct the DKW F 89 L van and in turn took a 50 percent interest in Imosa.
Production commenced in 1954. Typical DKW features of the van were: a two-cylinder two-stroke engine up front in the COE cab, front-wheel drive, and as load-bearing platform a tubular frame.
Four metres long, the DKW had to make do with 0.7 litres displacement and 16 kW.
In 1958 the then Daimler-Benz AG took over Auto Union. In so doing, Daimler-Benz AG not only acquired ownership of the Düsseldorf plant of Auto Union, today the main Daimler van plant in Germany and home of the Sprinter, but also Auto Union’s shares in Imosa and thus in the Vitoria plant.
In 1963 a new model, the F 1000 L, was launched there, which continued to have the typical DKW features and boasted an exciting (by the standards of those days) body designed by the Italian bodybuilder Fissore.
The influence of Daimler-Benz AG is shown, for example, in the F 1000 D, the diesel version produced starting in 1964, featuring the OM 636 with 1.8 litre displacement.
This engine was based on a licensed Spanish design built by an affiliated company (Emasa).
In 1965 Daimler-Benz AG handed Auto Union over to VW, retaining the plant in Düsseldorf, but not the stake in Imosa, which was 25 percent at the time.
VW in turn soon increased its stake in Imosa to 75 percent. Neither Imosa (VW) nor Emasa (Daimler-Benz) turned out to be models of individual success, however.
And so the two candidates tried their hand at it together, merging the individual companies into a new business called Mevosa.
Written out, the name was long: “Compania Hispano Alemana de Productos Mercedes-Benz y Volkswagen S.A.” As early as 1976, however, VW got out of the company, and during the next few years Daimler-Benz AG became majority owner of the Spanish company in several stages.
In the meantime, for several years Vitoria had been producing the large T2 vans called “Düsseldorfer”; from 1975 it built the N 1000/N 1300 vans – with the exception of the Brazilian trucks the first vehicles from Mercedes-Benz with the three-pointed star to originate outside Germany.
The two-stroke engine belonged to the past, but the basic design – front-mounted engine in the cab, front-wheel drive and tubular frame – could be traced directly back to DKW.
The successor series, the first generation of the MB 90 to MB 180, featured the same basics.
Outside Spain this model series was largely unknown, but that was to change with the next generation in 1986: the new series MB 100 through MB 180 D was offered in Germany (as MB 100 D in two wheelbases) and other countries.
Maximum 3.5 tonnes GVW, pre-chamber diesel engine with 2.4 litres displacement and 53 kW – known in the car sector as the legendary, indestructible “taxi diesel” from the 240 D – these were the hallmarks of the new series.
The engine was positioned, unchanged, up front in the COE cab, and front-wheel drive and tubular frame were the other familiar parameters.
Modern short-nosed body
But then a new era began in autumn 1995 with the Vito. The only thing it inherited from this eventful history was the front-wheel drive powered by transversely installed engines.
The engineers now put an up-to-date body on top of this with a short bonnet, a dynamic swage line along the sides and a strong suggestion of a wedge shape, with a wide track and a broad-shouldered look.
With a height of distinctly less than two metres it fit into the usual garages, multi-storey car parks and car washes. The gross weight of the 4.66 metre long van came to 2.6 tonnes.
The engines were not quite as up-to-date as the exterior of the Vito suggested: it started out with pre-chamber diesel engines, 2.3 litres displacement, 58 or 72 kW, the corresponding model designations being Vito 108 D and Vito 110 D.
The petrol-engined Vito 113 played a rather minor role in the range; its two-litre four-cylinder developed 95 kW.
The chassis was dynamically designed with MacPherson struts at the front, independent suspension with semi-trailing arms and coil springs at the back, disc brakes on all wheels, ABS as standard – much effort went into the construction of the Vito.
Distinctive details of the van included its dashboard, featuring a large middle section with a short gearshift knob growing out of it in the form of a joystick.
From the passenger cars of the brand the developers adopted the foot-operated parking brake. The result was that the cab afforded broad through-cab access and an open passage to the rear.
Another characteristic is that the new Vito was limited to a single body. Marketing experts found out that most buyers of a van in the up to 2.8 tonne GVW category choose a variant with flat roof, short wheelbase, a sliding door on the co-driver’s side only, and a tailgate. And so the body offering was restricted to precisely this variant, complemented by an optional driver’s-side sliding door.
The limitations were also due to limited production possibilities in Spain: a high-roof variant simply would not fit through the production line.
As the years went on, the only addition to the Vito line was a body variant with hinged rear doors.
V-Class a fusion of van and passenger car
As a derivative of the Vito a new vehicle soon appeared. Designated the V-Class, its arrival in 1996 enabled Mercedes-Benz to interlock the van and the passenger car.
At first the model name Viano was planned (it would be used in the next generation from 2003 on), but the term V-Class was supposed to underscore the new vehicle’s membership in the range of cars with the star.
Excellently equipped and technically upgraded by an air-sprung rear axle, the V-Class also wanted to lure car drivers to whom an estate did not appear spacious enough. But the V-Class only managed that to a limited extent.
Derived from the commercial vehicle Vito, it only partly met the wishes of demanding car buyers and could only partly fill the role intended for it – unlike the Vito, which was regarded as the benchmark in its class in important markets and opened up the light van market to Mercedes-Benz.
The overall demand was big enough though, so that the Vitoria plant was working in three shifts beginning in spring 1997 and its capacities were fully stretched.
In the peak year 2000, Vito and V-Class combined for an annual output of just under 90,000 units.
The Vito was helped in this by an extension of the range beyond practical panel vans and crewbuses.
There was the Vito L, for example, a well equipped crewbus for upmarket requirements, or the Vito F, an attractive recreational vehicle with a folding bench seat, or the compact Marco Polo camper van, a product of cooperation with Westfalia.
A thorough upgrading in 1999 literally gave the Vito additional impetus. Ultramodern CDI diesel engines arrived.
The 2.15 litre four-cylinder was available in three output categories up to 90 kW. Common-rail injection, four valves per cylinder, electronic engine control – the three letters CDI stand for state-of-the-art engine technology.
CDI not only resulted in remarkable output, but great pulling power as well: in the most powerful version, the 112 CDI, the Vito obtained maximum torque of 300 Newton metres across a broad engine speed range from 1800 to 2500 rpm – no one had more to offer.
Redesigned instruments and fine touches to the seats and gearshift completed the refinements to the Vito and made it fit for the second half of its life.
The new Vito gets a live rear axle
After more than half a million units of the Vito and V-Class had been sold, the new double series Vito and Viano premiered in summer 2003.
With swept swage lines on the flanks, the design clearly took up elements of the predecessor, but was given an appreciably softer touch with almond-shaped headlamps and an almost oval radiator grille as well as arch-shaped side windows.
Under the attractively designed outer skin, which despite tremendous functionality had so very little in common with a conventional panel van, everything had changed.
Longitudinally installed engines and rear-wheel drive meant, first of all, better driving dynamics and, secondly, the possibility of falling back on the modular components of the group.
With this type of drive, Vito and Viano had now shaken off all the traditions of Vitoria history.
The 2.15 litre (unchanged) CDI engines developed a full 110 kW; their power was transferred by six-speed manual transmissions.
Bullish V6 engines with at least 140 kW allowed the petrol-powered models to speed to the fore.
With these a five-speed automatic transmission with torque converter came as standard and was an optional extra for the diesel models.
The comprehensive standard-fit safety equipment included, along with hard-grabbing disc brakes on all wheels, an anti-lock braking system ABS, acceleration skid control ASR, and to top it off, an Electronic Stability Program ESP® – unique in this class.
Unique range of bodies
The same can be said for the offered body versions: two wheelbases, three lengths, two roof heights – who offered more?
The version with flat roof retained its roof line of less than two metres. The gross vehicle weights were 2.8 and 2.9 tonnes, and the load rating could be increased by 150 kilograms as an optional extra.
The Viano now put its face forward as a multi-purpose vehicle (MPV). Likewise available in all three lengths, with the design and equipment lines Trend, Fun and Ambiente it offered a broad selection of equipment, again being supplemented by a compact camper van called Marco Polo, with an interior finished by Westfalia.
Inside, the Vito impressed with great spaciousness and with a dashboard elegant enough to grace a car.
This duo of Vito and Viano was a big hit from the start: in the first full year of production, 2004, they set a new record with 94,000 units.
As before, they were being manufactured in Vitoria in Spain’s Basque country. But the factory was completely changed, its area doubled, and the production processes brought up to state-of-the-art levels.
Vito and Viano come off the assembly line together, manufactured to the quality standards of the group’s car production.
On the plant premises are located important suppliers who deliver complete just-in-time components in the exact sequence in which vehicles are produced.
The production logistics are such a model that they earned the Spanish plant an award for best European logistics project.
New thrust delivered by CDI engines
A full year after their premiere, the Vito and Viano received a further push. The diesel fuel injection of the up-to-date CDI engines with common-rail technology was made even more efficient by piezo-electronic injectors.
The response time of piezo elements is only about a third that of solenoid valves. Together with the new injection technology a number of power and torque figures increased.
The new range of four-cylinder diesel engines now extended from 70 kW and 250 Nm torque to 110 kW output and 330 Nm torque.
With the introduction of piezo technology, the fuel consumption figures at all output levels declined versus the previous units in the EU 4/III emission category.
Cleanliness was integral to the range anyway: in Germany all Viano models with diesel engine feature a particulate filter as standard; in the Vito models, as an optional extra.
As the new top-of-the-range diesel engine for the Viano and now also the Vito, the V6 CDI already featured piezo injection technology.
And a few other highlights besides: the duo Vito 120 CDI and Viano CDI 3.0 set new standards for engineering, performance and smooth running.
The V6 diesel power plant with 3.0 litres displacement set records for diesel engines in the MPV category both with its output of 150 kW and its maximum torque of 440 Nm.
The result was effortlessly superior performance. From a standing start the Viano CDI 3.0 accelerated to 100 km/h in just 9.2 seconds and attained a top speed of 198 km/h.
The basis for this was the outstanding engineering of the ultramodern V6 (OM 642) with aluminium crankcase, balancer shaft, four-valve-per-cylinder technology, a total of four overhead camshafts driven by duplex chain, turbocharger with variable nozzle turbine, and the latest-generation common-rail injection.
Power is transferred by a five-speed automatic transmission.
All-wheel drive for Vito and Viano
Likewise new were the Vito 4×4 and Viano 4Matic with all-wheel drive. In normal operation the driving power was transmitted to the front and rear axles in a 35:65 split.
The all-wheel drive worked together with the Electronic Traction System 4ETS: if one or more wheels lost traction on slippery ground, 4ETS automatically braked the spinning wheels with short pulses, increasing the drive torque at the wheels with good traction by the same degree.
Since autumn 2006 a new instrument cluster in two variants has also upgraded the cockpits of the Vito and Viano.
The basis of each are large, clearly arranged dial-type gauges for road speed and engine speed indication.
Depending on equipment line, the two are separated by an LCD display or two pixel-matrix displays.
These tell the driver the mileage, the coolant temperature, the time, the outdoor temperature and the fuel level (matrix-type instrument: separate indicator for fuel supply).
Large lettering and bright illumination ensure best readability.
The Vario large-capacity van – truly one of a kind
- Gross vehicle weights up to 7.5 tonnes
- All-wheel variant expands the range
- Internally ventilated disc brakes all round
But let us return to the mid-nineties with their tremendous innovative leap forward. Things were happening at the upper end of the van scale too.
The Vario (formerly T2 and now with an upgraded exterior) defined its sphere of operation as the broad field between 4.8 and 7.5 tonnes gross vehicle weight.
The model range now extended from the 507 D to the heavyweight 811 D.
More spectacular than the touch-up work to the sheet metal and interior, however, was what happened under the small bonnet of the Vario.
A representative of the new 900 series now did service there, superseding the highly respected and regularly updated pair of veterans, the OM 364 and OM 366.
Premiere of the 900 engines in the van
The 900 series engines were all-new developments that had recently been premiered in the light-duty class.
The engine used three valves per cylinder for breathing: two were intake valves, the third an exhaust valve.
Individual pumps per cylinder drove the diesel fuel, metered with extreme precision, into the combustion chambers at high pressure, atomising the fuel with a maximum pressure of 1600 bar.
An additional constantly open throttle valve (the 400 series engines stood model) was an option available to beef up the engine brake.
And the engine management system made use of advanced electronics. From the outset these engines were prepared for the Euro 3 emission standard coming in 2000.
These engines were based on a modular system that gave rise to a four-cylinder with 4.25 litres and a six-cylinder with 6.4 litres displacement.
In relation to displacement, their torque was remarkable. Outputs ranged from 90 to 205 kW. Christened “Eco Power” engines, these power plants were designed both for high mileage and long maintenance intervals.
An all-electronic monitoring system prevented engine overload.
The 2.9-litre diesel with direct injection and charge air cooling (OM 602 LA) already had proven itself in the Vario’s little brother, the Sprinter.
The five-cylinder with a rated output of 90 kW at 3800 rpm and peak torque of 280 Nm at 2000-2300 rpm impressed with high torque, economical operation, low pollutant emissions, very smooth running characteristics, and low noise generation.
A distributor pump handled the supply of diesel fuel.
The internally ventilated disc brakes on all four wheels were a boon to active safety.
A hydraulic dual-circuit brake system with vacuum assist was the production configuration; for the 612 D model upwards, an air/hydraulic brake system was available.
A compressed-air spring brake served as parking brake.
All-wheel drive not long in coming
Shortly after the Vario was launched, Mercedes-Benz presented the large-capacity van also in an all-wheel-drive version (814 DA).
As it is, the Vario was improved upon several times during its career. Through load uprating and load derating it covered a gross weight span from 4.8 to 8.2 tonnes.
In 1998 all models were fitted with ABS and the output of the most powerful engine changed to 112 kW.
From autumn 2000 the Vario was available with engines built to satisfy the Euro 3 emissions standard.
The compact five-cylinder was dropped, replaced by an 85 kW variant of the big four-cylinder.
Two years later the output range was reshuffled and featured engines with 100 kW, 110 kW and 130 kW, the most powerful of these being combined with a six-speed manual transmission as standard.
The Vario got its last spate of innovations for the time being at the 2006 International Commercial Vehicle Show (IAA): BlueTEC diesel engines with SCR technology to enable it to comply with the Euro 4 emissions standard.
The engine outputs are now 95 kW, 115 kW and 130 kW. All Vario models now have a six-speed manual transmission as standard and can be optionally equipped with a five-speed automatic transmission with torque converter.
New trim panels enhance the interior of the cab.
The new Sprinter: jack-of-all-trades
- Unparalleled model diversity
- New super-high roof variant
- Top-of-the-range engine with 135 kW
After eleven years and around 1.4 million units, the time had come in spring 2006 for the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, Europe’s market leader in the 3.5 tonne van class, to get a successor.
An emotional but appropriate design uniting form and function, in visual terms the new Sprinter already heralded a new era.
The headlamps and cooling air intake were designed in the way typical of the brand. The dynamic lateral lines, three-dimensionally shaped tail lights and the receding lower section of the rear end were also characteristic of the Mercedes-Benz brand.
Self-assuredly the new Sprinter wore its trademark at the front on an almost sculpted base, and at the rear in a central position between the doors.
In discussing the new Sprinter, one actually has to consider a thousand Sprinters, since around 1000 basic models can be created simply from the permutations of different wheelbases, lengths, heights, weights, body, engine and transmission configurations.
The Sprinter was available in three wheelbases, in four lengths for the closed-body variants, with standard roof, high roof or the new super-high roof.
The precise coordination existing between individual models was remarkable. It wasn’t simply restricted to modifications of the wheelbase: in the new Sprinter a suitably matched overhang complemented the particular wheelbase for each model.
The result, apart from the visual advantages of harmonious proportions, was mainly advantages in terms of driving dynamics, plus the added advantage of balanced weight distribution in all versions.
The load capacity of the closed-body models began at 7.0 cubic metres in the shortest Sprinter with standard roof.
The combination of maximum possible length with highest roof raised the volume of the load compartment to a peak value of 17 cubic metres.
The new Sprinter was available in three gross vehicle weight classes of 3 tonnes, 3.5 tonnes and 5 tonnes (with twin tyres).
There were even two more GVW ratings: 3.88 tonnes as load-uprated variant of the 3.5-tonner and 4.6 tonnes (with super-single or twin tyres) as load-derated version of the 5-tonner.
Mercedes-Benz manufactured the standard and high roofs of the new Sprinter from sheet steel, while the new super-high roof was made of glass fibre-reinforced plastic.
There were newly developed sliding doors and rear doors to match the numerous variants of the Sprinter.
The maximum loading hatches these made possible had grown to record size compared with the previous model. The width between the wheel arches also reached record proportions.
Standard equipment package establishes a class benchmark
The Sprinter’s standard equipment also made it the benchmark in its class. Along with many other details, power windows and central locking with radio remote control were now standard, as were driver airbag, six-speed transmission, wide-angle rear view mirror, ADAPTIVE ESP®.
In addition, the Sprinter impressed with high-grade materials processed with painstaking workmanship.
The Sprinter’s steering wheel could now be adjusted for height and reach as an optional feature.
Extended seat reach adjustment and greater headroom made for even more freedom of movement.
As the midpoint in the cockpit, the centre console caught the eye. It contained among other things three DIN drawers, a cup holder and a functional switch strip.
Depending on the scope of equipment, the driver’s eye fell optimally on readable dial gauges with speedometer and rev counter. If the multifunction steering wheel was selected, much additional information was available on the large displays of the HighLine instrument cluster.
An essential element of driver comfort was an entirely new stowage facility concept developed on the basis of a real-life basket of goods.
The new exterior mirrors with integral wide-angle auxiliary mirrors on both sides of the vehicles were conducive to good rear vision and thus good safety.
Side indicator repeaters were installed in the mirror housings for a strong signalling effect.
Other aids for the driver included special equipment such as a closing aid for the sliding door, electric sliding door operation and, particularly, the innovative Keyless Entry and Slide system.
This assists mainly drivers of parcel services who often don’t have a hand free to operate the doors.
When the driver approaches the vehicle, depending on the direction he comes from the driver’s door is unlocked or the sliding door is opened.
When the driver moves away from his vehicle the systems locks the driver’s door or closes the sliding door.
Engines set new standards
With its engines the Sprinter once again established a milestone in the van world.
The unchanged basis was the OM 646 CDI turbodiesel engine with four cylinders and 2.15 litres displacement, now available in four output levels from 62 kW to 110 kW.
Great pulling power at low revs along with high efficiency are advantages of these engines. Depending on version they even excel with two-stage turbocharging.
Top among the diesel engines was the new OM 642, a V6 with a displacement of 3.0 litres, an output of 135 kW and maximum torque 400 Nm.
If the four-cylinders were well known for their advanced technology, the V6 with an aluminium crankcase, a balancer shaft and two overhead camshafts per cylinder bank enhanced the level even further.
All diesel engines were low-pollution units complying with Euro 4 and EU 4/III and featured a particulate filter as standard.
The oil change interval of 40,000 kilometres was sufficient for a circumnavigation of the globe.
Depending on the type of operation this could be extended further using the service computer ASSYST.
The V6 petrol engine M 272 in the Sprinter opened up a new performance dimension for vans: 190 kW from 3.5 litres piston displacement shattered all previous marks.
The high-tech power plant offered convincingly superior power delivery combined with extraordinarily smooth operation.
A five-speed automatic transmission transferred power to the rear axle. It was also available for the diesel engines as special equipment.
As standard they were connected with a six-speed manual transmission with joystick-style gearshift on the dashboard.
As many as three selectable final drive ratios per model allowed the Sprinter to be precisely adapted to the requirements in hand.
The suspension of the rear-wheel drive vehicle was perfectly adapted to the high engine outputs and the major differences between laden and unladen vehicle.
A new transverse leaf spring made of glass fibre-reinforced plastic was used on the front axle, while new parabolic springs were used at the rear.
On all models, including the chassis, the latest-generation Electronic Stability Program ESP® – ADAPTIVE ESP® – was standard equipment.
In addition to the usual parameters it now determined mass and centre of gravity. With this and other new functions, in critical situations ADAPTIVE ESP® could now respond more sensitively and selectively for control purposes.
An optional extension of ADAPTIVE ESP® is the start-off assist AAS: this prevents a vehicle from unintentionally rolling backwards when the driver changes from brake pedal to accelerator pedal to move off on hills.
All Sprinter models rolled on wheels with a diameter of 40.64 centimetres as standard, this being the prerequisite for brake discs with larger diameters.
A further innovation was optional super-single tyres on the rear axle for the 4.6-tonne variant.
Compared with twin tyres these tyres, size 285/65 R 16 C, require less space, save weight and increase the loading width between the wheel arches in the panel van.
They also reduce rolling resistance.
Further improved safety
The exemplary passive safety of the Sprinter was further enhanced with the introduction of the new model.
Every seat was now fitted with three-point seat belts and height-adjustable head restraints as well as belt force limiters; additionally the driver’s seat and the outer co-driver’s seat featured belt tensioners.
The driver airbag was a standard-fit feature; optionally available: co-driver airbag, thorax bags and windowbags.
Together with specialised partners, Mercedes-Benz today realises numerous body and equipment solutions for the Sprinter under the headword Van Solution.
These vehicles, supplied from a single source, are offered by Mercedes-Benz in the Sprinter price list as one-invoice vehicles, and Mercedes-Benz also handles servicing.
Mercedes-Benz manufactures the Sprinter at the Düsseldorf plant (panel van and crewbus) and in Ludwigsfelde outside Berlin (pickups, chassis).
Both factories set the greatest store by exemplary workmanship and long-term quality. Many elements of the frame and body are laser-welded, laser-soldered or bonded.
The proportion of galvanised sheet metal has increased significantly compared with the previous model.
Completely new in this vehicle segment with rear-wheel drive as of 2007 is a low-frame chassis specially developed for camper vans in cooperation with the firm AL-KO. The lowering of the frame behind the cab by about 205 millimetres results in a low centre of gravity with advantages in terms of driving dynamics.
This permits double floor concepts for camper vans, for instance, with stowage space in between the floors, while retaining a moderate overall height of the completely built-up vehicle.
This variant of the Sprinter features as rear axle a diagonal swing axle with coil springs, newly developed by Mercedes-Benz.
Dynamic handling control systems like the anti-lock braking system or the Electronic Stability Program ESP® are incorporated into the design. Mercedes-Benz directly completes the low-frame chassis on the production line at the Ludwigsfelde plant, where the open versions and the chassis models of the Sprinter are built.
Sprinter 4×4 for maximum traction
At the 2006 IAA International Commercial Vehicle Show, for the first time Mercedes-Benz showed a Sprinter 4×4 with all-wheel drive.
This gave high traction and handling stability even in unfavourable conditions. The permanent all-wheel drive transmitted the power to the front and rear axles in normal operation in a 35:65 split.
Instead of using mechanical differential locks, the all-wheel drive worked together with the Electronic Traction System 4ETS.
If one or more wheels lost traction on slippery ground, they were automatically braked at short intervals.
At the same time the drive torque was transferred to the wheel or wheels which still had adequate traction.
The Sprinter 4×4 was to be available in all body, length and weight variants and powered by four- and six-cylinder CDI engines with 80, 110 and 135 kW.
Customers could choose between the standard-fit six-speed manual transmission and the five-speed automatic transmission with torque converter.
Innovative alternative drive systems have a long tradition at Mercedes-Benz and especially in the Sprinter.
So it is only logical that in 2008 the Sprinter range was extended by the Sprinter NGT, the Sprinter with natural gas drive.
Depending on version and use, gas tanks with different capacities are available. The output of the turbocharged four-cylinder engine with 1.8 litre displacement is 115 kW, the maximum torque is 240 Nm.
The Sprinter NGT with bivalent drive system operates economically, quietly and with low emissions.
Its operating cost is as much as 30 percent less than that of a Sprinter with diesel engine.
With natural gas the Sprinter can travel a distance of 300 to 450 km, which is definitely adequate for short-range distribution work in very ecologically sensitive conurbations.
Optional air springs on the rear axle
Another option available from 2008 was air suspension rather than standard coil springs on the rear axle.
ADAPTIVE ESP® was further enhanced with adaptive brake lights, which functioned as a flashing emergency braking signal.
Instead of remaining lit, the brake lights flashed for the period of critical braking. For manual transmission vehicles start-off assist AAS was also available as an option.
There was progress, too, with alternative drive systems: in mid 2008 the Competence Center for Emissions-free Vehicles (KEN) at the Mannheim plant was expanded to become the Mercedes-Benz Natural Gas Production Competence Center.
Sixteen natural gas variants were available for the Sprinter alone.
In September the IAA Commercial Vehicles Show in Hanover offered a glimpse far into the future of Mercedes-Benz Vans.
The outstanding exhibit was a Sprinter Plug-In Hybrid, with an electric motor placed between combustion engine and automatic transmission.
This innovative design had a set of lithium-ion batteries stowed directly behind the rear axle.
This battery technology weighed in at 175 kilograms, doubling the power-to-weight ratio of the previously used nickel-metal hydride batteries.
Detailed improvements for Vito and Viano
Meanwhile, the gross vehicle weight of the Vito and Viano grew to 3.2 tonnes and 3.05 tonnes respectively. Maximum payload was now 1400 kilogram. These two models also featured adaptive brake lights.
Both the individual seats and the optional seat benches in the rear of the Viano and the comfort seating in the passenger compartment of the Vito were reupholstered.
The new design was ergonomically optimised, with an additional 25 millimetres of leg room.
Lower seat boxes for the comfort seating of driver and front passenger made it possible to the lower seat position by 15 millimetres and thereby create a more favourable position.
Advent of brand-new engines for Euro 5
In 2009 the Sprinter appeared with a new generation of diesel engines with new manual transmissions and numerous other innovative features.
It was now cleaner, more economical and more powerful than ever.
Euro 5 as standard, EEV optional
The core of the comprehensive advanced development of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter was the all-new drive train.
At the heart of this were the completely new four-cylinder diesel engines bearing the internal designation OM 651 and the extensively revised V6 OM 642.
The main focus of development work was on maximising environmental protection by meeting the Euro 5 emissions standard and optionally even EEV, further improved efficiency with reduced fuel consumption, enormous performance with high output and tractive power, spontaneous response and improved smooth operation.
In addition, of course, the units met all the usual requirements of an engine bearing the three-pointed star: a high degree of reliability and long service life, even under rigorous use as a commercial vehicle, and long periods between maintenance.
All variants of the new engine already complied with Euro 5. This came into force for commercial vehicles over 3.5 tonnes GVW in the autumn and is prescribed for commercial vehicles under this threshold weight from 2011.
The new four-cylinder OM 651 was available in three power variants in the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.
First, there was the 210 CDI/310 CDI/510 CDI: output 70 kW at 3800/min; maximum torque 250 Nm at 1400-2500/min. Second, the 213 CDI/313 CDI/413 CDI/513 CDI: output 95 kW at 3800/min; maximum torque 305 Nm at 1200-2400/min. And third, the 216 CDI/316 CDI/416 CDI/516 CDI: output 120 kW at 3800/min; maximum torque 360 Nm at 1400-2400/min.
Compared with the previous top-of-the-range variant, therefore, power output was increased by eight per cent and maximum torque by ten per cent.
V6 CDI: Top-of-the-range engine improved still further
The V6 OM 642 underwent extensive further development, although its 3-litre displacement remained unaltered.
The only six-cylinder unit available in a van now also complied with the Euro 5 emissions standard.
In addition to the slightly improved output, what impressed most of all perhaps was the maximum torque increase of ten per cent.
As the top-of-the-range Sprinter engine, the six-cylinder unit was available in one output variant: 219 CDI/319 CDI/419 CDI/519 CDI: output 140 kW at 3800/min; maximum torque 440 Nm at 1400-2400/min.
The OM 651 four-cylinder diesel engine was an all-new design. The only similarity with the predecessor engine was its displacement of 2.15 litres.
But at its root was a completely different geometry. Whereas previously bore and stroke had been almost equal, now the engine was undersquare in design, with a bore of 83 mm and stroke of 99 mm.
This enabled a high ignition pressure of 200 bar and made for extra torque, which thus increased tractive power and performance potential.
Compression was reduced from 17.5:1 to 16.2:1. One advantage of this was a quieter idle speed, even when cold, despite the undersquare design.
The basis of the engine was an extremely solid cast iron block. The cylinder head bolts were deep-mounted, thereby reducing friction and permitting a more cylindrical and even more precision-cut barrel – which again reduced friction further.
The pistons were made of aluminium. On account of the undersquare geometry, an omega shape was chosen for the piston cavity.
The broad, flat cavity was well suited to the high, free injection jet length of the undersquare design.
The optimised combustion process within the engine significantly reduced raw emissions.
The long stroke layout of the engine meant the weight-optimised forged con rods could be shortened, giving an advantage in terms of strength and rigidity.
The crankshaft, also forged, had eight counterweights and rotated in five bearings. It was extremely low in vibrations, which contributed significantly to the smooth running of the engine.
The two overhead camshafts operated 16 intake and exhaust valves in total via roller tip rocker arms with a hydraulic valve clearance adjustment.
The camshaft was driven via a combination of toothed cogs and a short duplex chain.
As a result of great attention to detail, much of the excessive noise generally associated with toothed wheel drives was reduced.
Direct fuel injection at a maximum 1800 bar
As previously, a common-rail system took care of fuel injection. This design guaranteed both high-precision and therefore economic fuel dosage for each individual cylinder and smooth engine operation.
Maximum injection pressure for the new engine generation was increased to an impressive 1800 bar.
Advanced fourth-generation magnet injectors with improved adjustability and a seven-hole injection nozzle guaranteed up to four injections per combustion cycle.
After a maximum of two pre-injections came the main injection followed by a post-injection if required. This resulted in a gentle increase in pressure and thus to smooth and quiet engine operation.
The new injectors operated without leakage. Consequently a leakage line to collect and return fuel was no longer necessary.
This improved the heat management of the injection system and made fuel cooling redundant.
A compact two-plunger high-pressure pump guaranteed the required pressure in the rail.
Filling was regulated by a butterfly valve. The necessary drive output of the pump was significantly reduced – just one of many examples of fuel-saving measures.
High efficiency, rapid dynamic response
The developers paid great attention to turbocharging. This was critical not only in establishing nominal data for output and torque, but also for the dynamic power curve and thus the engine’s dynamic response.
In the basis version with 70 kW the engine drew its air from a single-stage exhaust gas turbocharger with variable turbine geometry.
Its characteristics were high efficiency and rapid dynamic response.
With the two other power variants of the four-cylinder unit, the turbocharger chosen was an advanced version of the two-stage unit from the predecessor engine – the first turbocharger to be used in a van.
In this case the system combined a small high-pressure turbo and a large low-pressure turbo. The two turbines operated in series.
At low engine speeds the compact high-pressure turbo took care of charging alone. This meant that even at very low revs it was possible to build high charge-air pressure.
A wastegate valve prevented overload. From medium engine speeds upwards, the charge-air pressure control valve of the low-pressure turbocharger opened wide enough to enable this turbocharger to take over turbine operations. This, too, was fitted with a wastegate.
Thanks to consistent optimisation of all major assemblies, this combination achieved not only excellent dynamic response at low engine speeds, but also excellent operating characteristics at high revs and top performance across the entire engine speed range.
Maximum torque was available at very low revs and continued over a wide engine speed range.
The switch from single-stage to two-stage operation and vice versa was not apparent to the driver and the engine characteristics were those of a large-volume diesel engine.
Enlarged intercooler, maximum specific output
The enlarged intercooler improved cooling efficiency by 20 percent compared with the predecessor engine and laid the basis for a very high specific engine output.
The lower temperature of the compressed and warmed charge air of around 140 degrees meant that a larger mass of air was able to enter the combustion chambers.
Consequently, with an output of 56 kW per litre of displacement, the most powerful version of the four-cylinder unit (120 kW) achieved the highest specific output of any van engine in this class.
The same was true also for maximum torque – here, too, the new engine in the Sprinter proved best in its class, with up to 168 Nm per litre of displacement.
This downsizing – high output and high torque from a relatively small displacement – was a prerequisite for low fuel consumption, concomitant low emissions and favourable weight.
An electrically controlled butterfly valve positioned behind the intercooler ensured a precise mix of fresh air and recirculated exhaust gases.
In order to optimise the volume of exhaust gas, it was cooled as required so as to increase the overall volume of exhaust gas available.
Balancer shafts create exceptionally smooth ride characteristics
The new four-cylinder engines were fitted with a Lanchester balancer: two counter-rotating shafts that gave this class of engine smoother ride characteristics than had ever been achieved to date.
The shafts turned in a cassette beneath the crankcase and were driven by crown wheels.
Friction was minimised by mounting them on two needle bearings and a deep-groove ball bearing.
The balancer shafts were arranged in such a way as to accommodate the technical components required for the all-wheel drive of the Sprinter 4×4, such as front axle differential and drive shafts.
The Lanchester balancers were not only a premiere for the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, they were the first to be used in any van.
The rear-mounted camshaft drive and a dual-mass flywheel also contributed to the exemplary smooth running characteristics of the new engine.
Mercedes-Benz has a long-standing commitment to the environment. With the presentation of the current Sprinter generation in 2006, for example, the company was the first manufacturer to equip all diesel engines with a particulate filter as standard.
In line with tradition, therefore, Mercedes-Benz introduced the new OM 651 as the first van diesel engine to comply with the Euro 5 emissions standard.
For the Sprinter, moreover, there was no such thing as first and second-class cleanliness: all output and weight variants complied with Euro 5 requirements.
In addition, an optional version has been announced to comply with EEV standards (Enhanced Environmentally-friendly Vehicle), currently the most stringent voluntary emissions level in Europe.
Classification in line with EEV means even lower values for carbon monoxide (CO), hydrocarbons (HC) and particulate matter (PM).
Thanks to its highly efficient engine, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter achieved both Euro 5 and EEV with exhaust gas recirculation.
The Sprinter was thus able to manage without the SCR technology and AdBlue® additive used in trucks.
This was a significant advantage in vans for a number of reasons – not least, because unlike vehicle parks for heavy-duty trucks few companies had filling facilities equipped with a supply of AdBlue®.
The application profile also differed considerably. Because vans had a shorter range compared with trucks and buses, they required more frequent refuelling – and that often in areas where a supply of AdBlue® could not be guaranteed.
In addition, the extra weight of SCR technology in a van in the 3.5-tonne weight category took a particularly heavy toll.
Sophisticated exhaust gas recirculation with two-stage cooling
The basis for the environmental-friendliness of the new generation of diesel engines is their low level of raw emissions.
In addition to optimised combustion, this is achieved thanks to an increased rate of exhaust gas recirculation.
Exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) in the new engines is water-cooled – a process in two stages as required.
First, all exhaust gases are pre-cooled; then depending on the operating point of the engine a second cooling takes place in the main radiator.
When the engine is cold the EGR is used initially uncooled. This results in a more rapid increase in exhaust gas temperature and thus to prompt operation of the oxidising catalytic converter.
In this way harmful emissions are further reduced. A useful side effect is also that the engine warms up more rapidly, reducing wear and tear as well as improving fuel consumption.
In addition, the heating system can begin warming the interior more quickly.
Another noteworthy feature is that unlike with many other units, the new engine achieves a high rate of exhaust gas recirculation even at full throttle.
For this reason, the Sprinter has deservedly earned its reputation for cleanliness under all operating conditions.
Thanks to a new EGR valve, the EGR system can also be regulated more precisely than its predecessor.
In addition, further reductions can be made in flow losses. All new engines are also equipped with particulate filters as standard.
Regulated auxiliary assemblies cut consumption
The development engineers also redesigned auxiliary assemblies with a view to reducing fuel consumption.
The oil pump, for example, was a regulated vane pump with electric switch – an innovation in diesel engines.
It regulated its supply volume independently and adaptively, thereby tangibly reducing engine output and thus fuel consumption.
The oil pump was fully integrated into the crankcase. The pistons were cooled from below by oil injector nozzles.
In order to reduce consumption, these were only activated as required. Two other assemblies that operated on a needs-only basis were the coolant pump – another premiere for diesel engines – and the alternator. Both helped cut fuel consumption.
Long service life under difficult conditions
Van engines are subject to widely varying yet extremely testing working conditions.
Short-range journeys with frequent stops and starts for local parcel deliveries, low mileages and cold starts with high demands on output for trade professionals, and very high mileages of well over 200,000 kilometres per year for courier services reflect only a few elements of this broad spectrum.
The predecessor engines in the Sprinter enjoyed a reputation for their very great reliability. The new generation raised the load factor even further.
Particular attention was paid to typical load spectrums with van use. The new engine generation was designed with a B10 value of 350,000 km – meaning that at least 90 per cent of the engines would pass this mileage without a general overhaul.
The engines provided impressive proof of this not only on the test rig, but also during intensive long-distance trials in vehicles and under extreme conditions.
The exceptionally long maintenance and oil change intervals for the Sprinter remained unchanged with the launch of the new engines.
As before, oil changes were necessary after 40,000 km and a maintenance service after 80,000 km.
These intervals were flexible and were monitored by the standard-fit service computer ASSYST.
Depending on use, the intervals could be extended up to 100,000 km. One of the major benefits in terms of reliability, service life and therefore running costs was the use of a duplex chain to drive the camshaft.
V6 OM 642: Outstanding technology made even better
With its outstanding engineering, the V6 OM 642 with three-litre displacement – the only six cylinder in use in a European van – was one of the showpieces of Mercedes-Benz engine design.
The undersquare engine (bore x stroke 83 x 92 mm) was based on an aluminium crankcase canted at 72 degrees.
Thanks to the offset crank pins on the crankshaft and a balancer shaft, the engine was quieter than any other diesel in its class.
Technical highlights included altogether four overhead cams driven by duplex chain, as well as common rail direct injection using piezo injectors each with eight injection nozzles.
In its most recent version, the engine meets the Euro 5 emissions standard and has a slightly increased output of 140 kW and significantly increased peak torque of 440 Nm.
At the same time, fuel consumption is noticeably less. Advanced developments of the V6 include a rail pressure of up to 1800 bar and an electronically controlled viscose fan.
As before, a particulate filter is part of the standard specification.
The electronically-controlled viscose fan is used in combination with the air-conditioning system. It switches on automatically as required.
Less frequent operation as a result of the new control system means lower fuel consumption and reduced noise emissions.
ECO Gear: New six-speed manual transmission for vans
The new high-traction engines in the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter are a perfect match for the new ECO Gear six-speed manual transmission.
This makes a significant contribution to cutting fuel consumption and to even better handling and dynamics in the new Sprinter generation.
The new transmission is an all-new development by Mercedes-Benz specifically for vans and is also manufactured in-house.
An outstanding feature of the new transmission is its particularly wide transmission-ratio spread with a low ratio for first gear and a high engine-sparing sixth gear ratio.
This design is van-specific and takes into account typical van-type situations, such as setting off on hills with a trailer under difficult traction conditions and long-distance journeys on motorways.
In general, the new transmission significantly reduces engine speeds in favour of lower fuel consumption and higher efficiency.
In addition, it also results in lower exhaust and noise emissions and increased ride comfort.
The transmission is available in the two ECO Gear 360 versions for four-cylinder engines (including petrol and natural gas variants) and in the more powerful ECO Gear 480 with broader meshing and a more rigid casing wall for the six-cylinder diesel and petrol engines.
The ratios are identical in both transmissions, with a range of 5.08:1 (1st gear) and 0.68 (6th gear). In each case, fourth gear is designed as an engaged direct gear.
High sixth gear ratio reduces revs and cuts consumption
Apart from the slightly lower first gear ratio, the most noticeable feature compared with previous transmissions is the approximately 15 percent higher ratio of the top speed – a prerequisite for comfortable engine revs at higher speeds.
On the other hand, the lower first gear ratio assists the driver when manoeuvring and facilitates slower driving without unnecessary clutch wear.
It also makes setting off under difficult circumstances easier.
The casing of the new transmission is made of aluminium. Both dimensions and weights are almost identical with previous transmissions.
Smoother operation also results in acoustic benefits.
Mercedes-Benz retained its preference for shift-by-wire transmission for the Sprinter, with an easy-to-reach joystick gearshift in the instrument panel.
This is completely decoupled from the transmission. New operation with a transverse shaft concept results in high-precision shifting.
A choice of two final drive ratios
In general the Sprinter’s driven rear axles remain in the programme unmodified. The final drive ratios are also no different from previous models.
But the shortest gear ratio in each case is no longer offered on account of the new generation of high-traction engines and the wide transmission-ratio spread.
However, it is still available for special applications if specifically requested. For normal road use buyers have the choice of two final drive ratios.
These, combined with the broad engine offer, enable the Sprinter to adapt perfectly to whatever circumstances it is required to operate in.
The new transmission with its broad spread, combined with the new high-torque yet agile engines, results in very relaxed driving.
Much reduced engine speeds coupled with numerous technical innovations cut both emissions and fuel consumption significantly.
The powerful drive system of the Sprinter also establishes ideal conditions for trailer use. The permissible trailer weight for the Sprinter with a GVW of 3.5 tonnes has also been increased to 3.5 tonnes.
Adding these together results in an impressive permissible towing weight of precisely seven tonnes.
This additional towing weight is available for all Sprinter versions from 316 CDI as panel van, chassis with cab and double cab, excluding short wheelbase variants.
Further raising of safety level
During development Mercedes-Benz also raised the already exemplary safety level of the Sprinter a notch higher.
Here the key concepts were ESP® trailer stabilisation, adaptive brake lights, heated wide-angle mirror, lower positioned fog lamps and an automatic transmission with start-off assist AAS.
If a customer orders the trailer coupling or pre-equipment for the trailer coupling ex factory, ESP® trailer stabilisation is included in the standard specification.
This additional function to the standard ESP® electronic stability programme is already in use in the Mercedes-Benz Vito and Viano.
ESP® trailer stabilisation uses the ESP® system’s yaw-rate sensor to detect rotary movements about the vehicle’s vertical axis and intervenes with active braking countermeasures. There are no additional sensors on the trailer or on the trailer coupling.
If swinging movements are detected, the ESP® trailer stabilisation brakes the front wheels and reduces engine torque.
Should several interventions be necessary successively, the braking dosage is increased and speed reduced more severely.
This gives a clear signal to the driver of the danger of the swinging trailer and warns him that the vehicle is operating too frequently at critical speed limits.
The ESP® warning light in the instrument panel indicates the control intervention to the driver.
Thanks to its sensitive way of working, ESP® trailer stabilisation helps prevent critical pendulum swinging before it gets out of hand – and as such represents a major bonus in terms of safety and comfort.
ESP® trailer stabilisation recognises the presence of a trailer as soon as the electric connection is made.
With all these innovations the Sprinter is more fit-for-purpose than ever. But the Vito can also celebrate a unique success of its own.
In February 2009, 21,000 London black cabs found themselves facing competition for the first time. Regulations demanded a turning circle of 7.62 metres between kerb stones and 8.35 metres between two parallel walls.
In order for the Vito to meet these requirements, the British company One80 developed a rear-wheel steering specifically for the Vito.
That made the Vito the only competitor on the streets of London to boast such attributes. And the number of Vito taxis in London has been rising rapidly – by the end of 2009 it is estimated there will be 500 Vito vehicles serving customers in the English capital.
The company chronicle has had cause to celebrate several significant anniversaries in recent times.
In June 2008 the Düsseldorf plant produced the three millionth van in the shape of a Sprinter 315 CDI.
And six months later, in December 2008, the 500,000th vehicle in the Vito/Viano series came off the production line at the Vitoria plant.