What do you think people in the early 1980s imagined when they pictured the Car of the Future? Did they fly, making highways obsolete? Did they look like spaceships? Maybe to some, but the government of Germany had their eyes on a far more realistic and ultimately correct goal: fuel economy.
As the world still reeled from the energy crises of the 1970s, and as automakers began to adopt computer technology in their vehicles for the first time ever, the German invested a ton of money into developing super-efficient, super-safe prototype cars for display at the 1981 Frankfurt Auto Show.
This is what Mercedes came up with: the Mercedes-Benz Auto 2000.
(Welcome to Long Lost Concept Cars, a new semi-regular series on Fridays where we highlight amazing concepts from years past that never made it to production — but maybe should have.)
As the website CarStyling tells it, in 1980, Germany's Federal Ministry for Research and Technology funded the German auto industry to the tune of 110 million Deutschmarks to get them to come up with prototype cars that could achieve fuel economy of about 25 miles per gallon for vehicles weighing 1,250 to 1,700 kilograms and 21.3 mpg for cars with a weight of up to 2,150 kilograms.
At the time, those were extremely ambitious fuel economy targets, and the government specified the prototypes had to be real, comfortable, working cars that could seat four people, haul stuff and meet emissions standards.
Say what you want about Mercedes-Benz, but they generally don't half-ass things, unless those things are the long-term reliability of their cars in the 1990s or so or the interior quality of the CLA45 AMG. So at the behest of the government, they produced not one but three Auto 2000s (Autos 2000?) with the same bodies but different powertrains.
The result was an extremely unique-looking, aerodynamic car that ended up being surprisingly ahead of its time.
What was it? A low slung, five-door, kammtail liftback prototype with more than a passing resemblance to its contemporary Mercedes brethren and the ones that followed. I think traces of the W124, W126 and W140 can be seen in its design.
What were the specs? Front-engine, rear wheel drive with three distinct engine choices. According to Curbside Classic, the first was a 3.8-liter V8 with cylinder deactivation, which was a pretty new idea at the time. (General Motors implemented the same technology with their ill-fated V8-6-4 Cadillacs around the same time, but it didn't exactly work out well for them.)
The second car had a 3.3-liter twin turbo diesel six-cylinder motor which put out an impressive 31.3 mpg on the highway. The third was the strangest of all; it had a gas turbine engine, which as we all know is just something that never seems like it's going to catch on. Points for trying, though.
What else made it special? Aerodynamics! The super-low kammtail body achieved a super low for its time CD of .28, which put it on par with your average modern sedan. Pretty impressive for the 1980s.
What did it look like on the inside? I actually couldn't find any photos of the interior of this car. If anyone has come across them, feel free to drop them in the comments.
(Update: After seeing our story, Mercedes hooked us up with this photo of the dashboard. Turns out it had a radio-based navigation system too. I told you this thing was ahead of its time!)
Did it actually run? Based on the rigorous MPG testing and the fact it they had actual engines, I think it's safe to assume it did.
Was it ever planned for production? It doesn't seem that way, but it pioneered quite a bit of technology for later cars. Modern Benzes use "variable displacement" cylinder deactivation engines, as do other automakers. And that turbodiesel six? That sounds like an engine you'd get on a car from today.
Should it have been produced? If by that you mean the liftback kammtail design? I'm not sure about that. It certainly looks interesting, even attractive today, but it's hard to see it fitting with the rest of Mercedes 1980s lineup. Ditch the kammtail and it looks a lot like some of their cars from the 80s and 90s.
I doubt such a radical design would have been okay'd back then, let alone allowed into the U.S. Still, it's a fun exercise for its time, and it's notable for being one of the more realistic Cars of the Future ever made.