You’d be forgiven for thinking the Mercedes-Benz electric story begins with the current EQ brand. In reality, the company’s EV development stretches back many years, beyond even the old B-Class Electric Drive.
In May 1990, Mercedes-Benz exhibited a 190 saloon that had been converted to electric power. Although it was little more than a test vehicle, it showcased the potential of electric cars some three decades ago.
“In this way, the Mercedes 190, which in terms of length and weight comes closest to the requirements of an electric vehicle, is an ideal battery test vehicle. The main objective is to assess the functional suitability of all the components in realistic situations with all the vibrations, accelerations and temperature fluctuations experienced in everyday operation,” explained the brochure.
A year later, Mercedes-Benz unveiled an improved version of the 190 electric car, with each of the rear wheels powered by a DC electric motor. Energy was supplied by a sodium-nickel chloride battery, while regenerative braking returned energy to the power pack during braking.
It didn’t stop there. In 1992, a field trial was conducted on an island off the German coast, with the government investing DM 60m in the project. A total of 60 passenger cars and vans from several brands were involved in the trial, which continued until 1996.
The island of Rügen was chosen for a number of reasons. Its small size meant electric range wasn’t a problem, while much of the island’s power was sourced from renewable energy, such as wind turbines. Rügen is also one of the sunniest places in Germany, making it ideal for the use of solar energy to recharge the batteries.
It was the largest experimental trial of electric cars ever conducted in Germany, but it failed to spark an electric revolution. By 1998, the number of electric cars in Germany had increased to 4,500: only slightly more than the 2,000 or so throughout the 1980s.
One of the vehicles in the trial achieved a peak usage rate of 100,000 kilometres (60,000 miles) in one year. “The results provide new insights into battery service life, the number of possible discharge and charge cycles, range, energy consumption and reliability,” said Mercedes-Benz.
If you’re wondering why electric cars failed to take off, a Mercedes press release from 1991 is quite revealing. It lists battery service life, range, recycling, charging infrastructure and vehicle prices as the largest obstacles. All of these are less of an issue in 2020, with price remaining the most significant barrier to entry.
One thing’s for sure: the current crop of electric cars owe a great deal to the likes of the Mercedes-Benz 190 EV.