Circumstances prevented Mercedes-Benz from entering the compact saloon market on two previous occasions, but the company nailed it with the hugely impressive 1982 W201.
The 1982 Mercedes-Benz W201, better known to most as the 190E, was the company’s first foray into what is now called the compact executive market. However, almost two decades earlier, Mercedes-Benz came close to launching a similarly positioned but more radically engineered front-wheel-drive model, codenamed the W118/119(1). This followed an earlier proposal for a conventional small saloon, the W122, which was approved for development in 1953, but cancelled in 1958.
The official reason for cancellation was that, in the same year, Mercedes-Benz acquired a controlling 87% stake in the Auto Union combine of the Audi, DKW, Horch and Wanderer brands(2). The company was concerned that a new, smaller Mercedes-Benz saloon would cannibalise sales of the combine’s largest model, the Auto Union 1000, a medium sized saloon powered by a three-cylinder two-stroke engine.
This explanation is questionable, given that Mercedes-Benz almost immediately began work on a new compact programme, codenamed W118/119. It seems more likely that the W122’s Ponton styling, although pleasant, was beginning to look rather dated by the late 1950’s, hence its cancellation.
Auto Union’s biggest selling cars in the early 1960’s were the 1959 DKW Junior and the 1958 Auto Union 1000. The former was a neat and contemporary looking small two-door saloon, but the latter was just a rebranded 1953 DKW 3=6(3). Both models were powered by small capacity two-stroke engines and the 1000 had 1940’s-style curvaceous bodywork with vestigial wings that was looking increasingly outdated by the end of the 1950’s.
Development of a replacement was already underway when Mercedes-Benz acquired Auto Union, and this model would enter the market in 1963 as the DKW F102. It retained the mechanical layout and three-cylinder two-stroke engine of its predecessor but was clothed in a contemporary and elegant bodystyle that would evolve into the late 1960’s Audi saloon car range.
The F102 presented a problem for Mercedes-Benz. The W119 was roughly the same size and really quite similar in appearance to the forthcoming DKW. The company was once again concerned that a compact Mercedes-Benz would cannibalise Auto Union sales. This risk was exacerbated by the fact that the W119 would be powered by a new 1.7 litre inline four-cylinder four-stroke engine. West German buyers of larger cars were increasingly shunning two-stroke engines, which they regarded as noisy and smelly, and only suited to small cars.
Mercedes-Benz ultimately solved its conflict of interest by selling Auto Union to Volkswagen(4) in 1964 but, unfortunately, not before the highly promising W119 programme had been cancelled. Moreover, Ludwig Kraus, the engineer behind the W119, had been seconded to Ingolstadt in 1963 as Technical Director of Auto Union. His task was to modernise the product lineup and persuade the company’s engineers to move away from their adherence to two-stroke power units.
Kraus would remain with Auto Union after the company’s acquisition by Volkswagen and would go on to develop a new generation of Audi models that would ultimately provide stiff competition for his former employer. To add insult to injury, Kraus had taken with him the drawings for the W119’s engine (apparently with Mercedes-Benz’s blessing) and would use this to power the F102’s successor, the Audi F103(5).
The cancellation of the W119 was certainly a lost opportunity for Mercedes-Benz. It was a conspicuously clean and attractive design, with smooth flanks, a low waistline and large glass area with slim pillars. It resembled a four-door fixed-head version of the sublime 1963 W113 ‘Pagoda’ SL convertible. It even shared the SL’s recessed horizontal grille with its large central emblem, rather than the upright chrome grille traditionally fitted to the company’s saloon cars.
Mercedes-Benz would not enter the market for compact saloons for almost twenty more years, but when the company finally did so, its new offering was the highly impressive W201. This was every inch a Baby Benz, engineered to a similar standard as the company’s larger saloons. The new model was the product of an eight-year development process reputed to have cost around $1.3 billion (£600 million).
A new platform was developed for W201 featuring MacPherson strut and lower wishbone front suspension, a new design of multi-link independent rear suspension, with anti-roll bars front and rear and disc brakes on all four wheels. A Mercedes-Benz saloon car staple, the foot-operated parking brake, was abandoned in favour of a conventional handbrake. The wheelbase was 2,665mm (105”) and overall length was 4,420mm (174”). As ever, safety was a high priority: seatbelt pre-tensioners, ABS and airbags were available on the new model. The use of high-strength steel sections gave the new model a kerb weight of just 1,180kg (2,600lbs).
The W201’s styling team was led by Peter Pfeiffer under the assured supervision of Bruno Sacco. The design observed Sacco’s principle(6) of horizontal homogeneity in that it shared design elements with the 1979 W126 S-Class and would in turn influence the 1984 W124 E-Class. Of course, as the first compact Mercedes-Benz, it had no predecessor to respect, so vertical affinity did not apply. It was a clean and handsome design, if slightly austere for some tastes, with no exterior brightwork apart from the traditional grille. It was also subtly aerodynamic, with a drag coefficient of just 0.33 despite its bluff three-box shape. This was achieved by careful detail sculpting of items such as the tail, door mirrors and wheel covers.
The W201 was formally unveiled on 8 December 1982. The car was launched with a 1,997cc inline four-cylinder engine in either carburettor or fuel-injected form. The former, badged 190, produced 89bhp (66kW) and had a claimed maximum speed of 109mph (175km/h). The latter, badged 190E, produced 121bhp (90kW) and had a claimed top speed of 122mph (196km/h). The engines, designated M102, had been introduced in the W123 larger saloon in 1980, but the power output of the carburettor version was restricted by fitting a modified camshaft, smaller valves and smaller inlet and exhaust manifolds.
The naming of the new model gave rise to some initial confusion. Traditionally, Mercedes-Benz had referred to their cars in terms of engine capacity, by simply multiplying the approximate capacity in litres by 100. The problem was that the entry level variant of the existing W123 model was fitted with a 2-litre engine and already called 200. The rather makeshift solution was the adoption of 190 to signify that the new model was smaller is size, if not engine capacity.
In Part Two we will describe the initial reception for the W201 and chronicle developments throughout its eleven-year production life.
(1) The W118 was intended to be powered by a 1.5 litre flat-four engine but was dropped in favour of the W119.
(2) Mercedes-Benz would buy out the remaining minority shareholders a year later.
(3) Surprisingly, this is not a typo: the 3=6 is the only example of a car model number that is oxymoronic and contains the mathematical equality sign that I am aware of (but you may know differently).
(4) Mercedes-Benz used the proceeds of the sale to fund a new commercial vehicle plant.
(5) The F103 was initially sold simply as ‘Audi’ then subsequently given the model number 72.
(6) Bruno Sacco set out two principles to guide his design team. Vertical Affinity, which required that successor models should not make their predecessors look outdated, and Horizontal Homogeneity, which demanded stylistic similarity between different-sized models.