Mercedes-Benz L 319: The first van with the three-pointed star
Stuttgart
Aug 26, 2005
  • Precursor of numerous successful series
  • Particularly robust design for tough operating conditions
  • Proven passenger car engines
  • Produced at four plants in Germany and Spain
  • Popular compact O 319 bus
The German soccer champion is Rot-Weiß Essen, the German chancellor rides in a Mercedes-Benz car named “Adenauer”. The year is 1955, and the “economic miracle”, initiated by Federal Minister of Economics, Ludwig Erhardt, and the social market economy propagated by him, calls for new means of transport. In response to this, one of the vehicles launched into the market was the Mercedes-Benz L 319. The first van with the three-pointed star – called express truck at the time – celebrated its premiere at the Frankfurt International Motor Show in September. It was the precursor of numerous, successful generations of Mercedes-Benz vans, through to the current Sprinter, Vito and Vario series.
Robust design for tough operating conditions
After launching an entire generation of new trucks as well as new buses, the then Daimler-Benz AG expanded its commercial vehicle range by the addition of vehicles in the lighter weight categories from 1955. With a gross weight of 3.6 tons and compact dimensions, the new L 319 series was simply ideal for craftsmen and traders. The engineering was in keeping with the demands made by this no-nonsense clientele: load-bearing ladder-type frame for chassis and pickups (the panel van featured a partially self-supporting body), leaf-sprung rigid axles front and rear and large 16-inch wheels had robustness written all over them. The engineering coped without problems with the rough treatment that was quite customary among owners of larger vans. And despite its robust design, the L 319 had a high payload capacity of between 1.6 and
1.8 tons, depending on the version.
Cab-over-engine look adopted from trucks and buses
The new L 319 made its appearance in an unusual styling. Whereas heavy-duty and light-duty trucks in the 1950s were usually of the conventional type, the space-saving cab-over-engine design was preferred for light-duty vans. In creating the L 319, the developers consequently opted for a design that resembled two series which where launched at almost the same time, the LP 315 (the first COE truck from Mercedes-Benz) and the chubby O 321 H bus. Both the trademark – a large star – and the circular headlights were set into the oval radiator grill of the L 319, and like bus and truck, the van sported a chrome trim strip, extending below the windshield right across the rounded front end to above the side doors in the cab.
Unlike truck and bus, however, the L 319 had an undivided, boldly sweeping panoramic windshield. And despite the COE design, a convenient entrance behind the front axle was incorporated. The axle, moved unusually far forward for this reason, and dynamically flared wheelarches gave the van a very distinctive and independent look.
Drive technology from the passenger car
Behind the flat front end, four-cylinder engines with rather modest output were at work. Initially, only the diesel engine from the 180 D car model was available, developing
43 hp from a displacement of 1.8 liters. It was soon joined by the gasoline engine from the 190 with 1.9 liter displacement and 65 hp output. These vans had top speeds of
95 km/h (gasoline) and 80 km/h (diesel) – robustness was accorded clearly higher priority than speed. The reference to a “spirited engine” in a contemporary brochure can be attributed, more than anything else, to the optimism and atmosphere of departure prevailing in those years. Engine power was transmitted to the rear axle via a four-speed box. The shift lever on the steering column was an early precursor of the joystick in the up-to-date Sprinter. Direction indicators and horn were operated by means of a signal ring in the steering wheel.
The L 319 was closely related to the company’s passenger cars not only in terms of drive technology and gearshifting. The first brochure also emphasized the connection between commercial vehicle and passenger car with the sort of cover-page drawing that was customary at the time. It showed an L 319, arranged outside a greengrocer’s (reflecting one of the vehicle’s typical assignments) and passed by a Mercedes-Benz “Ponton” sedan and a 300 SL sports car.
Time required for starting and servicing
In terms of starting, the diesel engine in the L 319 D differed greatly from modern direct-injection units. The pre-chamber combustion engine required the classic one minute’s silence for Mr. Diesel for a cold-start – that’s about as long as the driver had to pull and hold the starting lever. In those days, drivers did not complain about having to walk around the vehicle every 1,000 kilometers and fill up a handful of lubricating points on the chassis from a grease gun. The operating instructions included detailed information about the retightening of the cylinder head bolts, the adjustment of valve clearance and the cleaning of oil and fuel filters – in those days, drivers doubled as mechanics as a matter of course, if only for the simpler jobs.
The instrument panel lived up to its designation on account of being quite straight and holding nothing more than a speedometer and a coolant temperature gauge. A fuel gauge was not including, forcing the driver to calculate for himself how far the 60-liter tank would take him.
Spacious load compartment, different versions
Thanks to the compact COE design of the van which was just 4.8 meters long, the load compartment was as long as three meters and had a volume of 8.6 cubic meters in the panel van – plenty of space for loads, in other words. The L 319 was available as panel van, pickup, low-loader and mobile shop with awning-type covers at the sides and rear – named “open delivery vehicle”. The range also included a panel van with sliding doors. But don’t be mistaken: the space-saving sliding doors provided access to the cab – they had not yet been invented for the load compartment. The latter was only accessible through hinged doors at the back of the panel van version.
Produced in Sindelfingen, Düsseldorf, Vitoria and Mannheim
In the course of the van’s twelve-year production period – large-scale production began in 1956 and did not end until 1968 – more powerful engines with up to 55 hp (diesel) and 80 hp (gasoline) boosted the L 319’s sprightliness. It was a diversified “life” for the van. Initially manufactured in Sindelfingen, van production was relocated to Düsseldorf in 1962. Daimler-Benz AG had taken over this plant together with Auto Union in 1958, and Düsseldorf has remained the company’s van plant to this day, being the home of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter today. The third production location for the L 319 was Vitoria in Spain, where the vans were assembled in the 1960s, using parts kits supplied by the Düsseldorf plant. Mannheim, finally, was the production location of the compact buses based on the panel van version.
Even the model designations changed in the course of the years. The initial L 319 reflected the internal design name customary at the time. In 1963, this was replaced by a nomenclature which combines weight and output data and has remained in use to this day. Hence, what had started out as L 319 ended as L 408 and L 406 in 1968 (1970 in Spain).
Popular compact O 319 bus
When production was discontinued, some 140,000 panel vans, pickups, chassis and buses had come off the assembly lines of the four plants. The easily maneuverable
O 319/O 319 D bus, initially produced in Mannheim, played a special role in the career of this model family on account of its popularity. From 1956, it was available in both practical versions with up to 18 seats for commuter transport and touring coach versions.
The top-of-the-range model was the O 319 with roof edge glazing, folding sunroof, two-tone livery and luxury seats for ten passengers – a vehicle that would be called club bus today. Passengers were pampered with a perfect view and great comfort. No more than three rows each with three individual seats meant generous space in the passenger compartment and a large compartment for luggage in the rear. Individual seats with red velour upholstery covers, armrests, adjustable backrests, parcel racks and chrome-trimmed ashtrays created a sophisticated atmosphere and were regarded as all-out luxury at the time.
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