Mercedes-Benz Vario Research Car

Car of the Day #101: 1995 Mercedes-Benz Vario Research Car (VRC)

Mercedes-Benz Vario Research Car
Mercedes-Benz Vario Research Car • via Mercedes-Benz

“Girls, need help turning your hatchback wagon into a convertible before we go for lunch?”

…said no one, ever. Well, the models above had to deal with a photo shoot in 1995 for the Vario Research Car, aka VRC, that promised four distinct body styles on one vehicle platform. 

For me, this is what separates big car companies like Mercedes-Benz that can mobilize teams of designers in order to create something like this car — four vehicles in one — that looks like it had been in production for five years. 

Put another way: every day, here you get to read about people who found difficulties making just one car. This is Mercedes-Benz slapping its dongle onto the desk, saying “LOOK AT THIS!” 

Four in one is an ambitious idea, and when you're combining a truck, coupe, convertible, and wagon into one vehicle, the end result will produce compromised versions of each.

The business case for the VRC (not the vehicle itself) is similar to the one attempted by battery swap startup Better Place, and is quite different than a glance at the press photos depict.

Pay attention: this is more than simply a Nissan EXA Sportbak with takeaway currywurst up its tailpipe.

Mercedes-Benz Vario Research Car, with better proportions as a truck than Mercedes-AMG can muster now with even its top-level two-door GT car • via Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes-Benz envisioned a system where, say, ahead of a road trip you'd pull into a rental station, wait for 15 minutes, and in that time a few mechanics would convert your car into a new body style.

Electric motors, locks, and solenoids kept everything locked down—obviously, an important consideration. Daimler seems to think coffee was a required part of the swap process, though: 

"While they drank a coffee, service technicians would exchange the body. A few minutes later, the customer would be on the road again. The driver could decide how long to use a particular body variant, because the rental system would be just as flexible as the car itself."

Our future isn’t quite as promising: by 2024 they’ll ambitiously press on with renting software features individually. If automakers shoot for the moon and miss, they now land among touchscreen smudges.

The modules are said to weigh between 30-50 kg (66-110 lbs), thanks to carbon fibre-reinforced plastic construction, but just imagine restoration shops hunting for rare body panels and parts decades later…or the pipeline of ill-fitting knockoffs that would look legitimate but have the rollover protection of a paper lantern.

Besides the fancy bodywork, VRC had a colour LCD inside and was one of the first Mercedes-Benz to include a "central rotary control to operate electrical functions"—you know, a BMW iDrive-like module with a dial and some buttons intended to control the radio, GPS, A/C, and other features.

A final mention for the dual joystick version — something I’m shocked isn’t a more common DIY retrofit these days, given the world’s incredible hacker / maker communities, and how drive-by-wire steering is slowly being fitted to our vehicles.

If you'd love your very own VRC, I suggest lowering your expectations and finding yourself a Nissan EXA Sportbak: you'll only get to pick between coupé and wagon, but at least Nissan was crazy enough to put it into production. 


Thank you to my supporting members: Ben B., Brad B., Chris G., Daniel G., Damian S., Daniel P., Drew M., Ingrid P., Karl D., Luis O., Michael J., Michael L., Michelle S., Mike B., Mike L., Mike M., Richard W., Sam G., Sam L., Wiley H.