The Mercedes-Benz Vario Research Car was introduced at the 1995 Geneva Motor Show, with four different bodies that could be exchanged within 15 minutes, apparently by just three women.

One car, four vehicles. That was the idea, and Mercedes-Benz went for it big time.

On weekdays, you’re supposed to drive the VRC as a saloon. For longer journeys, you had the extended load capacity of a wagon. On a sunny day, you went for the convertible, and for moving the new fridge, the pickup, no doubt. All that was super easy using the VRC’s light carbon fiber body modules. When I say light, I mean 66-110 pounds, because safety had to be a priority as well.

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But Mercedes figured this out. Here’s what they had to say about it:

Customers do not own the bodies themselves but drive up to a rental station. While they drink a cup of coffee, service technicians switch the body. A few minutes later, customers are back on the road again. How long they use a particular body variant is up to them, because the rental system is just as flexible as the car itself.

The service technicians place the roof structure on the chassis; electric motors pull it into its final position, where special locking mechanisms hold it at eight anchorage points. To release it, it suffices to actuate levers on the door pillars and the upper windshield frame. The rest is again done by the servomotors which undo the locks and slightly raise the body so that it can easily be lifted off.

For the electric connections in the rear, which differ for each body, there is a central terminal which automatically recognizes the type of body. If, for example, an estate body is mounted, the rear-screen wiper/washer will be supplied with current. In the saloon, the heated rear screen and trunk lights have to be connected to the electric system. In the convertible, the electric drive for the soft-top requires energy and has to be controlled.

This was also Mercedes’ first fly-by-wire car, meaning that the steering and the brakes had no mechanical linkages between your hands and feet. That’s a given today, but in 1995, it was very futuristic.

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So was the Active Body Control that became standard on the 1999 Mercedes-Benz CL, the color display of the 1998 S-Class and the central rotary menu control that only came back ten years later in the 2005 S-Class.

As far as the driving experience goes... well, it was a front-wheel drive car with a CVT, so probably not fantastic. Mercedes had serious plans with that layout, as did other automakers; CVTs are a common sight on today’s cars.

But at least nothing could distract the driver, since the VRC’s rotary control knew whether it was being touched by the left hand (passenger) or right hand (driver), so that on the move, only the passenger could check such secondary information as tire pressure, fluid levels and light checks.

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Despite being a fully operational prototype, Mercedes’ next big thing was the 1997 A-Class, a compact afraid of elks.

Photo credit to all: Mercedes-Benz