March 9, 2012
1933 Mercedes-Benz 130H; photo courtesy eMercedes-Benz.com. Click image to enlarge
Mercedes-Benz, now called Daimler AG, the world’s oldest carmaker, is known for its upscale, high-quality cars and its many technological advances. What it has not been known for is its rear-engine cars, although the very first 1885-1886 Daimler and Benz cars both had rear engines, as does the tiny M-B Smart car introduced in 1998.
Those could be called aberrations, because once Mercedes established the conventional front-engine, rear-drive layout of the automobile at the turn of the twentieth century, its mainline cars have used that traditional configuration. It is somewhat surprising, then, that during the 1930s, Mercedes-Benz once produced cars with the engine behind the rear axle.
It occurred during the worldwide economic depression when Mercedes-Benz saw the need for a smaller model that was economical enough in original price and operating costs to be affordable by more people. There were also industry rumours about a new small, robust, low cost, economical “People’s Car” that would be promoted by the German government. This car, which would ultimately become their competitor, was confirmed by Adolf Hitler when he became the new Chancellor in 1933, and soon commissioned Ferdinand Porsche’s design office to develop what would become known as the Volkswagen “Beetle.”
Mercedes-Benz 130H chassis; photo courtesy PAKWheels.com. Click image to enlarge
To meet these challenges, Mercedes-Benz decided to produce an all-new small car, not a scaled down version of a larger model. In a startling departure, they decided it would have a rear engine. There was already considerable rear-engine interest among some prominent European engineers, including Vienna-born Edward Rumpler, Czechoslovakian Hans Ledwinka of Tatra, and Austria’s Ferdinand Porsche, of Auto Union racers and Volkswagen Beetle fame. Porsche’s Beetle and its derivative Porsche car, and Ledwinka’s Tatra would use rear-engine layouts successfully for many decades. The Porsche 911 still does.
M-B began work on its rear engine passenger car in the early 1930s (it had built earlier rear-engine racers) and experimented with a variety of engine types with both air and water cooling. The design that finally emerged early in 1934 was the Mercedes-Benz Type 130H, (for Heckmotor, or rear-engine) which appeared a year and a half before the first Volkswagen Beetle prototype. The 130H came as a sedan and convertible and was powered by an inline 1.3-litre, 25-horsepower, water-cooled, side-valve, four-cylinder engine mounted longitudinally behind the rear axle. Top speed was an estimated 92 km/h (56 mph).
The 130H had a tubular, back-bone chassis with the body mounted on outriggers. The back-bone frame was not a new concept, having been used by Rumpler, Ledwinka and others, and would be used by Ferdinand Porsche in the Volkswagen Beetle. Suspension was independent on all four wheels via two transverse leaf springs at the front and coil-springs and swing axles at the rear. The three-speed-plus-overdrive transmission was ahead of the axle, and four-wheel hydraulic brakes were fitted.
1935 Mercedes-Benz 150H; photo courtesy MercedesBenzBlogPhotodb.wordpress.com. Click image to enlarge
Although the M-B 130H had the quality construction expected of the company, there was no denying that with some two-thirds of the weight in the rear and the swing axle suspension, handling was subject to the usual strong rear-engine car tendency to oversteer — that is, the proclivity for the rear end to swing wide in corners that were entered too quickly. If the driver pressed on, the car would eventually swap ends or end up in the ditch. This quirk was criticized by testers, but it seemed to be more tolerated at that time, with the suggestion that motorists would adapt to the car’s idiosyncrasies. The 130’s four-wheel independent suspension provided a much more comfortable ride than its contemporaries.
The 130’s styling departed from M-B’s traditional tall rectangular grille topped by a three-pointed star. With no front radiator to worry about, the stylists dispensed with a grille and rounded the hood down to the bumper, somewhat like the Beetle. The individual headlights perched between the hood and the nicely-curved fenders. The rear engine allowed a long enough wheelbase to provide adequate leg room for the four passengers.
The 130H lasted until 1936, at which time M-B introduced two new cars. One was the 150H Sport Roadster, a mid-rear-engine, two-seater roadster with the engine ahead of the axle to alleviate oversteer. Production of the 150H was very limited. There was also the 170H as sedan or convertible, a larger variation of the 130H now powered by a 1.7-litre, 34-horsepower inline four for better performance. Top speed was said to be 112 km/h (70 mph).
The 170H was built until 1939 when the Second World War ended production. Sales of M-B’s rear engine cars were never high, with few motorists willing or able to buy such a radical departure by Mercedes-Benz. Fortunately, examples of all three of these unusual and scarce models have been restored and preserved and are on display in M-B’s museum in Unterturkheim, Stuttgart, Germany.