The history of Daimler’s all-wheel drive

Apr 30, 2018

Maximum traction thanks to driving all wheels of a vehicle: this solution has a long past in the history of the Mercedes-Benz brand. As early as in 1903, Paul Daimler, son of automotive pioneer Gottlieb Daimler, formulated corresponding plans for Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG). The first practical DMG automobile with all-wheel drive was the “Dernburg-Wagen” designed in 1907. The touring car also had four-wheel steering and was tailored to the use in what was then German South-West Africa (today’s Namibia), where starting in 1908 it travelled many thousands of kilometres – including in difficult terrain.

Both DMG in Stuttgart as well as Benz & Cie. in Mannheim developed further all-wheel-drive vehicles. There was special demand during the First World War. Starting in 1917, DMG produced the KDI 100 artillery tractor, which was developed jointly with Krupp AG. More than 900 examples of the first mass-produced all-wheel-drive vehicle of DMG were built. After the end of the war, the all-wheel-drive vehicle now called “DZ” (for “ Daimler-Zugwagen” or Daimler tractor vehicle) was offered to civilian customers in various output levels.

During this time, Benz & Cie. produced the military off-road vehicles VRL and VRZ, among others. In the early 1920s, the company delivered 24 of the VP 21 armoured all-wheel drive automobiles to the police.

The merger of the world’s two oldest automotive brands in 1926 created Daimler-Benz AG with the brand Mercedes-Benz. The competence in the area of all-wheel-drive systems of both predecessor companies entered into new designs. The model 170 VL (W 139) with permanent all-wheel drive developed in 1936 is considered the precursor of the Mercedes-Benz G 5 (W 152). This “colonial and hunting vehicle” presented in London in 1938 and built until 1941 featured three differential locks, on-demand four-wheel steering and a five-speed manual gearbox (one of them a straight off-road gear), and was available to order in different body styles for military and private customers. Some vehicles remained in operation at mountain patrols until long after the end of the Second World War. It would not be until the G-model in 1979 that the line of tradition of all-wheel-drive passenger cars was resurrected.

Built-in universality: Unimog

The outstanding Mercedes-Benz competence in the most difficult terrain was initially embodied by a commercial vehicle starting in the early 1950s: the Unimog, or Universal-Motorgerät (Motorised Universal Working Machine) for short. The compact all-wheel-drive jack of all trades was developed in 1946 and first built at Erhard & Söhne in Schwäbisch Gmünd and starting in 1948 at Boehringer in Göppingen. From 1950, the Stuttgart-based brand took over the project completely. The Unimog proved its mettle as an agricultural tractor as well as for transports on and off the road, it was equally suited for winter road maintenance as well as for operations on construction sites, and even for shunting on railway tracks. In 1972, the Unimog technology furthermore provided the basis for the MB-trac system tractors offered until 1991.

The Mercedes-Benz trucks also benefited from the additional traction of an all-wheel-drive system from 1950 on. The LA 3500 was based on the successful L 3500 truck, in which the engineers integrated the all-wheel drive with minimal added weight. The off-road-capable truck convinced the customers in quarries, on construction sites and on the road. In concert with the larger LA 4500, LA 315 and LG 315 models, this resulted in the beginning of a lasting all-wheel-drive success story for Mercedes-Benz commercial vehicles of all models and sizes in the 1950s.

Following the success of all-wheel drive in the G-model, Mercedes-Benz also integrated the technology into other passenger cars in the 1980s. The solution premièred in 1985 and went by the name 4MATIC. It was an all-wheel-drive system of the latest generation, which thanks to the use of electronics, among other things, offered the perfect drive system in every driving situation. The basis for this included the anti-lock braking system (ABS) introduced in 1978, the acceleration skid control system (ASR), and the automatic locking differential (ASD). The 4MATIC system demonstrates its strengths with exemplary handling stability and perfect traction mainly in unfavourable weather conditions such as in the wet, on ice or in snow. The market launch of 4MATIC came in early 1987 in the 124 model series. The all-wheel-drive system was continuously advanced and used in more and more model series. Starting in 1997, 4MATIC was combined with the electronic traction system 4ETS in the Mercedes-Benz E-Class of the 210 model series. It acted like differential locks and ensured even better forward progress on poor surfaces. Today, 4MATIC all-wheel drive is available in all passenger cars from Mercedes-Benz, and the unit sales of the models equipped with it are growing continuously.