The year was 1982; the car was the Mercedes-Benz 190E. The four-door executive-spec compact saloon (sedan) was a new venture for the brand, offering a more affordable price point to attract new customers. It wasn’t quite young or funky enough for one German tuning house, though.
These days you’d be forgiven for thinking there was ever a time when Mercedes didn’t sell hatchbacks. The A-Class is regularly in the top 10 best-selling cars in the UK, selling by the boatload across continental Europe, the Americas and Asia as well. But winding the clock back to the launch of the 190E, if you’d have suggested a hatchback version you’d have been shown the door.
Mercedes knew the 190E was going to sell well. In the end it shifted almost 1.9 million of them, earning a bulletproof reputation for reliability and longevity. It had no need for a frivolous hatchback after discarding a concept version in 1981, but that didn’t stop automotive engineer Eberhard Schulz from doing his own. He called it the 190E City, also known as the Compakt.
He pictured it as a premium urban starlet for the stylish new-money generation. He took the 190E, chopped it open in a zigzag between the back of the roof, behind the rear door windows and then forward and down behind the front doors. All the drivetrain and chassis components were left exactly as they were before being refitted with the heavily modified hind quarters of a Benz S124 estate, which had finally reached showrooms in 1985.
Schulz had accidentally created the first Mercedes hot hatch. The 190Es he used for the process all had a 2.6-litre straight-six with 160 ponies to boast of. Existing hot hatches only had 110-120bhp, so the City had a serious extra amount of muscle.
Unfortunately the process of conversion wasn’t easy, and it probably wasn’t cheap, either. More specifically, no one seemed to want to pay the asking price in the face of excellent alternatives like the Volkswagen Golf GTI. These press pictures were shot in an effort to drum-up interest, deposits and cash flow, but too little came. Rumour has it that as few as four were built, and because Mercedes didn’t want anything to do with it, it forbade Schulz from continuing to display the three-pointed star on the examples he finished.
Like so many innovations from the 1980s, the 190E City was a brilliant idea at the wrong time. A decade or so later and maybe, just maybe, it might have made Schulz a rich man. As it stands, we can only look back at what might have been, and add this sadly failed experiment to the list of unicorn cars we hope to see in the flesh one day.