Daimler-Benz Broke With Convention by Launching Radical Rear-Engined Production Cars

Story by Karl Ludvigsen • Photography Courtesy Mercedes-Benz

In the 1930s, the Silver Arrows of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union clashed in Grand Prix races. The former campaigned front-engined cars while the latter ran rear-engined designs. 

So, which one of these companies produced rear-engined cars for sale to public? Logic would point to Auto Union, which could capitalize on the publicity of its radical rear-engined racer. However, it was Daimler-Benz that made the somewhat bizarre decision to put rear-engined passenger cars on the road.

In 1923, before its 1926 merger with Daimler, Mannheim-based Benz built a 2.0-liter Grand Prix car that placed the engine behind the driver: the sleek, mid-engined Benz RH. After the model’s only international race at Monza—in which two examples placed fourth and fifth—it competed in hillclimbs and sprints with considerable success throughout the rest of the 1920s.

In 1929, after Ferdinand Porsche left the post of chief engineer at Daimler-Benz, the Benz coterie took charge in a big way. Veteran Benz engineer Hans Nibel usurped Porsche’s place as the company’s board member for engineering. He even moved into Porsche’s Stuttgart villa. 

Nibel had worked on the Benz RH racing car along with its chassis designer, Max Wagner, who took charge of the underpinnings of Mercedes-Benz cars. Teamed with engine expert Fritz Nallinger, the men from Benz in Mannheim seized the ascendancy at Daimler-Benz.

Outside the Box

With their company by no means immune to the impact of the Depression, the top managers at Daimler-Benz assigned Hans Nibel the task of designing a small, inexpensive Mercedes-Benz. They thought it should be rear-engined from the very start. 

Their first effort, which bore fruit during 1931, had an air-cooled rear engine and was tried in a dozen prototypes. Proving too crude to carry the star, this design was set aside.

Nibel set his team to work on a completely new rear-engined design that kept only two of the previous effort’s features: a tubular backbone frame and a swing-axle rear suspension fitted with coil springs. According to Daimler engineer Josef Müller, his team decided that the small car’s four passengers “should be given the best-sprung area between the axles.” A big-car ride could best be achieved with the engine in the rear, they agreed.

While the engineers were passionate about the rear-engined layout, several other factors supported this radical idea. For one, making the small car so unorthodox would help avoid cannibalizing sales of larger, more conventional Mercedes-Benz autos. Also, the design would support Daimler-Benz’s aim to give its products a loftier image than the conventional offerings of the American automakers and their German offshoots. (Both sources of competition were having a hefty impact on Germany’s car market—a penetration of up to 40 percent.) Daimler-Benz’s effort was to be “a flight into quality,” as it was called in Untertürkheim. 

The power unit “was supposed to take as little space as possible and be located right behind the rear axle,” Müller recalls. “Some space in front of the front axle was thought sufficient for the trunk.” 

This idea, developed by car layout expert Oskar Siebler, had the support of Nibel and Wagner. They approved of the independent front suspension, too: twin transverse leaf springs that also acted as suspension arms.

Direct and fast-acting rack-and-pinion steering was a novel feature.

Upmarket amenities included hydraulic brakes (not yet common on small cars) and a pedal-operated central lubrication system that greased key chassis points. Rear swing axles pivoted from trunnions that were built into the transaxle to resist traction and braking forces. A chassis crossmember featured abutments at its ends to support a coil spring above each swing axle. 

To maximize passenger space, the engine was overhung behind the rear wheels, where it drove a four-speed transaxle that protruded forward under the rear seats. The inline side-valve, four-cylinder, 1308cc powerplant was rated at 26 bhp at 3400 rpm. It was liquid-cooled by a radiator located across the chassis, above the rear axles. 

This was how Daimler-Benz chose to solve what it called “one of the most interesting tasks ever presented in automobile design: to create a car that has the driving characteristics of a large, independently sprung auto, the carrying comfort of a modern middle-class car and the low running costs of a small car.” Weight was 2160 pounds, and at least 65 percent of it fell on the rear wheels.

Styling this novel, small Mercedes-Benz was another crucial task. Was the company to adopt some of the more radical aerodynamic solutions being proposed in the 1930s, or should it choose a more conservative course? According to Wilhelm Haspel, who was in charge of design and manufacturing at the Sindelfingen body plant, the company’s course had to be toward “purity” of design, founded on tradition and elegance. They felt that the public—especially their Mercedes-Benz public—wasn’t ready to accept more bizarre styles.

Thus the car’s styling awkwardly straddled the old world of cars and the newness of its technology. To the directors’ credit—though their discussions were animated—they accepted the lack of a front-mounted radiator, real or fake. Instead, a simple curved hood carried the three-pointed star above a compartment for the spare wheel and a miniscule amount of luggage. Louvers above the rear fenders fed air to the rear-mounted radiator.

The end result was called the 130. Base price for the two-door sedan was 3375 Reichsmark, about $1250 at the official rate. The car was launched at the end of 1933 and first displayed at the Berlin Auto Show in February 1934.

None of Mercedes-Benz’s larger four-door Type 170 models were priced lower than RM4400 at the time, leaving some headroom for the new model. However, BMW’s Type 315, a two-door sedan with a 1.5-liter six and 34 bhp, was introduced in 1934 at an attractive RM3750.

Testers weren’t unhappy with the 130’s performance. Top speed was clocked at 57.2 mph by Motor und Sport, while The Autocar measured it at 55.6 mph at Brooklands. Acceleration to 50 mph took 37 seconds. While these figures were modest, Motor und Sport “reached driving averages that approach those of the outstanding Type 170, even though the power source is 400cc smaller. Thus the performance characteristics are in all respects to be praised.”

The engine was by no means quiet, especially at high revs. Nevertheless, said The Autocar, “one is not conscious of the engine and can scarcely hear it. The effect at 45 to 50 mph is almost of gliding, an impression which is helped by the soft and extremely comfortable springing. With the car running at around 50 you have the suggestion of a larger machine propelled as though by an invisible agency. It is the comfort of riding—and the remarkable ease with which this car travels at speeds which are quite high for one of its size—that single it out from the ordinary.”

The 130 hit its production high point in 1934, when 2205 examples were constructed. When production decreased to 1781 cars in 1935, price increased in proportion to RM3680. Only 311 examples were made in 1936, when inventories were cleared by dropping the sedan’s price to RM3200. In total, 4298 130s were reportedly produced.

“As appealing as this car was, begun with so much enthusiasm, it just wasn’t the fully adequate four-seater that we so urgently needed,” Müller says. “Customers strongly disliked the tendency to oversteer and the tiny trunk—not to mention the nasty word ‘fishtail’ that even came from our own ranks. Failure to cool adequately on mountain climbs was another fault. So, too, was its styling, which from the front was derided as ‘insect-like.’”

Showing remarkable perseverance, the Daimler-Benz managers approved a complete redesign for a new rear-engined car that would address the 130’s shortcomings. At the same time, engineers were working on a new and updated version of the popular front-engined 170. The two cars would face off in the marketplace, and the buying public would determine the winner.

Both models would share the same basic 1.7-liter, four-cylinder engine: a 73.5mm bore teamed with a 100.0mm stroke. The four’s rated horsepower was 38 at 3300 rpm with good torque. The models, both called 170, used suffixes to denote engine placement: 170 V for vorn (front) and 170 H for heck (rear).

During the 130’s transformation into the 170 H, the wheelbase increased to 102.4 inches. Other than that, the chassis underwent few changes. It featured a tubular backbone frame, rack-and-pinion steering, twin transverse front springs and coil-sprung rear swing axles. 

By the end of 1934, a new body design for the improved rear-engined car was ready and wind tunnel-tested. Learning from their hesitant effort at shaping the 130, Sindelfingen’s stylists found a happier form for the 170 H. Its lines were altogether more harmonious, this time featuring a split windshield and an attractive tail with a louvered deck lid. The only jarring note, at a time when other cars sported new solutions, was its continued use of freestanding headlamps.

The 170 V and 170 H both premiered at the Berlin Show in February 1936. Journalists relished the opportunity to compare the two new Mercedes-Benz models, so different in their architecture yet powered by the same 1.7-liter engine. Motor und Sport credited the rear-engined car with wider and roomier seating, especially in front, and fuel consumption that was heavier in town and lighter on the highway thanks to its good aerodynamics and high gearing. 

Both cars featured similar acceleration: rest to 50 mph in 25 seconds, a significant improvement over the 130. Top speed of the rear-engined car was timed at 67.4 mph, reckoned to be 3 to 4 mph faster than the 170 V.

For the enthusiastic and skilled driver, the 170 H’s handling was a delight. “I really liked the rear-engined cars,” said Daimler-Benz development engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut. “You could slide them so nicely around corners—only not with much speed.” 

The 170 H’s stability was still precarious, however, said an Englishman who was in Germany from 1937-’38: “The story then was that disillusioned owners dared not venture onto the new Autobahnen with their 130s and 170 Hs in wet and gusty weather.”

Ultimately, the rear-engined 170 H had three major competitive disadvantages against the more conventional 170 V. For one, the front-engined car offered many more body styles, including a four-door sedan and an open touring body in the classic Mercedes-Benz style. Second, the luggage stowage in the 170 V was easier and more generous. 

A third crucial deficit was pricing. The 170 H cost RM4350 while the comparable two-door 170 V was priced at RM3750. Rear-engined technology came at a 16-percent premium.

After eight examples were made in 1935, 170 H production rolled into gear with 1010 produced in its official launch year of 1936. Then, 500 more cars trickled through the factory: 50 in 1937, 250 in 1938 and the final 189 in 1939, making a production total of 1507 for this last and best rear-engined Mercedes-Benz. From 1935 to 1939, total production of the rival 170 V came to 65,305. It wasn’t even a contest. 

Mid-Engined Misstep

In the midst of all this rear-engined activity, Nibel and Wagner also built a car that truly inherited the principles of the mid-engined 1923 Benz Grand Prix car. With Germany’s motorsports booming under the Third Reich’s rule, Daimler-Benz decided to build a sports car to compete in long-distance rallies. The company adopted a true mid-engined layout for their 150 to suit it to this application.

The 150’s frame was again a central tube, forked at the rear to carry the engine and transaxle. As the 150 moniker implies, the car’s engine was 1.5-liters—actually 1498cc. 

Conceived solely for the 150 and not used in any other Mercedes-Benz vehicles, the four-cylinder engine was capable of revving safely to 5000 rpm. Thanks to its gear-driven single overhead camshaft and cross-flow manifold, it developed its peak power of 55 bhp at 4500 rpm—very good output for the time.

Only handfuls of 150 chassis were produced. A first batch of six was readied for 1934’s 2000-Kilometer Trial; they were bodied as coupes with big scoops and louvers to cool the engines. 

They performed well, but more convincing was the result in the August 1934 Liège-Rome-Liège Rally. Berlin’s Hans-Joachim Bernet won a special award for being the event’s leader at Pisa on the way back from Rome. He was the top finisher in a closed car and completed the rally without being docked any penalty points.

When a production version of the 150 was unveiled at the Berlin Show in February of 1935, it was a different animal. An open roadster of fabulous flamboyance, it had rakish cutaway suicide doors and two spare wire wheels strapped to the sides, and a small luggage compartment under the front deck. Abbreviated fenders and a long, tapering rear deck with lavish louvering gave the 150 roadster spectacular proportions.

The nose was an issue, however, as it sported exposed lamps. According to one critic, it looked “broken up, avoiding without any good reason a streamlined form.” Its cockpit was lavishly instrumented with a tachometer as well as speedometer to underpin the car’s sporty aspirations.

The 150 was ambitiously priced at RM6600, pitching it against BMW’s much more practical and popular 319/1 two-seater at RM5800. As a result, this Daimler-Benz effort to invade the small sports car market misfired badly—only two such cars are known to have been sold. 

Nevertheless, the 150 qualifies as the world’s first mid-engined sports car to go into production. Another bonus: They are the rarest of the rare among the company’s productions.

The Final Word

The total output of these rear-engined Mercedes-Benzes amounts to just over 5800 units, and some were produced 70 to 75 years ago. Therefore, you’re not likely to spot one in the classifieds. They’re usually found in special facilities, including Daimler’s museum as well as the Tampa Bay Automobile Museum, where Alain Cerf gathers the world’s most unusual cars.

Nevertheless, if you should acquire a 130, 150 or 170 H, you can be assured that the car will feature exceptional quality that will make you the center of attention at any meet. Thanks to the Mercedes-Benz Classic Centers in Stuttgart and Irvine, California, these cars can even be restored and maintained. And they’re all enjoyable drives to boot.

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