Cars That Could Have Been Citroëns – 1981 Mercedes Auto 2000

Three pointed stars and chevrons are mutually exclusive. Or are they?

(c) mercedes-benz-passion

A Mercedes that could have been a Citroën? Surely, DTW’s acting editor has taken leave of his senses. But please bear with me. Because while this vehicle is every inch a product of Stuttgart-Sindelfingen, could there be enough double chevron goodness sprinkled over this concept for it to form part of this unique to DTW series of chevronesque curiosities?

The background to the Auto 2000 lay in a late-1970s initiative laid down by the German government to explore advanced, more fuel efficient car designs for the upcoming decade and beyond. The Federal Ministry of Research and Technology set aside a £28 million grant (110 million Deutschmarks) to be shared between selected domestic carmakers, (they too would contribute) with the aim of producing designs which would meet the target limit of 9.5 litres per 100 kilometres for cars with a kerb weight of between 1250 and 1700 kilograms and 11 litres per 100 kilometres for kerb weights up to 2150 kilograms.

It was specified that they must also be functional, realistic vehicles with accommodation for four passengers and usable luggage capacity of over 400 kilograms, without negatively impacting performance, comfort or range. Beyond those parameters, carmakers were tasked with demonstrating notable gains in service life, ease of repair, safety and environmental sustainability when compared with series-production cars of the time.

Selected to create a car in the large category class, Mercedes-Benz were the first to show their hand, revealing details of their Auto 2000 study in quarter scale form to broadly coincide with the 1979 Frankfurt motor show debut of their W126 series S-Class. Created under the auspices of head of research and development, Werner Breitschwerdt, the Auto 2000 would be just as rigorously crafted and well thought-out as the production Sonderklasse which would be met with a rapturous reception at Frankfurt.

Werner Breitschwerdt – head of Mercedes-Benz Research & Development. (c) Daimler AG

Writing for the November 1979 issue of Car magazine, German auto-journalist, Georg Kacher reported on the Mercedes programme, observing that “malicious tongues say the experimental S-Class looks like a Citroën CX with a tristar in the grille…”, a sentiment gleefully echoed almost word for word by the magazine’s French correspondent, (one Pierre Beauregard) in the same issue.

I’m less convinced than Car Magazine’s latterday oracles – the resemblance to the concurrent W126 Sonderklasse being a good deal stronger, notably in the use of the S-Class lower door pressings and in the body surfacing below the beltline. However, the canopy treatment was more of a radical departure. Side glazing was fixed, with small sub-panes let into the front side windows, while aft of the broader and more upright c-pillar, there resided a huge plexiglass Kamm-tail hatch, one perhaps more redolent of Quai de Javel, than Stuttgart-Untertërkheim.

Forward, a steeply raked, more aerodynamic nose treatment aided air penetration, while the inset horizontal grille and headlamp treatment would prove uncannily prescient. Clearly, the smoothing of the W126-inspired lines paid dividends, Auto 2000’s Cd being an impressive 0.28. Nevertheless, it was an S-Class quite unlike any other.

(c) carstyling

First shown as a full sized running prototype in 1981, three Auto 2000 studies were built, the first being fitted with a modified version of the Mercedes 3.8 litre V8 unit, which featured an electronically controlled cylinder deactivation system, allowing it to run on either eight, six or four cylinders, as required. A second prototype employed a 3.3 litre six cylinder diesel unit with twin turbochargers; like the petrol unit, developing 150 bhp. This was rather unusual at the time, but would of course become almost ubiquitous, while the third study was certainly the most intriguing, being powered by a gas turbine.

According to Kacher’s Daimler sources, it had a supercharged twin shaft turbine with a single speed radial compressor, said to produce 150 bhp and an impressive 400 lb/ft of torque at heaven knows what revolutions per minute. Among the advantages of the gas turbine was its multi-fuel capability, combining low emissions, lightness, compact dimensions and the elimination of water cooling, all of which promised notable efficiency gains.

Unconfirmed but likely given their known embrace of the system, was the use of powered hydraulics for the suspension. Certainly this is suggested by the attitude of some of the prototypes pictured, which display a similar deflated appearance to contemporary Citroëns when the hydraulic system is unpressurised. Another benefit of hydropneumatics would have been as an aid to the already impressive aerodynamics – air pressure pressing the car closer to road at speed.

In addition to the efficiency brief, Mercedes also used Auto 2000 prototypes to test new safety technology, liquid crystal digital instrumentation and a (rudimentary) navigation system.

(c) carstyling

This was a classic Mercedes technical study then; rational, thoughtful, with practical, well thought out innovations which would filter through into production cars, much of which we now take as read. Its styling predated forthcoming Daimler models like the C126, and W124, also prefiguring the W140 and in silhouette at least, modern luxury cars like the Porsche Panamera, Tesla S and Mercedes’ own AMG GT.

But the question remains, did Auto 2000 really tip its hat to Quai de Javel, or were Car’s columnists being a little unimaginative in their reporting? Looking at it now, Auto 2000 could only have been the product of Sindelfingen, so while it’s likely that ‘Big George’ and his Parisian counterpart were indulging in a spot of journalistic licence, one could perhaps then understand their rationale. But realistically, there could only have been one emblem upon its nose.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

10 thoughts on “Cars That Could Have Been Citroëns – 1981 Mercedes Auto 2000”

  1. Very interesting. I think this was used as inspiration for Volkswagen’s similarly-named concept:

    I recall wondering what the world would be like in The Year 2000, in the 1980s – it seemed such a ‘futuristic’ date.

    1. Very futuristic indeed – and clearly too futuristic for VW’s customers even seven years later. The very similar looking Passat had to be restyled soon with an old-fashoined grille.

  2. Other than the fastback silhouette, I don’t find much Citroën in this car. The RWD biased silhouette doesn’t ring a French bell with me. The suspension might well have been hydropneumatic, even some regular versions of the W126 had this. I remember one of them close to the place I lived around 2000, lying often flat at the side of the street. I don’t know much about the details of Mercedes’ hydropneumatic system, but I believe it was a bit different from Citroën’s setup, and used Mercedes’ own parts.

    1. Simon: I think that in 1979, for the likes of Kacher and ‘Beauregard’, anything that looked even remotely aero-influenced immediately conjured up images of the double chevron. Post-1980, as we became more exposed to aero shapes that didn’t emanate from Quai de Javel or Velízy, this kind of somewhat lazy journalistic trope would probably have been less likely. From what I can gather, the oleopneumatic system was Mercedes’ own design.

    2. Mercedes’ oleopneumatic suspension was introduced as standard for W116 450 SEL 6.9 and as optional extra for every W126 (would be interesting to know how many of those featured this suspension). It was made by Fichtel&Sachs and featured an anti-sink valve from day one that prevented the car from going down on its bump stops when the system was pressure-less – a feature Citroen introduced twenty years later. 6.9s had a push-pull button on the dashboard to control these valves and allow the car to sink for maintenance .

  3. I’ve found two more concepts from the project – one from Audi, which anticipated their future designs, and is a bit dull, and another from a consortium of German universities, called ‘Uni-car’ (has shades of BL design about it, to me).

    Interesting that some of these concepts are semi-estates (would help both practicality and aerodynamics).

  4. For some reason, this car reminds me from the side and three-quarter views of a stretched and widened Volvo 245, with the rear “wagon” part replaced by an elongated Saab 9000 turbo backlight. The front view is very nice, but overall I’d say it looks quite odd. Which to a certain degree I suppose was the point.

  5. The bonnet opened sideways ! I’ve always liked this prototype, it looked imposing. The front is really well done and still looks good today I think.

  6. Dave

    The knob on the dash of the 6.9 has three positions. One of them allows the driver to select a higher ride height for really bad roads as well.

    They all leak. Mercedes had a no-pressure circuit to recover spill and route it back to the suction side.

    Did you know the 6.9 had a dry sump system for its engine? That was the only way the M100 engine could fit. There oil “tank” was part of the body.

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