Evo and Elektro: The Mercedes 'Baby-Benz' boomers

Classic Mercedes-Benz. Image: Supplied by Ferdi de Vos
Classic Mercedes-Benz. Image: Supplied by Ferdi de Vos

• The W201 marked a new era for Mercedes-Benz.

• The 190 model was so popular North Korea made its own version.

• How the legendary Evo 1 model came about.

The Mercedes-Benz W201 series marked a new venture for the Stuttgart-based luxury car manufacturer.

As the first compact executive car developed by Daimler-Benz the 190 range finally gave the Three-Pointed Star a smaller model to compete with the likes of the Audi 80, BMW 3 Series and Saab 900, and the more upmarket versions of medium-sized sedans and hatchbacks from mainstream brands.

Unveiled in December 1982, it was sold in right-hand drive form from the next year but initially did not find its way to South Africa - due to limited production capacity early on and high demand in Europe, the UK and Japan. 


Classic Mercedes-Benz. Image: Supplied by Ferdi de Vos

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Limited numbers

Over 11 years, about 1.9 million W201 derivatives were manufactured, and in 1993 - right at the end of its production run - a limited number of 190E models were imported to South Africa.

Interestingly, the "Baby-Benz" apparently was so popular initially it even caught the eye of North Korean despot Kim Il-sung. In 1987, to copy the burgeoning car industry in South Korea, Kim ordered the production of a reverse-engineered example in the Pyongsang Auto Works. 

According to sources, this vehicle was originally imported from Thailand and then entirely disassembled by North Korean engineers. While it largely corresponded to the German model, the cloned version(s) was never licenced by Daimler-Benz. 

READ: How the Mercedes X-Class bakkie sunk a Nissan factory

The original derivative - the Kaengsaeng 88 (pictured above) - had no "star" on the grille and was powered by a Soviet four-cylinder petrol engine built under licence in North Korea.

Only a handful of these vehicles, also called the Pyongyang 4.10, were built. 

They suffered from severe processing defects and were neither equipped with heating nor ventilation. Apparently, even the windows did not close properly!

A not dissimilar vehicle called the Paektusan - with a five-pointed star on the nose - was sometimes exhibited in the capital Pyongyang.


Classic Mercedes-Benz. Image: Supplied by Ferdi de Vos

The W201 icons

Appealing to a younger audience, the W201 series also contained some specialised derivatives - such as the 190E 1.8, powered by a newly developed 1.8-litre fuel-injected engine, the iconic Cosworth and Evo models, and, believe it or not, the first Mercedes-Benz with full electric drive - a precursor to the soon-to-be-released EQC.

The arrival of the ultimate 190, the big-winged Evo II, 30 years ago was heralded in 1983 by the high-performance 190E 2.3-16V with Cosworth-developed M102 engine - put into series production as a road-going homologation version for the 190 race car in the DTM (German Touring Car Championship).

In road-going trim this remarkable engine, with a very flat torque curve and a wide powerband, delivered 138kW and 236Nm, enabling the 2.3-litre 16V to accelerate from 0-100 km/h in less than eight seconds and reach a top speed of 230km/h.

In 1988 the 2.3-litre engine was replaced by an enlarged 2.5-litre version with 13kW more power (153kW without catalytic converter) and a slight increase in torque.


Classic Mercedes-Benz. Image: Supplied by Ferdi de Vos

AMG Power Pack

The 16V models differed from other 190 models by having a unique body kit, a stiffer suspension with lower ride height, Self-levelling suspension (SLS) on the rear, a Getrag five-speed manual gearbox with a dog-leg pattern, an engine oil cooler, enlarged fuel tank, a Limited Slip Differential and an electronically controlled ASD system. 

Inside, sports seats with firm side bolsters were standard, as well as a smaller steering wheel with quicker ratio, and an oil temperature gauge, stopwatch and voltmeter included in the centre console.

Optionally available was an AMG Power Pack, increasing power to 167kW and top speed to 250km/h.

READ: Fire and silk - The tale of an ultra-special Mercedes-Benz E-Class

To counter the threat of the BMW M3 Sport Evolution, Mercedes-Benz introduced the 190 E 2.5-16 Evolution in early 1989. The Evo I, as it came known, had many under-the-skin changes, as well as a new rear spoiler and wider wheel arches. 

While of similar capacity to the "regular" 2.5-16, its redesigned engine had a shorter stroke and bigger bore for a higher rev limit and better power delivery. Only 502 units were produced to comply with the DTM homologation rules.

This model is highly sought after today, but the real poster child of the 190 series is its successor - the Evo II with its radical rear spoiler and body kit.


Classic Mercedes-Benz. Image: Supplied by Ferdi de Vos

Evo II, the ultimate 190

Mercedes-Benz went completely over-the-top with big aero on the 190E 2.5-16 Evolution II - soon referred to as the "Evo II" by fans. Celebrating its premiere 30 years ago, all 502 units of this highly anticipated homologation model (for the identically badged DTM race cars) were sold out before its unveiling.

The super sports car of its time, however, played ball in an entirely different league – not only concerning its driving performance but also in terms of price: Available from DM115 259.70 (around R1.1 million) at the time, the model was over three times more expensive than a 190E 1.8! 

The Evo II, with AMG Power Pack fitted, produced 173kW and 245Nm of torque and its fully SLS adjustable suspension allowed the ride height to be adjusted from inside the cockpit.

Rüdiger Faul and Professor Richard Läpple developed the radical body kit with large adjustable rear wing, rear window spoiler, and unique 17-inch alloy wheels, and rather box-shaped aerodynamic parts.

Altogether 500 examples were painted blue/black metallic, but the final two were painted astral silver - making them the rarest of the Evolution models.

It also proved a hugely successful touring race car and was seen in action in South Africa when Roland Asch won the invitational race at Kyalami on 27 November 1990.

In 1991, Klaus Ludwig won the DTM Championship driving an Evo II and again in 1992 with teammates Kurt Thiim and Bernd Schneider finishing as runners-up. 

The Evo II may have had the shortest production run of the 190 series models, but it made the most significant impact by far. 

Its rarity, coupled with the exclusive equipment configuration of the super sports car, makes it a coveted classic, trading at very high prices today.

In mid-January, for example, car #256 with only 7 600 kilometres on the clock, was sold for R7.315 million.


Classic Mercedes-Benz. Image: Supplied by Ferdi de Vos

The Elektro

Last year the EQC, the first mass-produced electric vehicle from Mercedes-Benz, premiered in South Africa at the Smarter Mobility Africa summit in Pretoria. 

Local introduction is now scheduled for early next year, but 30 years ago, in May 1990, a W201 190 converted to electric drive was exhibited at the Hanover Fair. 

According to a press release from Stuttgart at the time, the 190 came closest to the requirements of an electric vehicle in terms of length and weight and therefore was an ideal battery test vehicle. 

The vehicle was used as a mobile laboratory for the practical testing of different electric drive configurations and battery systems. Energy storage devices tested were mainly sodium-nickel chloride or sodium-sulphur high-energy batteries, and in March 1991 Mercedes-Benz displayed a more advanced 190E Elektro in Geneva. 

This model, still a fully-fledged five-seater with much the same space and tried-and-tested safety features of the standard derivatives, was powered by DC motors on each of the rear wheel energised by permanent magnets to produce a peak power of 16kW each, for a total output of 32kW. 

A sodium-nickel chloride battery still supplied energy, and regenerative braking returned energy to the power pack under deceleration. Without weight-intensive mechanical components, it was only 200 kg heavier than series-production vehicles.

From 1992 onwards, large-scale field trials were conducted on the island of Rügen off the Baltic Sea coast. Mercedes-Benz sent 10 Elektro cars to Rügen and testing continued until 1996. 

These pioneering 190s were test-driven by various individuals, including taxi drivers, on routine everyday trips. The "Baby-Benzes" did their jobs inconspicuously and reliably, and one of the vehicles achieved a peak usage rate of 100 000 km in one year. 

The results provided insights into battery service life, the number of possible discharge and charge cycles, range, energy consumption and reliability. The information gleaned from the 190E Elektro evaluations contributed to a comprehensive knowledge pool for e-vehicle development. 

Interestingly, some of the engineers that worked on the Elektro are still active in the EQ development programme. In September 2018 they saw their work come to fruition with the world premiere of the EQC in Stockholm, Sweden.


Classic Mercedes-Benz. Image: Supplied by Ferdi de Vos

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