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Mercedes-Benz 130H 170H


Although the Volkswagen Beetle is credited with being the official “people’s car” for Germany, it wasn’t the first to attempt to make one. Mercedes-Benz also attempted to create a “Volkswagen” (which itself mean’s “people’s car”), although it was not a commercial success.


The rear view of the Mercedes 130H. In the early 1930s, automotive companies were experimenting with rear—engine layouts in the name of aerodynamics. Having the engine out back allowed for a sleeker front end, no longer having to house engines whose radiators gulped giant chunks out of the atmosphere. An added bonus was that you could also push the cabin occupants closer forward into the void that formerly contained an engine. Inspired by other streamlined designs, Mercedes began experimenting with building such a car for the masses. The 130H was their first attempt, and was put into production in 1934. Only available with 2 doors and powered by a water—cooled, 1.3L side valve four-cylinder, handling was deemed quite poor as the car carried about 65% of it’s weight on the rear tires. It was discontinued in 1936 due to slow sales after 4298 had been produced.


In 1936, Mercedes updated it’s rear—engine formula and debuted the 170H. Now powered by a 1.7L four cylinder derived from that of it’s predecessor, it also sported sleek new lines that were almost arthropodous. Unfortunately, those new lines made it more cramped inside, and it was also much more expensive (albeit better equipped). Handling was improved but was still quite poor, prone to oversteer with all that weight behind the rear wheels. It should not come as much surprise that production stopped again in 1939, again due to slow sales (but also in part due to the looming threat of world war).


The rear of the 170H, 1507 of which were produced between 1936 and 1939. These particular examples are owned by the Tampa Bay Automobile Museum. I took these pictures while visiting Florida in 2014. When I arrived both the 130H and 170H were being moved into the showroom as they had been on loan to another museum, so I got to witness them being driven (and luckily was able to photograph them in natural light). If you find yourself in the Tampa area, I recommend a visit. Lots of rare cars, focusing on oddities featuring unique powertrains and early adopters of front-wheel drive. The owners are very friendly and very knowledgeable (they restore and maintain the collection with their own hands), and happy to chat about their cars and pop some hoods for you to take a closer look.


The 130H and 170H may seem like little known footnotes from the history of Mercedes-Benz motor cars. Although ultimately not popular, they were an experiment that looked ahead to the future. Without the obligatory, chrome-laden Mercedes radiator shroud and iconic, encircled 3-pointed star standing proud of their hood, their look is refreshing — as if in defiance of their parent brand. And without their existence and the lessons learned from their sale (or lack thereof), it’s entirely possible that Volkswagen brand may never have come to light.