From an open-air coachman’s seat to the air-conditioned Multimedia Cockpit: A history of cockpits at Mercedes-Benz Vans

Just like the workplace of truck drivers, the evolution of the van cockpit reflects the technical progress made over the decades. The new generation of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter today demonstrates in a special way how drivers and co-drivers alike can efficiently and ergonomically perform their tasks in great comfort.


Stuttgart – Keyless Start, powerful air-conditioning systems, back-friendly seats, as well as the optional 9G-TRONIC automatic transmission and the MBUX multimedia system are just a few details with which the Sprinter relieves strain on its users day in, day out. However, the van driver’s workplace in the first delivery vans looked more like a coachman’s seat, plus these ancestral predecessors of today’s light-duty commercial vehicles even drove like horse-drawn coaches. The spartan driver’s workplace on the outside of the vehicle developed only very slowly into the modern cockpit with numerous comfort features familiar from passenger cars. 

The vans vehicle category is almost as old as the automobile itself, even though the term “van” didn’t exist at the time. One of the first representatives of this vehicle type worldwide was the 1896 Benz Combinations-Lieferungs-Wagen (combination delivery vehicle) from the then Benz & Cie. The small coach-like vehicle with its removable box body was based on the “Victoria” passenger vehicle, albeit initially equipped with a 2.5-hp one-cylinder engine and a payload of 300 kilogrammes. And so the first “van” was delivered to the Paris-based Du bon Marché department store. The vehicle’s driver sat on a meagrely upholstered pedestal. There was neither a windscreen nor a fixed roof. And those looking for a steering wheel do so in vain. Instead, the Combinations-Lieferungs-Wagen was fitted with a vertically positioned steering crank handle. The only protection against rain was from a small roof lip protruding out of the box body. In accordance with the state of the art at the time, a three-speed transmission with chain drive transferred the power to the rear wheels, and instead of the electrical horn commonly used today, the driver squeezed a simple bulb horn.
Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft also offered a delivery vehicle from 1897 which went by the name “Daimler-Geschäftswagen” (Daimler commercial vehicle) and which was a delivery vehicle model series for payloads ranging from 500 to 2000 kg. 

1911: Benz-Gaggenau Lieferungswagen delivery van with searchlight and folding cabriolet roof 

Built between 1911 and 1916, the Benz-Gaggenau Lieferungswagen offered much greater comfort for the driver and bore the specific commercial vehicle model designations D11, KL11 and B10. Unlike their predecessors, they had a proper steering wheel with an inclined steering column, which made operation much easier. Nevertheless, every steering movement still required a great deal of effort. Additional levers on the steering wheel could be used to regulate essential engine functions such as the ignition timing and fuel-air mixture. In addition to the main headlights, a searchlight could be installed, which was a great help when driving in the dark, given the dull street lighting of the time. As before, the driver still sat outside but now benefited from a folding textile hood to protect against rain showers. Heating, on the other hand, was still a distant dream, which meant that the driver and co-driver had to wrap themselves up warm in autumn and winter. 

1926: Mercedes-Benz L 1: forward-folding windscreen as an air conditioning system

In the year of the merger between Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft and Benz & Cie. the Mercedes-Benz L 1 was launched. The vehicle, which was available as either a van or a truck depending on the body fitted and available payload, was the first to feature a panel van body. The most important innovation for driver and co-driver was the enclosed cabin. Contrary to the commercial vehicle customs of the time, it had side windows – something which wasn’t even commonplace in passenger cars at the time the L 1 was launched. The forward-folding windscreen served as an “air conditioning system” for hot days. Useful details also included the window in the partition wall to the load compartment, which allowed a view of the cargo, and the searchlight which was also still available. 

1955: Mercedes-Benz L 319: cab-over-engine cockpit with good all-round visibility

In 1955, the young Federal Republic of Germany was in the middle of an economic boom. The trades, commerce and industry required suitable means of transport to cope with the growing influx of orders and goods. With the L 319, Mercedes-Benz had the right answer. The brand’s first independent van in almost three decades differed from its predecessors thanks to its modern, space-saving cab-over-engine concept. Its pioneering layout and huge sales success made the L 319 the forerunner of numerous successful van generations from Mercedes-Benz, right up as far as the current Sprinter and Vito model series. 

In order to provide a comfortable entry, the developers moved the front axle far forward which, together with the curved, single-piece panoramic windscreen, gave the 3.6-tonne vehicle a very unique appearance. The dashboard was equipped with a speedometer and a coolant thermometer. A fuel gauge was yet to find its place into the instrument cluster. At the time, drivers had to calculate how far the fuel in the 60-litre tank would take them. The gear lever on the steering wheel was an early forerunner of the joystick in the current Sprinter. The indicators and horn were operated using a signal ring on the steering wheel. The longitudinally installed engine which protruded far into the cabin was acoustically present and made it difficult to move from the driver’s to the co-driver’s seat. In return for that, the cockpit featured an impressive, continuous open storage area for documents in the dashboard.

1967: “Düsseldorfer” with easy access 

In 1967, the L 406 D model series arrived. It was often referred to as the “Düsseldorfer” in reference to its production location and was the successor to the well-loved L 319. Despite an overall more angular design idiom in keeping with the style of the time, the concept followed that of its proven predecessor. Typical of its appearance was a short bonnet that was only alluded to, as the engine also protruded into the cab of the new van generation, albeit now in a more space-saving manner than was the case in the predecessor, thereby significantly improving the freedom of movement in the cab. Equally striking was the front axle which, like on the L 319, was positioned far forward to enable easy access. In place of the panoramic windscreen which previously wrapped around the sides, a large rectangular windscreen was installed, supplemented on the front sides as before by a smaller window in front of each door for good visibility. The gears were no longer changed on the steering wheel, but with a conventionally positioned long shift lever. 

To ensure the “Düsseldorfer” remained a contemporary vehicle, it was subject to a number of careful model facelifts throughout its many years in production. In 1977, for example, the model series underwent an extensive model facelift which included a new instrument panel and cranked side windows instead of the sliding windows that had been customary until then. What’s more, there were new operating levers and handles, as well as a pleasantly grippy wrapped steering wheel instead of the previously used thin bakelite ring. A further update in 1981 saw the “Düsseldorfer” equipped with an ignition key for the first time. Until then, a cylindrical metal pin was used to start the engine and switch on the dipped beam. At the same time, the large vans were equipped at the factory with new interior panelling which significantly reduced noise levels in the cab. 

1977: longitudinal and height-adjustable driver’s seat in the “Bremer” 

In 1977, Mercedes-Benz expanded its van range with a new model which was one weight class below the “Düsseldorfer”: the TN (“Transporter neu” – literally “new van”), which was quickly dubbed the “Bremer” in view of its production location. Later, the designation T 1 became commonplace. More than ever before, the new, extremely versatile model series with a gross vehicle weight of 2.4 to 3.5 tonnes built a bridge to passenger cars in terms of driving and operating comfort. To this end, the developers bade farewell to the cab-over-engine design, the front-wheel drive and the frame concept that had been used up to then. The short bonnet was much less pronounced than on its bigger brother which, on the one hand, made access to the engine and thus servicing easier, and on the other hand allowed the front axle to be moved further forwards, thus keeping the entrance comfortably low. From a driver’s and co-driver’s perspective, this concept was welcome for another reason: the engine took up less space inside the vehicle. As a result of this, the “Bremer” van made through-cab access both from one side to the other and into the load compartment much easier than was previously the case. 

The driver’s workplace also offered a previously unknown level of comfort in the light commercial vehicle segment. Mercedes-Benz equipped the new vans as standard with a driver’s seat that could be adjusted both longitudinally and in height. Behind the thickly foamed two-spoke steering wheel, the easy-to-read and clearly laid-out dashboard allows the driver to keep an overview of all important information. The large windscreen provides the best possible view to the front. The heating and ventilation system had a two-stage fan. 

1995: the first Sprinter with functionally equipped and spacious cab 

After almost one million produced units, the T 1 was replaced in 1995 by the Sprinter. The new van generation consistently carried forward the concept of its predecessor with a high-traction rear-wheel drive system, four possible gross vehicle weights, a large number of variants and an extensive range of engines. The Sprinter’s special features also included its timelessly modern design as well as the spacious and particularly functional cab, whose interior design and materials had almost reached passenger car standards. As the front of the vehicle had been lengthened again compared to the T 1 and the engine was moved further forward, even more foot space was now also available. Even with a two-seater co-driver’s seat there was still plenty of room.

Numerous stowage compartments, including a generously dimensioned, lockable glove compartment, made everyday work in the Sprinter easier. The driver’s seat was height-adjustable in two levels, a sensation in the van segment at the time. Another novelty came in the form of the control knobs for the heating and ventilation system which resembled those familiar from passenger cars. The system itself also featured a powerful four-stage fan and air-recirculation mode. The walls and doors were clad all-round which additionally helped create a more cosy atmosphere. The optional driver’s airbag, height-adjustable three-point seat belts and seat belt buckles installed on the seat also testified to the pioneering role which the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter held in terms of safety.

2000: joystick-style shift lever and sweeping dashboard for the Sprinter 

As part of the model facelift in 2000, Mercedes-Benz further enhanced the interior. The instrument panel, which previously had a distinctly functional, straightforward design, was now completely redesigned. It imparted dynamic momentum and reached passenger car levels both in terms of its shape and the quality of the materials used. This was particularly true for the Sprinter crewbus with its soft, leather-like surface – this so-called soft-look surface was also available as an option on the other variants of the van. Besides additional comfort details like the cup holder in a practical drawer, the new gear lever in the form of a joystick also caught the eye. It now protruded from the centre console within easy reach of the driver, which enabled completely unhindered through-cab access. 

2006: cockpit with plenty of freedom of movement and top ergonomics in the second Sprinter generation 

Making good things even better was also the motto for the second Sprinter generation launched in 2006. The choice of more than 1000 basic models with different body, weight and drive variants, as well as the first-time availability of open vehicle models as the basis for individual bodies set new standards, as did the extensive standard equipment. Among other things, electric windows and a central locking system with radio remote control were now standard. An extended longitudinal adjustment for the seats and greater headroom further increased the freedom of movement on-board. The steering wheel was now optionally available with height and tilt adjustment. 

The interior shone with a range of well thought-out stowage compartments, such as the interior roof rack above the windscreen. Outside mirrors with additional wide-angle mirrors provided a good view of the traffic behind – the vehicle’s blind spot was reduced to a minimum. A characteristic feature of the new Sprinter’s cockpit was the raised centre console with joystick-style shift lever. As a valuable working aid, Mercedes-Benz offered the COMAND APS infotainment system with integrated navigation system for the first time in the Sprinter. Equally new was the multifunction steering wheel. 

2018: the third generation of the Sprinter with voice-controlled MBUX multimedia system 

The third generation of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter made its debut in 2018 and redefined the van segment in terms of comfort, ergonomics and functionality, representing an innovation boost in all respects. One year later,
Mercedes-Benz presented the eSprinter – the first purely battery-electric version that combined all the advantages of the iconic van with locally emission-free mobility. 

Among the outstanding innovations of the current Sprinter is the MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience) multimedia system with 10.25-inch touchscreen, voice control and voice output. The new, ergonomically shaped seats achieve a high level of comfort. They can be adapted to the individual needs of the driver and thus enable an ergonomically favourable posture even on longer drives. The memory function for electric seat adjustment is optionally available. Other new features include Keyless Start, “Drive Select”, steering wheel gearshift paddles for automatic transmissions and an improved air conditioning system. THERMOTRONIC automatic climate control automatically controls fan speed, air distribution and temperature.

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