The “special vehicle production unit” at the Sindelfingen plant.

The “special vehicle production unit”.

The 1920s and 1930s were a time of upheaval for the automotive industry. The manufacturers were distancing themselves further and further from classic body shapes that were often still rooted in the coach and carriage era. And those who could afford it would have their own, individual vehicle built, which the concept of a chassis construction with a separate body set on top easily made possible. Numerous body-building companies were able to offer this service. They would simply order the chassis and equip it with a body to meet the customer’s requirements. This form of individualisation was a lucrative business, but one which the manufacturers were gradually discovering for themselves.

Daimler-Benz AG set up its special vehicle production unit in the Sindelfingen plant in 1932. Within a short space of time the Mercedes-Benz brand had earned itself a reputation for putting wheels under some rather unusual one-off creations and for meeting highly specialised customer requirements – a service that until the establishment of the special vehicle production unit had been met by third-party body-builders. The “Sindelfinger Karosserie” badge, mounted on the left-hand side of the vehicle, became synonymous with unusual vehicle bodies built to the highest standards of quality and craftsmanship.

One of the aims of the plant manager in Sindelfingen at that time, Dr Wilhelm Haspel, himself a commercially-trained engineer, in establishing the special vehicle production unit was that the time-consuming manual craftsmanship involved in producing the special bodies should not disrupt the production flow of the series-produced models. Furthermore this set-up provided a solid basis for the production of special vehicle bodies and created the possibility of meeting even the most exceptional of customer requests with these elaborate bodies and of earning money by doing so – income that Haspel did not want Daimler-Benz to relinquish without a fight.

Hermann Ahrens was appointed as the manager of this department, having been persuaded to take on the task by the trio at the top of the company, Wilhelm Kissel (Chairman of the Board), Dr Hans Nibel (Board Member for Development) and Dr Wilhelm Haspel (Manager of the Sindelfingen plant since January 1932). Up until this point Ahrens had been responsible for the design of exclusive models for the Horch company, a role which had brought him to the attention of the management team at Mercedes-Benz.

To begin with, the structure of the department was unclear. April 1933 brought the arrival of Friedrich Geiger. Both Ahrens and Geiger always considered themselves as engineers and not simply as designers as we understand the term today – their role encompassed both the styling and its constructive implementation, a concept that reflects rather more the Anglo-Saxon understanding of the term design.

The economic recovery that had begun in 1932 and then took stronger hold from 1933 on brought with it a growing interest in exclusive vehicles and thus in the special vehicle production unit. It was here that the many different versions of the supercharged models 380 (W 22), 500 K and 540 K (W 29), as well as the Grand Mercedes (W 07 and W 150) were built, featuring what were often very elaborate special requests.

Elaborate body shells.

Between 1932 and 1939 a whole range of elaborate body shells for both open and enclosed vehicles were built in Sindelfingen, along with bodies fitted with special protection. Many of the elegantly designed bodies produced during that period under the aegis of Ahrens and Geiger have a timeless beauty about them that, even decades later, has lost nothing of its fascination or radiance. Quite a few of the vehicles of that time regularly receive awards in renowned Concours d'Elegance such as that held at Pebble Beach in California each year. Right at the top of the list of these design highlights stands the Special Roadster with its raked radiator grille, which takes to the “public stage” to enthusiastic applause on a regular basis. No less exciting are the cabriolet variants of the same model which, with their snugly fitting, lined soft tops, have the added advantage of greater everyday practicality. Also produced in Sindelfingen in this period were the first cabriolet models with a hardtop, aptly known as combination cars or combination coupés. But individual customer requests such as special chrome adornment in the form of a protective grille in front of the pointed radiator or chrome strips emphasising the vehicle’s elegant lines, were also made possible. And let us not forget the positioning of the two spare wheels within the front wings or in the rear of the vehicle, which also had a significant impact on the design of the body. Or the addition of equipment items such as a radiator or a heater – things that we take for granted today but which back then were exclusive optional extras.

The special vehicle production unit turned the dreams of its discerning clientele into reality, wherever at all possible. Ahrens reported that it was almost a regular occurrence for the family of the future vehicle owner to visit for a few days in order to commit time to and receive advice on the choice of body shape, to make their individual selection of colours and materials and even to determine the vehicle’s technical specification. The result in each case would be a unique vehicle, tailored perfectly to an individual lifestyle.

The expertise and flexibility of the special vehicle production unit meant that the specialists in Sindelfingen also became involved in constructing the extremely lightweight bodies that needed to be built at extremely short notice for sporting use in the popular off-road races of the 1930s, creating two-seater models with aluminium bodies that weighed barely 100 kilograms.

Special requests in terms of body design were quite a normal occurrence for the special vehicle production unit. Questions about aerodynamically designed bodies thus found sympathetic ears among the body-building artists in Sindelfingen. They shied away from nothing, not even from the otherwise seemingly untouchable pointed radiator. Examples here include a touring saloon version of the 500 K delivered to a customer in the Dutch East Indies (from 1949 on Indonesia), a 540 K Cabriolet produced in 1936 or the 540 K with fully aerodynamic body that was supplied to the German Dunlop works in 1938.

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