The idea of a small car providing the same automotive technology, comfort and safety features as larger models has been around as long as the automobile itself. Both Benz & Cie. and Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft designed and produced not only luxurious cars but also more compact models. Also for Daimler-Benz AG, established in 1926 in a merger of these two companies, the concept of a more compact Mercedes-Benz passenger car was in the air right from the start, especially in economically difficult times. It was on this basis that the 170 (W 15 series, 1931) and the 170 V (W 136 series, 1936) were created, for instance.
However, concrete ideas of introducing a new Mercedes-Benz model below the mid-sized category did not emerge before the 1950s (W 122 series) and the early 1960s
(W 118/119). But the plans for these two series remained projects in character and were not developed through to production standard.
The automotive world changed dramatically in the early 1970s. There was increasing talk of a diminishing supply of crude oil, and there was an increasing demand for low-pollutant vehicles, particularly for export to North America. This prompted preliminary technical planning in advanced development for a “smaller” Mercedes-Benz passenger car as early as 1971, although no model series designation was allocated at the time. The oil crisis in 1973 then confirmed that this approach was along the right lines, and at the end of that year it was decided to pursue these ideas with a strong commitment to materializing them. The model series designation “W 201” was then issued in 1974. However, there was vehement debate within the Daimler-Benz Board of Management as to whether the model series should actually be built. The proponents of this strategy were completely convinced that the company could produce a compact car that would still provide the characteristic Mercedes-Benz safety standards, outstanding handling and high levels of ride comfort. The opponents of the idea took exactly the opposite view – i.e. that this was not feasible – and also feared that the exclusiveness associated with the brand would be watered down. In the end, the issue was settled by market forces, and the decision was made in 1977 to build the new W 201 series. This proved to be one of the most important strategic decisions ever taken by the Board of Daimler-Benz AG of the day – although the move came as no surprise to the planners. As Professor Werner Breitschwerdt, then Chief Engineer and later chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler-Benz AG, recalled in 2000: “In the mid-1970s, this suddenly became a hot topic, particularly because of the American regulations on fleet consumption. So a smaller model proved to be a very good idea.” Another point in favour was the idea of launching the new model as an ideal second car alongside a larger Mercedes-Benz Saloon – with the same safety standards.
Important for the product drive
But the brand with the three-pointed star was also looking to expand. It was hoped that the compact class would make Mercedes-Benz attractive to new customers, particularly the younger generation. In the words of Gerhard Prinz, chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler-Benz AG in 1982: “Our new Mercedes-Benz class is a major step towards complementing our current passenger car range by the addition of an entire new model series. This will enable us to tap new opportunities in the marketplace, and to offer attractive models to an even larger number of prospective customers. After a number of years devoted more to consolidating our passenger car business, we have now laid the foundations for a more aggressive approach, a full-scale product drive.”
A lot of the required advanced development work had already been completed by the time the decision was made, so the model series was ready for the market within a comparatively short time, and road tests began as early as 1978. An enormous number of test cars were required during development. The process began with 25 component carriers within the body of a 200 model. These were used to test the new major components, particularly the axles. They were followed by 53 pre-prototypes and prototypes, made completely by hand, for testing the vehicle as a whole, and finally, a pilot series of 25 to 40 vehicles (depending on whether the cars required for type approval are included in the total).
So the expense involved was huge. No less than eight basic designs were formulated for the rear axle alone, with over 70 variants, of which around one third were actually built and tested. The manufacturing costs of one component carrier were around 400,000 DM (approximately 205,000 euros), and pre-prototypes and prototypes cost as much as 2 million DM (approximately 1 million euros) each. But it was money well spent.
Joachim-Hubertus Sorsche, the then Director of Passenger Car Development, was particularly appreciative of the “untiring devotion to every detail that ultimately produces a good car. All this testing and ongoing development over five million test kilometres and in innumerable bench tests, closely integrated with the design work, the determination to keep on until every tiny component was operating perfectly, not just on its own, but as part of the project as a whole, the meticulous attention to detail until even the most demanding designer felt satisfied – that’s what defines this car and makes it a Mercedes.”
The compact class was finally launched in 1982. The engineers had achieved something quite special, worthy of a place in the history of automotive engineering: all the specifications seen as essential for a car’s status as a genuine Mercedes-Benz had been met. The new Mercedes-Benz featured excellent handling, better-than-average comfort levels in its class, outstanding active and passive safety, and excellent fuel economy and emission values. In the words of the 1983 brochure: “This new model series succeeds in concentrating leading-edge Mercedes technology and Mercedes quality in a compact car for the first time – no compromises, no cutbacks.”
A frequently asked question is why those responsible did not opt for front-wheel drive for this car. There were two main reasons for this. First, in a vehicle of this size, the required allocation of space is more easily achieved with rear-wheel drive. In particular, a transversely mounted engine would have significantly restricted the designers’ ability to fit many different engines and transmissions. And secondly, the development department had been anxious to separate the drive and steering functions to give themselves greater scope in tuning the front and rear axles for optimum handling qualities.