Mercedes concept cars are rather boring, these days. Oh sure, they have some far-out features that would never make production in a million years. But those features are just dressing on what is actually the production version of the car in question. See the recent GLB concept.
These ‘concepts’ are intended to spark interest in whichever model is being previewed a few weeks or months ahead of the launch. It may get people coming into the dealerships, but where’s the imagination?
It wasn’t always like this. Mercedes created concept cars as a means of exploring genuinely new ideas. Some of those filtered down to production models, others were just wild flights of fancy.
Here we’ve gathered to together 12 Mercedes concepts that tried to put a new spin on what a car could be. Some informed future models, others disappeared without trace. And all of them are very weird.
1981 Mercedes Auto 2000
This was a showcase of technology that Mercedes thought would feature in cars at the turn of the 21st Century. And it was remarkably prescient. Based on the previous year’s new W126 S-Class, the main focus was improving fuel economy – hence the ultra-low stance, concealed wipers, sloping nose, flattened roof and ‘Kammback’ rear hatch.
Saying it looks ungainly would be generous, but it did inform future thinking. The nose would be applied in some form to every Merc from the ’91 W140 S-Class on. The rear treatment and bi-level roof feature on many modern hybrids. And concealed wipers are an industry standard now.
There was more going on under the bonnet. Three were built with different engines – a petrol V8 featuring cylinder deactivation, a highly efficient 6-cyl twin-turbo diesel and a gas turbine. Gas turbines never took off, but cylinder deactivation and turbochargers used to improve economy are standard issue on the majority of cars on sale today.
1981 Mercedes NAFA
This was a complete departure for Mercedes, looking nothing like anything it had created before. The NAFA has intended to make urban driving as easy as possible.
It measured just 2.5m long and was as wide as it was tall, at 1.5m. The high seating position freed up space and, coupled with the low waistline, gave fantastic visibility. A tiny engine lived up front and drove the front wheels through an automatic gearbox. Four-wheel-steering made parking a cinch.
Lessons learned about packaging the NAFA would become useful when designing the revolutionary original A-Class and Smart. And its influence can be seen in every tall, tiny car on sale today.
1991 Mercedes C112
On the face of it this was a total flight of fancy – a thoroughly modern high-tech, mid-engined supercar with the 6.0 V12 usually found in the SL and gullwing doors.
The chassis featured active suspension that compensated for cornering loads and changes in the road surface, and active four-wheel-steering that would eliminate tramlining. Plus the latest ABS and traction control systems. The body, meanwhile, had an active rear wing and front splitter that would extend to increase downforce as needed.
That technology has, of course, become standard issue in high-end sports cars. Though Mercedes’ engineers probably couldn’t have imagined that active suspension would eventually be linked to GPS to prime the system for upcoming corners.
1991 Mercedes F100
Another technological powerhouse that showcased many technologies that are now commonplace, in the form of a large, luxurious 6-seat MPV with a weird central driving position.
Gadgets included lane keeping assist, blind spot warning, cruise control that controlled the distance to the car in front through front and rear radar, tyre pressure monitoring, voice-controlled phone, xenon headlights, card key, reversing camera, satnav and electrically adjustable driver’s seat and steering wheel. There was even a fax machine and a PC. All of it powered by solar panels on the roof that generated 100w.
There was more tech under the bonnet, where a 6-cyl engine fuelled by hydrogen powered the front wheels.
Of course, we now take all that tech for granted, even if hydrogen-fuelled combustion engines turned out to be a dead-end. No doubt Mercedes learned stuff about FWD packaging for the ’95 Vito van and ’98 A-Class hatch. And is it just us seeing a resemblance to the ’06 R-Class?
1993 Mercedes Vision A93
This continued the work started by the NAFA and F100, leading directly to the A-Class. Trying to package as much space as possible into a tiny footprint, Merc’s designers developed the ‘double floor’ that would be a hallmark of the first two A-Class generations.
Beneath the cabin were two floors with a gap in between. The engine was partially mounted in that space and would, in the event of a crash, be pushed between the floors rather than into the cabin. The system meant the nose could be shorter while maintaining a high level of safety.
It also meant the front half of the cabin could be stretched forwards – as the engine wasn’t in the way – creating more space. The A93 also featured 3-cyl petrol and direct-injection diesel engines that were a dress rehearsal for those used in the Smart.
1994 Mercedes Vario Research Car
Now this was a wild flight of fancy and a completely bonkers idea, being a sort of modular car with interchangeable rear ends.
There were four modules – 2-dr saloon/coupe, 3-dr estate, convertible and pickup. Made from CFRP, the modules attached along the top of the windscreen and at the swage line running along the side of the body. The idea was that owners would be able to rent a module for such time as it was needed. They weighed around 50kg and allegedly didn’t compromise rigidity or crashworthiness.
As we said, completely bonkers and totally useless. And yet Mercedes couldn’t resist packing in some proper technology, drive-by wire steering and brakes being seen for the first time.
1996 Mercedes F200 Imagination
The styling of the F200 closely previewed that of the C220-generation CL coupe that would follow in ’99. As did the Active Body Control adaptive suspension, which also debuted in the CL.
The doors would be seen in the ’03 SLR McLaren. The curtain airbags were standard-fit in the ’98 S-Class. The electro-transparent roof featured in the ’02 Maybach 62. Active bi-xenon headlights came in the ’03 E-Class. The voice-controlled phone was available in the facelifted W140-gen S-Class later in ’96. Knee airbags are now commonplace. And the rear-view cameras have only just come to market on the Audi e-tron.
But there was one completely off-the-wall idea in the F200 – throttle, brakes and steering were all controlled by a ‘sidestick’ joystick. Actually, there were two, so the driver could be sat in either seat and control could be shared as needed. It was, of course, a preposterous idea for a car, but similar control systems are now standard-fit in most commerical airliners.
1997 Mercedes F300 Life Jet
No, it’s not a Carver. But Merc had exactly the same idea, using hydraulics to tilt the F300 up to 30 degrees as the steering wheel was turned. A motorbike-like driving experience was promised for the tandem passengers.
It was fairly hefty at 800kg, but performance was reasonably sprightly and it was very economical. Power came from a 1.6 4-cyl engine borrowed from the just-launched A-Class – which itself had a habit of leaning over to disastrous effect.
Believe it or not, the F300 wasn’t entirely irrelevant. The tilting system was a development of what eventually became Merc’s top-line active body control system, which leans into corners by dropping the suspension on the side corresponding to the direction of the turn.
2001 Mercedes F400 Carving
This was yet another piece in the puzzle that would become active body control. This time around, Merc developed active camber control that adjusted the angle of the outer wheels during cornering, maximising the tyre contact patch. A 2-piece wheel hub carrier was used with a fixed element and a hydraulic cylinder that adjusted the camber. The tyres were specially designed to take advantage of the system.
There was more going on, too. The whole thing was made from carbonfibre. It featured an all-new 3.2-litre V6 petrol engine that would soon be seen in Merc saloons. Gears were changed by steering wheel-mounted buttons. Steer-by-wire and brake-by-wire was used, as was hydropneumatic suspension.
The ABC system Merc eventually put into production is based entirely on air suspension, so the Carving turned out be a dead-end. And yes, the name does refer to its ability to carve round corners.
2003 Mercedes F500 Mind
This was almost conventional, being an – extremely – large 4-seater saloon/hatch/MPV-thing which, like the F100 before it, puts us in Mind of the R-Class.
But it was another exercise in prescience. It featured a diesel-electric powertrain of the sort now used in the C- and E-Class, centred around a 4.0 V8 diesel that would itself go into production a few years later. The night-vision system would be seen in the ’06 S-Class. And it had digital instrument and infotainment displays.
The F500 wasn’t without weirdery, though. The pedals were touch sensitive pads – there to free up extra interior space. The roof panel was made entirely of glass. And the back doors could be opened forwards or rearwards, the latter giving a massive opening.
2005 Mercedes Bionic
Merc’s quest to find the most aerodynamic shape for a small family car led them to the… boxfish. The fish is as ungainly as the car, but it is extremely aerodynamic – the Bionic has a drag co-efficient of just 0.19 Cd.
The rest of the Bionic was fairly conventional, with a 2.0 4-cyl turbo diesel powering the front wheels through an automatic gearbox. There was the kind of concept car frippery you’d expect inside, but is was basically a bog-standard, family-size 4-seater.
While fish-shaped cars have yet to take off, Merc learnt from the Bionic and now produces some of the most aerodynamic cars on the market – the current A-Class saloon has a Cd of just 0.22.
2011 Mercedes Silver Arrow
This was created for a design competition at the ’11 LA Auto Show, with the theme of Hollywood’s Hottest New Movie Car. The designers took inspiration from Merc’s past, particularly its ’30s and ’50s race cars. A bit of Tron was mixed in, too.
The power source wasn’t specified and there was no explanation of how the ‘omni-directional’ wheels would work. But then this was just an exercise in letting the imagination run riot.
The Silver Arrow starred in an animated short titled Silver Lightning. The judges were clearly impressed, as it won the competition.
By Graham King