(First Posted November 13, 2013) Needless to say, I’m a lover of vans, especially those suitable for camping. Few things beat hopping into a vehicle with all the basic necessities of life and hitting the road. I have a vintage ’77 Dodge Chinook, bought for $1,200, in which we’ve racked up 35,000 memorable miles during trips to Mexico and all over the west. And in my younger days, I had a ‘68 Dodge A100 that I converted to a less wife-friendly (no bathroom) spartan camper. But all along, I’ve had my eyes on Mercedes vans, and I’ve run into several of these T1s hereabouts. As a kid in Austria, I was absolutely in love with its earlier and delightfully rounded L319 (van) and 0319 (bus) predecessors.
The graceful L319 appeared in 1955, and was decidedly one big step above the popular VW Transporter in terms of both size and load capacity. It was built as cargo vans, pickups and passenger buses–and essentially was the very first of the Sprinter-class vans that now dominate the market in Europe and in the U.S. They were mighty pokey, though: the diesel version used the 43 hp engine from the original 180D; later, the 65 hp gasoline 1.9 four from the 190 also became available. Top speed with the diesel? 49 mph!
But to ride (slowly) through the Alps in one of these panorama buses with the sunroof rolled back was one of the highlights of my earliest years, and I’ve been lusting after one ever since. I used to see them from time to time in the U.S., the last one a couple of years ago, before I started documenting my finds. They were a highly desirable step up from the ubiquitous VW bus for the wandering nomads so common on the West Coast during the Sixties and Seventies.
When I went back to Austria for the first time in the summer of ’69, I was an obnoxious sixteen-year-old. Probably mostly to get rid of me for a few days, my parents put me on a tourist bus from Innsbruck to Venice. Our bus was the L319’s then quite new successor, the T2, which replaced it in 1967.
Needless to say, I have some pretty vivid (and fuzzy) memories of hanging out in Venice, free as a bird. Let’s just say that my passport didn’t survive the late nights of (legally) drinking red wine with other young tourists; someone must have slipped it out of my pocket. The T2 we rode over the steep (pre-freeway) Alpine roads was only slightly faster than its predecessor–it might have had all of 55 hp by then–and there were about twelve or so people on the bus. But thankfully, the border guards at the Brenner Pass were enjoying a balmy August evening, and waved us through without the usual formalities.
The T2 series also covered a wide range of body types; there was a wonderful old ex-Feuerwehr (fire truck)-red T2, like this one, running around Eugene until last year. And when I was in San Diego in 1976, the city transit department bought a bunch for their smaller routes. They were bigger than their predecessors, and powered by those really noisy direct-injection M-B truck four-cylinder engines.
So in 1977, M-B introduced the somewhat smaller T1 series, which includes our featured blue van and this black one (the T2, now called Vario, was still being made until earlier this year, when production was finally ended). The T1 was closer to the original L319 in concept, sharing its engines with Mercedes diesel sedans like the 200 and 240D.
But plenty of the more powerful turbo-five diesels from the 300TD/SD have found their way into these, thus making them quite capable of keeping up with modern traffic.
From their matching paint jobs, and the way these two hang out together, my guess is the little Benz is the dinghy to this big Blue Bird bus. Or something like that.
Now there was a smaller predecessor to the featured T1, but it was not originally a Mercedes. Hanomag was a storied producer of cars, light trucks and tractors, and in 1965 introduced a modern van to replace the legendary Tempo (full story here). Like the Tempo, the new “Harburger” F25 was a FWD design, which allowed the load compartment floor to be very low.
Hanomag was a struggling outfit, and in 1970 it was acquired by Mercedes. The T2 had grown, creating a need in the M-B lineup for something smaller, but still a notch bigger than a VW bus. And so, the three-pointed star went on the hood and MB’s engines replaced the out-sourced Austin gas engines and Hanomag diesels.
There was a camper version, similar to this home-brew version and possibly made by Westfalia, that I used to occasionally see (and lust after) while I was on the West Coast. And if you can believe it (by now you probably do), a ratty one lived two blocks from my house until about six years ago. I actually considered buying it and fixing it up, but I decided that I really wanted to spend time on the road and not on an endless restoration project.
In 1977, Mercedes replaced the Hanomag with the T1. Mercedes designed it along the traditional RWD setup instead of FWD, and it was a popular van which made a great camper. The blue one seen here is in the beginning stages of a conversion. The T1 was made until 1995, when it was replaced by the Sprinter.
I was very excited when the Sprinter finally showed up over here a few years back, and it quickly jumped up to the top of my list of eventual replacements for the old Chinook, which gets 11 mpg on a good day. I spent time configuring the interior layout using Sportsmobile’s highly modular components. I’d quickly learned to ignore such ridiculously overpriced conversions as Airstream and the like–among other things, they’re hardly designed for genuine camping, trying instead to imitate the plush environment of a corporate jet.
Over the past few years, though, I keep hearing about very expensive maintenance and reliability issues with the complicated new diesel engines in the Sprinters, and how a very unhappy UPS returned theirs. What’s more, they don’t come cheap fully converted. So I may just keep the Chinook going–unless, of course, I happen to stumble onto a beautiful, rounded-front O319 like this gem.