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125 years of success for vans: The Benz delivery vehicle of 1896

125 years of success for vans: The Benz delivery vehicle of 1896

Dec 10, 2021
  • World premiere: First motorised delivery vehicle with combustion engine
  • Enthusiasm for innovative technology in the French market
  • Differentiation of the Benz model range in 1896
  • First passenger car coupé makes its debut as a one-off model

Stuttgart. Mercedes-Benz vans are all-rounders for transport, commercial, travel and leisure use: compact, manoeuvrable, versatile – and more and more often powered by an electric drive system. Their success story began 125 years ago with the premiere of the Benz delivery vehicle. This vehicle was the first motorised van in the world with an internal combustion engine.

The year 1896 was an eventful one for the Rheinische Gasmotorenfabrik Benz & Cie. in Mannheim: the product range, which until then had been characterised by its open-top passenger cars, was expanded to include not just the delivery van, but also the first coupé with an internal combustion engine. The picture that emerges is one of successful diversification for the inventor of the car – a strength that also characterises the Mercedes-Benz brand today.

Delivery vehicle for an enthusiastic French market

The “Benz delivery vehicle” was first mentioned in a Benz & Cie. catalogue in May 1896. The new concept of a “Patent motor vehicle of superior design for the delivery of goods, with 5-horsepower engine”, promptly met with considerable interest. However, it was not customers from Germany who were most interested in this pioneering design. Instead, the first documented specimen was handed over to the Parisian department store “Du Bon Marché”. Even the catalogue page for the delivery van is illustrated with a depiction of this vehicle together with advertising for the Paris department store.

The fact that the vanʼs first customer came from France fits in with the way the automotive market was developing at the time: for although the new means of mobility was invented in Germany in 1886 – by both Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler, quite independently of each other – it was in France and Great Britain in particular that the groundbreaking innovation was initially most well received. So it was only logical that, on 5 December 1896, this first motorised delivery van with an internal combustion engine, produced directly by a car manufacturer, should roll into Paris.

Underfloor design makes optimum use of space

The first delivery van in history had a payload of 300 kilograms and was based on a chassis that Benz also used for the “Victoria” and “Vis-à-Vis” models. The designers made optimum use of the overall length of the vehicle by placing the engine underneath the load area. The delivery van was therefore also the first commercial vehicle to feature an underfloor design. The driver sat directly above the front axle, which was fitted with wooden-spoke wheels with solid rubber tyres that were smaller than those on the rear axle.

The driver and the load area were almost on the same level, but this was not obvious to the observer at first glance. This is because the vehicle was in the form of a panel van, with a splendid advertisement for the department store and the purpose of this import vehicle from Germany on the side panels: “Grands Magasins Du Bon Marché. Livraison des Marchandises”. (“Department Store Du Bon Marché. Goods deliveries”). The pre-eminent customer was doing what the manufacturer had recommended in the 1896 catalogue, where Benz & Cie. emphasised the potential advertising impact of the van: “Major advertising for any significant business,” the prospectus suggested.

Urban goods deliveries with 3.7 kW

The delivery van was powered by a horizontally mounted single-cylinder engine with a displacement of 2.9 litres and an output of 3.7 kW (5 hp). A total of three gear ratios brought the engine power to the road: first stepped pulleys, then the planetary gear and finally the countershaft. From here, two chains led to the sprockets on the rear wheels. The clutch was operated by means of engaging and disengaging the belts. With this combination of engine and transmission system, the delivery truck reached 15 km/h with maximum load and overcame gradients of up to ten per cent.

The selling price of the vehicle was 4,500 Marks. One third of this amount had to be paid in cash upon ordering, the rest of the sum was due when the vehicle was handed over in Mannheim. How many customers back then opted to buy this innovative delivery van, in addition to the Paris department store, is not known.

Also at the end of 1896, Émile Roger, the Benz general agent for France, developed a plan for a delivery van of his own based on the Benz Velo. His partner in the venture was Léon LʼHollier of Birmingham, England. A number of such Benz “combination delivery vehicles” were built there in the Digbeth area. After the death of Émile Roger in 1897, the project came to an end.

The Benz Coupé

In 1896, in parallel to the light commercial vehicle, Benz also introduced a new body style for passenger cars, the Coupé: the elegant car here with the short, closed body is probably a unique example. Like the first delivery vehicle, the Coupé was handed over to a customer in the French capital 125 years ago. A contemporary photograph survives, but the Coupé is not mentioned in any price list or other Benz publications from this period. Its top speed is said to have been 32 km/h.

Comparisons with photos of other Benz cars from the mid-1890s show that this vehicle was based on a Benz Victoria. This first four-wheeled vehicle from Benz was built in 1893 and, at the time, replaced the three-wheeled Benz Patent Motor Car. The Vis-à-Vis model is the four-seater version and has bench seats facing each other. The modern design was made possible by the invention of the functional kingpin steering, for which Benz registered patent DRP 73151 on 28 February 1893.

One particularly striking difference between this vehicle and the Victoria is the curved windscreen of the Coupé. At this stage it did not have a windscreen wiper since this was not invented until the beginning of the 20th century. In the rain, the Coupé was therefore difficult to drive. As in the delivery vehicle, the drive system was probably a 2.9-litre single-cylinder engine with 3.7 kW (5 hp) installed in the rear. It seems most likely that the power transmission to the rear axle was also solved in a similar way. The Coupé is decelerated by a shoe brake and a band brake on the rear wheels.

Benz delivery vehicle of 1896 based on the Benz Victoria. Photo at the factory premises in Mannheim. Benz & Cie. delivered the vehicle to the long-established Parisian department store “Grands Magasins Du Bon Marché” in December 1896. (Photo index number in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archive: H3101)
Benz delivery vehicle of 1896 based on the Benz Victoria. Description of the vehicle with price and technical data in the catalogue of May 1896. Benz & Cie. delivered the vehicle to the long-established Parisian department store “Grands Magasins Du Bon Marché” in December 1896.
Benz Coupé of 1896 based on the Benz Victoria. The unique vehicle was delivered to a customer in Paris in December 1896. (Photo index number in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archive: 1975M710)
Carl Benz in a Benz Victoria. The first four-wheeled model from Benz & Cie. was built from 1893 on, and was made possible by the functional kingpin steering invented by Benz. (Photo index number in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archive: 22962)