Benz built a Beetle before Volkswagen

TIME magazine described Floyd Clymer’s Scrapbook as ‘an evolution in nostalgic memory’.

I was paging through Volume 1 when on page 108 I came upon a lot more than a memory.

It was an ad for the Mercedes-Benz Rear Engine Typ 130.

What, a rear-engined Mercedes-Benz?

I never knew such a thing existed.

But there it was, an ad placed by The Winter Garden Garages, of Tottenham Court Road, London, main agents for Mercedes-Benz in England.

‘Achieved at last,’ it read. ‘a definite step forward in design, resulting in a car with a low upkeep and maintenance costs, yet having the performance and spaciousness of a large high-priced automobile. This car employs new constructional methods which alone make possible these qualities.’

The price, in 1935 was 375 pounds (170.1 kg) (170.1 kg) (170.1 kg) (170.1 kg) sterling, and there was an illustration of the flat-nosed two-door saloon with air intake louvres above the rear wheel arches which identified the location of the four-cylinder water-cooled engine behind the rear axle.

Some research about this curious car was called for – and it unearthed more than I imagined.

The car was unveiled at the 1934 International Motor and Motorcycle Show in Berlin, an ugly duckling compared to the magnificent Merc 500 K parked alongside. 

But there was a difference in price: The Typ 130 (without the e)  was available for 3200 Reichmarks while the 500 K could be had for seven times more at 22,000 RM. 

Clearly, the Typ 130 was aimed at being an affordable car for the masses. But things didn’t quite work out that way.  

The German carmaker had long established itself as a front runner in the upper-class car market, but changing world economies and a looming global depression indicated that smaller, more affordable cars were the way of the future – and such vehicles, made in volume, could allow the company to still fully utilise its many factories.

“At the time the Typ 130 was not only the smallest production passenger car, the first rear-engine car and the first four-cylinder model from Daimler-Benz,” the manufacturer later said.

Mercedes-Benz W23 Typ 130


Mercedes’ experiments with rear-engined cars started on the W17 platform around 1930, but those versions never reached the assembly line.

The Typ 130 was built on the later W23 platform, and the car featured some aerodynamics with its rounded shapes.

It was powered by a 1.3-litre four-cylinder side-valve engine that developed 19kW at 3400 rpm and gave the car a top speed of 92km/h.

It had a three-speed transmission with overdrive, hydraulic four-wheel brakes were among other highlights.

In the course of development, engineers expressed concerns over the vehicle’s handling characteristics.  

The suspension and engine position gave designer Josef Müller some headaches.

His diary notes are quoted in a historical release: “The birth defect of the swing axle had a greater than expected impact in combination with the excessive rear-end weight.

“Nevertheless, after carefully tuning tyre and spring softness between front and rear axles and solving the noise problem, we succeeded in creating a serviceable vehicle out of what was initially a rather stubborn mule.”

Motoring journalist Stephan von Szénasy, in his 1934 report in Motor und Sport magazine, gave the car a good test rating, but was a bit apprehensive of the car’s handing qualities.

“As for cornering safety, this deserves fulsome praise – so long as one has taken the trouble to acquaint oneself a little with the car’s idiosyncrasies, since it calls for a somewhat modified driving technique,” he wrote. 

The car had two seats in front and a two-seat bench in the back and the platform featured swing axles, with leaf springs up front and coils in the back. 

Still, sales didn’t match expectations.

Only 2205 cars were sold in 1934, 1781 in 1935 and 311 in 1936, so the Typ 130, which was available as a sedan and convertible, or tourenwagen, was withdrawn just two years after launch.      

However, the concept was adopted by Volkswagen, which trotted out its rear-engined, air-cooled Beetle in 1938.

Unlike the Merc, the Beetle, post-war, eventually found more than 21 million buyers around the world in its three generations.

One of the inspirations for the Typ 130 had been the Rumpler Tropfenwagen of 1921, with its streamlined and rear-mid engine layout.

Tropfenwagen translates into “drop car” — inspired by the raindrop shape. 

Edmund Rumpler made his name as Germany’s first aircraft manufacturer and presented his Tropfenwagen with a bizarre body that looked much like a Zeppelin’s gondola.

It wowed the crowds with its advanced features. 

Most cars of the time were brick-shaped, while Rumpler’s car was designed to embrace the wind. 

In place of air-churning mudguards, the Tropfenwagen had thin, horizontal slats.

Its glasshouse was made of curved glass, an innovation that wouldn’t reach the automotive mainstream until decades later.

The wheels were smooth, flat discs.

The shape of that 1921 vehicle was so good, it had better aerodynamics than a Chevy Corvette of 100 years later.

So while Mercedes-Benz made a big impression at the 1934 Berlin show with its beauty and beast presentation of the 500 K and its humble, but still innovative rear-engined Typ 130, there was a much bigger fanfare at Tatra’s nearby stand.

The Czech brand unveiled its 77, incredibly it too, was powered by an engine in its tail.

But the Tatra had a small V8 engine that produced 45kW, two-and-a-half times more power than the Typ 130, and as for aesthetics, well it was a Motoring Miss World compared to Sadie the cleaning lady.

The Czech manufacturer pioneered rear-engined, teardrop-shaped vehicles, with design and engineering led by Hans Ledwinka, whose work was admired by a great many, among them Adolf Hitler.

The 77 was an absolute stunner in looks, engineering and ride.

Obviously a premium model, it would have cost a great deal more than the Typ 130, and only 105 of them are known to have been built between 1934 and 1936.

It was unusual in that it was designed with aerodynamics in mind from the very beginning, resulting in a drag coefficient of 0.36 – the same as a Mercedes AMG-GT sports car.

Development was very secretive until the last moments of the official presentation on March 5, 1934, at Tatra’s offices in Prague. 

The car was demonstrated on the road from Prague to Karlovy Vary, where it easily reached 145km/h and amazed journalists with its handling and comfortable ride at speed.

Vilém Heinz, of the Motor Journal, described his test drive in it: ‘It is a sensation when it comes to its construction, to its appearance and to its performance. 

‘The car maintained 145km/h, it has astonishing handling, it drives through curves with speeds that are both mad and safe, and it seems just to float on any kind of road . . . It is a car which opens new perspectives to car construction and automotive practice.’

Film director Maurice Elvey was so amazed by its looks that he used a 77 in his science-fiction movie The Transatlantic Tunnel.

And Herr Hitler is quoted as saying to Ferdinand Porsche: “That’s the car I want for my roads!”

Some models also had another unusual feature, in that the steering wheel was positioned in the centre of dashboard, so front-seat passengers sat on either side of the driver.

Two years after that remarkable motor show in Berlin, the first VW appeared – and the Tatra lads cried foul, saying it had clearly been cribbed from their design.

Nein, said VW. It was the work of Ferdinand Porsche, and a legal battle ensued.

It was finally (and very quietly) resolved 27 years later when VW owned up and paid Tatra one million Deutschmarks.

But I’d never have known about the rear-engined Mercedes had I not seen it in Floyd Clymer’s Scrapbook, which I found on eBay after a colleague in South Africa suggested I hunt down one of the rare publications.

I owe you, Andrew Reed. 


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