A spy photo taken in 1981 on the Untertürkheim track in Germany spread like wildfire in the auto industry. Was Mercedes really preparing to launch a small car roughly the size of a Peugeot 104? Rumors about the automaker’s future product plans cropped up on all four corners of the globe.
As is often the case, the rumors were not entirely unfounded. The car shot by the intrepid spies was actually the Stadtwagen (a name that literally translates to “city car” in German), a prototype that started life in the early 1980s as a way for Mercedes to experiment with a short-wheelbase race car. Pioneered by engineer Erich Waxenberger, the car essentially rode on a shortened version of the platform that was being developed for the then-upcoming w201.
Mercedes pulled out of rally racing in late 1980 so the Stadtwagen became a moot point, but it was transferred to another department inside the company and briefly used to gather data on city cars, a segment Mercedes had almost no experience in.
Up front, the Stadtwagen looked nearly identical to some of the 190E test mules that meandered for millions of miles through the harshest regions of the world before the car was officially launched. The front end featured a generic plastic grille with thin horizontal slats, rectangular tail lamps and a body-colored plastic bumper.
Beyond the A-pillar, the Stadtwagen boasted a remarkably short 87.4-inch (222-centimeter) wheelbase and suitably tiny doors, while the rear hatch was pulled from a w123 station wagon and modified to fit the Baby Benz.
The Stadtwagen was powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that made 122 horsepower and 131 lb-ft. of torque, enough to propel it to a top speed of 108 mph (175 mph). The four-banger was mounted longitudinally in the engine bay and sent power to the rear wheels via a manual transmission.
It goes without saying the Stadtwagen did not lead to a production car but engineers continued to work on a small car designed to slot beneath the w201 190. The development work eventually led the w168 A-Class and the original smart car.
All photos kindly provided by Daimler’s archives department.