I’m a lover of vans, especially those suitable for camping. Few things beats hopping into a vehicle with all the basic necessities of life and hitting the road. I have a vintage ’77 Dodge Chinook that I bought for $1200 in which we’ve racked up 35k memorable miles in 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. As a kid in Austria, I was absolutely in love with the delightfully rounded L319 (van) and 0319 (bus) Mercedes:
To ride in one of these panorama buses through the Alps 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 US, 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 in the sixties and seventies. MB built built them in a variety of body styles, including pickups, from 1955 through 1968. Of course, they were as slow as the slugs they resembled, powered by the little four cylinder diesel and gas engines borrowed from the Mercedes sedans at the time. Think 40hp, in the case of the mid-fifties 180D engine. But who’s in a hurry, when you’re watching the Alps or Big Sur slowly roll past those panorama windows.
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 then quite new successor version, the T2.
Needless to say, I have some pretty vivid (and fuzzy) memories of hanging out free as a bird in Venice. Let’s just say that my passport didn’t survive the late nights of (legally) drinking red wine with other young tourists. The T2 that we rode in over the steep (pre-freeway) Alpine roads was only slightly faster than its predecessor; it might have had all of 55hp by then. And there were about twelve or so 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 running around Eugene until last year. And when I was in San Diego in 1976, the transit dept. bought a bunch for their smaller routes. But these were bigger than its predecessor, so in 1977, MB introduced the smaller T1, whichincludes our featured blue van. The T2 is still being made today as the MB Vario, in only slightly modified form.
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. 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 Mercedes bought it in 1970. Since the T2 had grown, there was a need in MB’s line for a smaller, yet a notch bigger than a VW bus product. So the three-pointed star went on the hood, and MB’s engines replaced the out-sourced Austin gas engine and Hanomag’s diesels.
There was a camper version, similar to the home-brew version here, and possibly made by Westfalia, that I used to see from time to time on the west coast and lust over. If you can believe it (by now you probably do), there was a ratty one that lived two blocks down from my house until about six years ago. I actually considered buying it from him and fixing it up, but I decided that I really wanted to spend time on the road, not on a restoration project.
In 1977, Mercedes replaced the Hanomag with the T1. Instead of FWD, Mercedes designed it along the traditional RWD setup, and it was a popular van and made a great camper. The one 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 the list in the eventual replacement of the old Chinook, that gets 12 mpg on a good day. I spent time configuring the interior layout using Sportsmobile’s highly modular components. I quickly learned to ignore the ridiculously overpriced conversions like Airstream and the like. Among other things, they’re hardly designed for genuine camping; trying to imitate the plush environment of a corporate jet.
But in the past few years, I keep hearing about very expensive maintenance and reliability issues with the complicated new diesel engines in the Sprinters, and how UPS returned theirs very unhappy. So I may just keep the Chinook going, or look for something like this 207D, maybe upgraded with a more powerful but still vintage MB diesel engine. Unless of course, I happen to stumble onto on of those beautiful rounded-front O319s.