In January 1967, Daimler-Benz AG presented the new L 406 D and L 408 large-capacity vans as well as the O 309 minibus, which was built on the same basis. These so-called “Düsseldorfer” vans replaced the popular L 319 post-war van, added considerably to its potential and stylishly continued the success story of what had been
Mercedes-Benz’s first large-capacity vans. Up until the end of production in 1986, just under half a million units rolled off the production line at the Düsseldorf plant.
Larger and more powerful than a delivery van, more manoeuvrable and lighter than a truck: these characteristics were the key to its success. With their high payload capacity, Düsseldorf vans were in a class of their own and set the standards in their sector from the outset.
If these vans had never existed, somebody would have to have invented them. The German postal service ordered numerous panel vans in deep yellow as parcel delivery vans. The new large-capacity van was also welcomed by furniture store owners, many of whom had capacious box-bodies fitted on the Düsseldorf van chassis and appreciated the fact that the combinations still had a low loading edge.
On the other hand, the crewcab pickup was a hit with construction workers. The boss and his team could all fit into the cab, while the pickup’s platform had room for anything from a sack of cement to roofing panels, i.e., the vehicle could carry everything needed for the job. And often enough, a compressor or even a whole site caravan was attached to the trailer coupling.
A combination of bus and truck, the crewcab model was also popular with municipal services that had to transport teams of people and a lot of equipment at the same time. No wonder that the fire service quickly discovered the benefits of the large-capacity van for its own purposes and gladly made use of the speedy petrol-engined L 408 as a crew fire-fighting vehicle.
A mobile bank serving village communities
As if this wasn’t enough, the Düsseldorf vans even put the banks on wheels. Converted into a mobile branch, the large-capacity van served as a savings bank that toured the villages. In general, then, anyone with a product to sell at markets and therefore relied on mobility was delighted with the new model – a vehicle that lent itself perfectly for conversion into a mobile shop and yet never bowed under the weight of on-board stock.
Additional career as a minibus
It goes without saying that the Düsseldorf vans also made a career as minibuses. They were ideal for shuttle services. In far-off countries they were all-rounders, functioning as enormous taxis or compact expedition vehicles. Bodybuilders such as Ernst Auwärter conjured up luxurious club buses from Düsseldorf vans, such as the legendary Teamstar. The timeless stylistic vocabulary of the design, which made a clean break with the emphasised roundedness of its predecessor, the L 319, was entirely new. With elegant and practical charm, the emphasis of the new design was on functionality. The “button nose” bonnet testified to a very compact design with an engine that extended a short way into the cab. However, in keeping with the light-weight truck series presented in 1965, the steering axle was positioned far towards the front, facilitating lower and more comfortable entry into the vehicle. The vehicle offered a generosity of visibility quite unknown before in van design. Only thin pillars acted as connecting elements between the high, slanting windscreen and the lateral quarterlights. As if seated in a cockpit, the driver enjoyed a commanding view of the action taking place around him – an unusual perspective by the standards of the day.
Continuity of components
However, Mercedes-Benz continued to use tried-and-tested components that had proven their effectiveness under this timeless outer shell. The successful predecessor, the L 319, of which around 120,000 units had been produced, had already demonstrated the extent to which customers appreciated robust and sound engineering. And so the L 406 D diesel model came on the scene in 1967, fitted with a familiar two-litre pre-chamber diesel engine called the OM 621, which had already powered the L 319 and developed 40 kW. Likewise, the 59 kW 2.2 litre petrol engine in the L 408 was already known from the L 319 – although it hardly featured in the sales statistics. Ride comfort increased considerably. In the highly sensitive ambulance and rescue vehicle sector, at least, the Düsseldorf vans had what amounted to a virtual monopoly in their weight category. As a result of extensive detailed work and fine-tuning, the engineers had succeeded in fundamentally improving the handling and ride qualities compared to those of its predecessor. U-section frame side members with cross-members and leaf-sprung rigid axles front and back were the distinguishing marks of the chassis on the new generation of vans, which continued in the successful tradition of their predecessors in this respect.
Subtle modular system for increased universality
From the start, the new Düsseldorf vans’ trump card was their enormous universality. The key to this was a versatile modular assembly system that was refined over the years. The Düsseldorf plant produced the van in a choice of three weight categories, 3490 kg, 4000 kg and 4600 kg. Six chassis, with or without cabs, were provided for purpose-built bodies and vehicles. With short-wheelbase panel vans, the customer had the choice between a normal roof giving an interior cargo space height of 1600 millimetres and a slightly higher roof giving 1750 millimetres height in the cargo area. By contrast, Mercedes offered the panel van with the long wheelbase exclusively in the particularly spacious, higher variant with 1750 millimetres interior height. Hinged and sliding doors were also on offer, as well as a large range of door combinations. In 1968, the OM 615 pre-chamber diesel engine with 2.2 litres displacement and an output of 44 kW replaced the original OM 621 two-litre engine. In 1974, the new OM 616 diesel engine, which had a displacement of 2.4 litres and an output of 48 kW, came on the scene. The model designations changed accordingly. From now on this newly strengthened Düsseldorf van was known as L 407 D rather than L 406 D. In 1982 a 53 kW variant of the OM 616 entered the field. The base engine had already had competition from an engine with greater displacement for a long time. From 1968 onwards a new model enriched the programme, the L 408 D. The L 408 D’s 59 kW were developed by a unit from the 300 engine series. New weight variants came along equipped with this 3.8 litre engine: the large-capacity van now conquered the five and six tonne categories.
Swiftly on to higher weights
The desire to be freed from the constraints of the truck had thus been aroused. In 1977, Mercedes-Benz extended the choice of engines by adding a big-brother OM 352 six-cylinder unit with an output of 96 kW to the OM 314 four-cylinder engine. Meanwhile, the maximum permissible weight for the six-tonner had risen from 5900 kilograms (1970) to 6500 kilograms (1973). More than ever before, the 5.7 litre six-cylinder in-line engine with 96 kW rated output made it possible for the 6.5-tonner to perform impressively, even in difficult circumstances, e.g., with a heavy site caravan in tow. And yet it was not just the engines that grew in diversity and power. In 1972, a particularly long wheelbase of 4100 millimetres extended the possibilities for the L 508 D and L 608 D pickup models. The panel vans of the same model were also able to benefit from this wheelbase from 1974 onwards. An extra-high panel van version made 1900 millimetres of interior height possible instead of the previous maximum of 1750 millimetres.
In 1980, the 5 and 6-tonne panel van versions with 4100 millimetre wheelbases also grew in width. As an alternative to the 2100 millimetre wide models and with volume-oriented customers in mind, Mercedes-Benz offered another model with an exterior width of 2400 millimetres and interior height of 1930 millimetres. This increased load volume by almost 20 percent from 17.5 to 20.8 cubic metres. The German postal service welcomed this with open arms.
The O 309 bus also profited from the long 4100 millimetre wheelbase, which was available in the bus sector from 1975 and which from 1979 could be combined with the option of a particularly spacious variant, featuring an exterior width of 2450 millimetres instead of the usual 2100 millimetres. Among the positive consequences of the long 4100 millimetre wheelbase for passenger transport were its “25+1” instead of “21+1” seats.
Careful model refinements
Careful refinements throughout the long course of their production period ensured that the Düsseldorf vans always remained up-to-date. In 1977, for example, the series went through an extensive model refinement process, which resulted in the addition of modern tail lights and rubber-protected bumpers to its outward appearance. On the inside, life was made easier for the driver by a new dashboard and wind-down windows instead of the sliding windows that had been standard up till then. The quarterlights in the doors were made into ventilation windows. In addition to this, there were new control levers and handles, as well as a steering wheel with a pleasant-to-the-touch, easy-to-grip cover.
Finally, in 1981 came a new, anthracite-coloured plastic radiator grille and a wide bumper made of plastic. At the same time, the Düsseldorf plant also refurbished the interior panelling of the large-capacity vans, which greatly reduced noise level in the cab.
The Düsseldorf vans proved to be virtually indestructible, not only individually but also as a species. Production, which had started in 1967, lasted for almost 20 years (without counting 20 units produced in 1966) and only ceased in 1986. Precisely 496,447 units with the internal code numbers 309 and 310 were released into the big wide world and made a name for themselves during this period.
Mercedes-Benz also delivered almost 50,000 parts kits for assembly to plants in Argentina, Spain, Tunisia, Iran and Turkey.
The question of whether the successor model, the T2 presented in 1986, had a hard act to follow or whether it was born with all the advantages of a large and successful family is purely academic. One thing is for sure: above the Sprinter and T1 model series, the T2, with gross weight ratings of up to 7.5 tonnes, covered an even wider range of applications than its predecessor and continued to capitalise on the niche between classic van and light-weight truck.
Even though the model series has gone through further modifications over time and now bears the name Vario, it still successfully carries on exactly this tradition. Its individual “button nose” provides a direct reminder of the Düsseldorf vans presented in 1967 – this typical characteristic living on in the Vario large-capacity van series today. Just like the Düsseldorf van and the T2 before it, the Mercedes Vario is proving to be a true all-rounder and still forms a class of its own.
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