Say the words “big truck” to someone who grew up in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s, such as myself, and the first image to crop up will likely resemble the Mack R-Series, the ubiquitous dump truck, fire truck, tractor-trailer, garbage truck, and any other purpose truck of those decades. The same words said outside the United States in the local language will likely conjure up memories of the 1959-95 Mercedes L Series. Like the Mack R-Series, the Mercedes L Series came in a broad range of configurations and weight classes and acquired a legendary reputation for utility and durability. In the United States we rarely, if ever, see this truck except in photographs from foreign countries, but in many parts of the world, it is an everyday sight wherever work is done.
The L Series that debuted in 1959 introduced a design that moved the engine rearward into the cab to reduce the truck’s overall length, without being a full cab-over configuration. The short, rounded hood somewhat resembled the front end of a late 1950s Unimog, on a much larger scale.
Behind the uniform corporate cab design, there were many size classes and configurations with differences in their underlying structures. The chassis used straightforward solid axles with leaf springs, with U-section longitudinal frame members with cross-members riveted to them. Tractor-trailer models had additional L-shaped longitudinal members. Size classes ranged from the 7.5 ton L323 and 14 ton L327 to the 19 ton L332 and L334, under the arcane model numbering system used in the first several years of the L Series. A new four digit model designation system introduced in 1963 used two digits indicating the overall weight rating followed by two digits indicating the engine power rating, starting with 1113 for an 11 ton with 130 horsepower and ranging up to L2624 for a 26 ton, 240 horsepower model.
Mercedes took a major step forward with their truck powerplants during this L Series generation by introducing their first direction injection diesel in 1964. Called the OM352, it was a 5.7 liter inline six with 130 horsepower, used in 1_13 models and also in the Unimog. An optional turbocharged OM352A later boosted output to 168 horsepower. Larger and more powerful versions spread throughout the model range to replace preceding indirect injection diesels by the end of the 1960s.
The design features of the L Series set the stage for over half a century of use all over the world. Mercedes engineered a high degree of ruggedness and resilience into the L Series trucks, and it would be necessary in the harsh environments in which many would serve.
Popular in Europe and marketed with limited success in the United States, the L Series built its greatest reputation in various parts of the developing world. In the Middle East, Africa, and South America, they became well known as trucks that could carry loads grossly in excess of their manufacturer’s ratings in the harshest environments, and continue to do so year after year. Exports to those regions sustained Mercedes production of the L Series in Germany until 1995, after newer designs had superseded it in Europe.
The Mercedes L Series is a fixture throughout the Middle East. This tractor-trailer in Saudi Arabia is one of many that were the backbone of oil exploration work and freight hauling there in the 1960s. Many continue in service today throughout the region, most of them in the high visibility orange color that was the standard color in the Middle East for these trucks when they were new.
The orange L Series is especially ubiquitous in Iraq. Purchased in large numbers during the oil boom years of the 1960s and 1970s, they continued as the predominant large civilian truck while Iraq was starved of new civilian vehicles during the economic sanctions of the 1990s, and wars of the 2000s. With replacements not available, keeping them running as long as possible became necessary, so the durability of the L Series and the ability of Iraqi mechanics to keep them running made them almost immortal.
Even though new vehicle imports into Iraq increased during the relatively peaceful early 2010s, L Series trucks such as this 1924 dump truck continue to be a fixture at construction sites and in heavy cargo hauling.
The L Series is equally or even more common in Brazil. Seen here on the beach of Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro is a large delivery truck body on a long wheelbase chassis, a 2113 if I recall correctly. A small engine struggling with heavy gross vehicle weight may account for this particular L Series being broken down on the side of the road.
Mercedes manufactured the L Series in Brazil starting in 1964, only five years after production began in Germany. The most common are the smaller 1113 or 1313 models, with 15 ton, 19 ton, and 21 ton models also numerous. They are the country’s standard dump trucks, tanker trucks, and delivery trucks, present at every construction site and involved in delivery tasks everywhere.
A Brazil-only restyling in 1982 substituted quad rectangular headlights and a new rectangular grille for the two round headlights and rounded grille of the original design. This slightly restyled model was then superseded after 1990 by a completely new L Series with a rectangular cab and modern technology and amenities including electronic engine controls, ABS, and air conditioning. So many of both styles of the original round-cab L Series were produced that they are seen practically every minute in any town or on any highway in Brazil.
Far from being only a working classic with examples living out their service lives two decades after the newest one was built, the L Series is still rolling off of an assembly line, in another country in the Middle East – the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran Khodro Diesel Company, a truck manufacturer that fills most of the truck market in Iran and has license produced Mercedes trucks since the 1960s, continues to produce the L Series in two models, the 1924 and 2624.
Iran Khodro produces far more modern designs, but it continues to build heavy L Series trucks for use as dump trucks, tractor-trailers, and crane trucks, apparently short-haul duties in which modern amenities for driver comfort are not a priority and the simple, proven old design is favored. Continuing in production 55 years (and counting) after entering service is a testament to the fundamental soundness of its 1950s design and its ongoing effectiveness in many roles.
Photo credits: www.trucksplanet.com (1, 3, 4), autowp.ru (2, 5), www.globalcarbrands.com (6), commons.wikimedia.org (7), www.imcdb.org (8), www.ikd-co.com/ (13), mercedes-benz-truck.persiangig.com (14)