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Old School Electric: Mercedes Developed W123 PHEV…in 1982

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The Mercedes-Benz W123 PHEV

This is a PHEV developed by Mercedes-Benz in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was shown in 1982 at a trade show in Hannover before eventually being shelved due to perceived impracticality, but displayed the seeds of the drivetrain features we’ve come to know in modern PHEVs. (Mercedes-Benz archive photo courtesy RanWhenParked.net.)

For all the talk of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) nowadays, it would be easy to overlook that Mercedes was toying with the technology way back in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The folks over at RanWhenParked have a good feature on the Mercedes W123 wagon Mercedes electrified with a battery pack and electric motor in much the same way modern PHEVs work. An electric motor developing 41 horsepower could be found in the engine bay and drove the rear wheels through a four-speed conventional automatic transmission that featured a friction clutch rather than a torque converter to cut down on parasitic loss.

The eletric motor under-hood and the battery tray out back in the Mercedes-Benz W123 PHEV

Here you see the 41-horsepower electric motor in the W123’s engine bay (left) and the tray of nickel-iron batteries in the cargo area (right). Not pictured is a range-extending two-cylinder four-stroke gasoline engine. (Mercedes-Benz archive photo courtesy RanWhenParked.net.)

Much like today’s Chevrolet Volt, the electrified Merc was equipped with a “range extender” gasoline-powered engine. Instead of a small-displacement four-cylinder, Mercedes engineers opted to go even smaller, installing a two-cylinder, four-stroke gas engine that could give the car an extra 30 miles or so of range once the batteries were drained. The article did not specify how far the car could travel on battery power alone, though one would surmise it probably wasn’t far given the battery technology of the time.

Those batteries were nickel-iron. While the article notes the formula was supposedly twice as energy-dense as conventional lead acid batteries, the technology was not without its limits and had been tried before in American electric cars during the brass era such as the Detroit Electric and Baker Electric. In the Mercedes, the batteries sat on a removable tray in the cargo area of the wagon body, which appeared almost exactly the same as any other “T” series Mercedes except for its shorter rear windows and the presence of metal vents.

The car was showcased at the 32nd Annual Hannover Trade Fair in 1982. After the fuel crisis of 1979, the automaker wanted to showcase that alternative energy sources could become viable for day-to-day transportation.

Now, 30 years later, Mercedes’ example rings true. With our crop of electric vehicles and PHEVs, we continue to prove that one does not necessarily need fossil fuels for transportation.

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