Unlikely Badge Engineering: The Harburger Transporter
A Mercedes with an identity crisis
Mercedes-Benz recently introduced the X-Class pickup truck. Besides the fact that it is Mercedes’ first conventional pickup, what’s interesting about the X-Class is that it is, in a sense, not a Mercedes at all. The X-Class is built in conjunction with Nissan, and the chassis and much of the body is shared with the Nissan Navara. Some might wonder whether the three-pointed star is appropriate to grace the nose of a plebeian Nissan, but there is a historic precedent for Mercedes-Benz rebadging a commercial vehicle.
To get the full story, we need to go back to 1949. Tempo, a small German company known mainly for producing three-wheeled cargo vehicles, introduced a modern light commercial vehicle for the postwar ear: the Matador. Comparable in size and purpose to the Volkswagen Type 2 (also introduced in 1949), the Matador was a fairly advanced, if unusual, piece of design. It had a forward control layout, a V-shaped tubular chassis, independent suspension (transverse leaf spring in the front, coil springs and swing axles in the rear), and front wheel drive. For power, Tempo fitted the 1131cc 25 PS Volkswagen flat four, mid-mounted just behind the front wheels and transaxle.
"1949 Tempo Matador (01)" by Georg Sander on Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0.
The Matador proved to be fairly successful, considering the economic state of Germany at the time, with over 13,500 sold through 1952. In fact, it is worth noting that Volkswagen, which was a much larger company, sold about 42,000 copies of the Type 2 Transporter during the same period. Unfortunately, the supply of engines from Volkswagen ended in early 1952, so Tempo fitted a 672cc 26 PS three cylinder two-cycle from ILO in what was now called the Matador 1000; a version with a 1092cc 34 PS four-cycle from Heinkel (Matador 1400) was introduced later in 1952. About 10,800 Matador 1000/1400s were built through the end of 1955. At this time, 50% of Tempo was purchased by Hanomag, and the Matador design was updated.
In general, the new Matador was much the same as before: forward control with a mid-mounted engine, front wheel drive, and independent suspension all around. The main differences were new styling and a powertrain upgrade. The Heinkel engine was still fitted initially, but it was replaced in 1957 with a 1500cc BMC B-Series engine. This new engine developed a dizzying 48 PS, nearly double what the Volkswagen and ILO engines provided, and quite a bit more than the Heinkel unit it replaced.
"A Tempo Rapid from 1961, a light commercial vehicle" by Pujanak on Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain. The Rapid was similar to the Matador, but had a 948cc BMC A-Series Engine.
This iteration of the Matador was also modestly successful, with over 13,000 built through 1963, when it was given an even more extensive redesign. Though the body was superficially similar, the real changes happened underneath. The tubular chassis was replaced with a more conventional ladder frame, the springs were replaced with torsion bars, and the drivetrain was turned 180º so that the engine was now in front of the transaxle. The engine itself was still a BMC B-Series unit, though now 1600cc with 54 PS. An 1800cc 50 PS Hanomag diesel became available as well. This redesign proved fruitful: over 45,000 sold through 1966.
"Tempo Matador E Pritschenwagen Kleintransporter Baujahr 1963-67"" by ONordsieck on Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0 DE.
This version of the Matador, known colloquially as the Harburger Transporter (after Harburg, the part of Hamburg where the Tempo factory was located), would remain more or less the same for the rest of its production life. The nickname is quite useful because 1966 marked the first of several name changes for Matador. Hanomag bought out Tempo completely in 1966, and then phased out the Tempo name in favor of their own. In 1967, the Harburger Transporter gained a redesigned nose, but lost the Matador name in favor of the model designations F20, F25, F30, or F35, depending on load capacity.
"Hanomag" by nakhon100 on Flickr. CC BY 2.0.
Then, in 1969, things became even more confusing. First, Force Motors in India (then known as Bajaj Tempo), reintroduced the Matador name for a license-built version of the Harburger Transporter, which remained in production until 1998. Second, Daimler-Benz bought Hanomag from its parent company, Rheinstahl. The change in ownership resulted in two new names for the Harburger Transporter. First, Daimler merged Hanomag with Henschel, another former Rheinstahl subsidiary, so the F20, etc., was sold under the Hanomag-Henschel name from 1970. The second new name was Mercedes-Benz; the Harburger Transporter now wore a three-pointed star on its nose.
"Mercedes-Benz L307 in Kragujevac" by KGC626 on Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0.
The Harburger Transporter was a useful acquisition for Daimler-Benz; Mercedes did not have a commercial vehicle in this size class, and sales were quite healthy. The Mercedes-Benz badged variant, called the L206, L207, L306, and L307, sold over 175,000 by the time production ended in 1978. In addition, over 165,000 F20, 25, 30, and 35s were built until the Hanomag-Henschel line ended in 1975. As before, the name change was largely a case of badge engineering, because the Mercedes models were still more or less the face-lifted Harburger Transporter from 1967. Mercedes did make some chassis, braking, and suspension improvements, and they also replaced the Hanomag diesel with their own OM615, initially in 2-liter but later in 2.2-liter form. Curiously, Mercedes did not change the gas engine option, but continued fitting the B-Series engine, initially in 1600cc but later 1800cc form.
Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. From 1970, when they bought out Hanomag, to 1978, when the last L306 and L307 were built, Mercedes-Benz sold a product with a British Leyland engine. Admittedly, the choice to continue using the B-Series engine makes sense; the B-Series engine does have a reputation for being quite tough, and retaining it was likely more cost-effective than switching to Mercedes' own gas engines. But, still, it does make the concept of a Mercedes-branded Nissan pickup less incongruous.