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The Carchive: Mercedes-Benz 0.303

It’s European Coach Week here in The Carchive, just because. Last time we looked at a Belgian coach which saw export far and wide, and also somewhat challenged me linguistically. This time we’re visiting the Germans.

It’s time to look at a legendary coach from the Three Pointed Star. It may have been imitated, may have been superseded, but few if any coaches can match the 0.303’s Calibre.

“A touring coach that ranks as the flagship of the successful Mercedes-Benz bus fleet has to be something out of the ordinary”

The 0.303 range, which, would you believe, replaced the earlier but similar looking 0.302 range, came in a number of different flavours, from a cram-them-in, bums-on-seats local express coach, to a high-floored, luggage hungry continent-crossing comfortmobile. This brochure deals with the latter.

“This vehicle is characterised by mature engineering, balanced integration of all features and high quality workmanship”

This was Mercedes in the ’80s, remember, when engineering genuinely was the very essence of what the brand was all about, and you could see it and feel it in everything they did. A Mercedes car of the era had a definite inertness about it; even the sportiest of R107 SLs was fast in a stubborn, immovable way. MB wanted it to be known that their coaches shared more with their cars than just the design of the rear lamp assemblies.

“The attractiveness of the 0.303 RHD long-distance high-deck touring bus lies not only in its modern exterior- the generous comfort offered inside is sure to evoke just as much enthusiasm”

One of the defining characteristics of Mercedes-Benz coaches since the mid-sixties was the profile of the side glazing, which would curve dramatically in a pronounced tumblehome towards the top of the glass. This had the effect of extending the passenger view quite markedly. The scenery would come flooding in.

Furthermore, there could be rollerblinds, seatback tables, spotlights, multiple pairs of stereo loudspeakers throughout, all available if you asked nicely when ordering and paid the nice man enough Deutschmarks.  You could also specify  a sunken toilet compartment and galley. Of course, these are all features we take for granted these days in luxury coaches, but Mercedes were among the pioneers on the scene.

And lets not forget the status of this particular version. A high-floor coach is higher up the pecking order than a low or mid-floor model, and more closely associated with long-distance touring. Here, the floor level was 21cm higher than in other models, which the brochure tells us equates to space for “twice as much luggage per person as in a medium size car with four occupants”. It didn’t mention what car they were referring to, but it gives us some kind of idea.

One aspect of coaches that I find interesting is their provision for looking after the crew when they’re off duty. Until I was eleven I had no idea that a coach could have a sleeping compartment, then I saw a little porthole window on the side of a 0.303 that was operated on one of our school contracts, and I asked what it was for. Of course, the fact that long-distance coaches have to cover serious distances and there is only a finite number of miles a driver can cover and remain non-fatigued and within the law. So when one driver comes off duty, it’s only fair that he has somewhere to rest.

On a 0.303 the drivers sleeping cabin has noise insulation and a fabric lining applied to the walls, as well as:

“…ample appointments- for example a radio connection, ventilation vents, a telephone link with the driver and a reading light”

When I was eleven, and I was all about building dens and finding hidey-holes, and sleeping UNDER my bed rather than in it, this sounded fantastic. Of course, now I’m six foot five and less than agile I realise that the reality, irrespective of how many reading lights and other lovelinesses there may be in there, we’re still talking about being sealed into a small metal box. Claustrophobia comes as standard.

“The OM422 and OM422A engines are powerful and economical, at the same time as being low in pollution.”

In 1983, when this brochure was published, the available engines were rated at 280hp in normally aspirated form, or 330hp with a turbocharger. You could choose a six-speed manual with syncromesh or automatic transmission with optional retarder. The engines were both 14,620cc V8 diesels and they would be further developed over the years to produce more and more power. There are several videos on Youtube where you may hear them in action; they sound great, especially when the exhaust brake is applied in an urban area. Later on, I believe you could specify the 18272cc V10 engine, which must have sounded phenomenal.

If this dip into The Archive has been a bit more dour than usual, it’s probably a result of either of these two issues. Firstly it’s a German brochure, and those tend to be rather more precise, or dry, than we might expect; very little showmanship, quite a lot of accuracy and precision. Secondly, this is a very functional product being flogged here, and unlike cars buyers the people actually in the market for a new 0.303 had far more interest in profit and efficiency than fun and games.

Speaking of saving money, many coach companies did just that by buying an alternative vehicle that looked just like an 0.303 but cost an awful lot less.
The Yugoslavian FAP Sanos S315 Charisma was presumably built under some kind of license. It was the same shape as the MB, in fact all but indistinguishable from it. It also used similar engines yet it sold on the UK market for about two thirds the price of the German original. A lot of operators even fitted the Benz Three Pointed Star between the headlights, indeed Chartercoach who ran that school contract I mentioned carried out just this underhand practise with the S315 that they purchased.

Nowadays the 0.303 has been replaced by the 0.404 and the Tourismo, none of which are anywhere near as distinctive. But, hey, that’s progress.

(Disclaimer: All images are of original manufacturer publicity material, photographed by me. Copyright remains property of Mercedes-Benz. Not Browning or Vickers, makers of those other 0.303s)

  • dukeisduke

    Orange interior FTW!

  • Slow_Joe_Crow

    My first thought is that one of these would make a great motorhome conversion. Especially one that already had a toilet and kitchen fitted.

  • Vavon

    I knew I had seen that place before…

    <img src="; width=640>

  • "…the 0.303′s Calibre."

    British humour, right on target.

  • 357SIG

    Holy crap, I'm deployed right now (Kandahar, Afghanistan) right now and they actually have these running as transport all over Kandahar. A lot of them even have the pre EU country stickers on them, some german, some polish. It's really cool to see this. Most are manual transmission, they seem comfortable enough but they do get remarkably hot inside, whether or not they have curtains hung. They're either these or .302s you can tell most of them were decomissioned tour buses. Great read!

    • Vairship

      I imagine that looks kinda like this: <img src="; width="500">

  • Mike England

    Thanks for the great post. European Coach Week rocks!
    I've heard of "coffin lockers" but never seen one.
    I wonder if they meet these criteria? (I think they do).
    This is from FMCSR 393.76, the USDOT reg that defines sleeper berths –

    Minimum length: 75" width 24" height 24" . .. I don't' think I would spend 15 minutes in one unless the door is open.
    (2) Shape. A sleeper berth. . . must be of generally rectangular shape. . .
    (3) Access. . . . must be constructed so that an occupant's ready entrance to, and exit from, the sleeper berth is not unduly hindered.
    (b) Location.
    (1) A sleeper berth must not be installed in or on a semitrailer or a full trailer other than a house trailer.
    (2) . . . [if] located within the cargo space. . . must be securely compartmentalized from the remainder of the cargo space. . . .

    Most sleeper berths in US trucks are pretty roomy, but I've heard horror stories about these minimal "coffin lockers" in motor coaches. . .

  • Tiller188

    It says something about the fastidiousness and attention to detail of a company when they produce such a well-turned-out, luxurious coach while still in early beta phase. Imagine how awesome these will be when they finally release v1.0.

    (<tongue out of cheek>: Seriously, anybody know what the history behind that model numbering scheme is? I'm rather curious.)

  • Sjalabais

    I always thought it was O 303, and thus imagined this was the start of a gospel when pronounced the English way…

    • Manic_King

      Right you are it's O-series, at least in continental Europe.

      • I think it's a peculiarity of the way reference materials are printed. It could be a formatting / spellcheck issue which has become normalised. Or I could have just been getting it wrong all these years…