Though Volkswagen’s Transporter would be the one to take the world by storm, it wasn’t the only German automaker to produce such buses, vans, and small trucks in the 1950s. While the VW Type 2 Transporter arrived in 1949, Mercedes-Benz entered the fray in 1955 with the premiere of the L 319 trucks and vans, as well as the O 319 omnibus. The 319 line was Mercedes’ first such offering since World War II, during which time the company was tasked with manufacturing the Blitz truck of its chief competitor, Opel.
Amidst Germany’s post-war “economic miracle,” or Wirtschaftswunder, the L 319 was highly successful in its various configurations, including cargo van, truck, and flatbed pickup bodies. The O 319 omnibus sold in fewer numbers than the L 319. Available with either two or three doors and with the option of panoramic windows, the bus was most popular in 17- and 18-passenger form to maximize transporting capability for business needing a reliable shuttle. (They were widely used among motels and airlines.) In 10-passenger specification, however, the O 319 was more like a sumptuous coach bus. Passengers had much more room, plus there was more space for luggage, and this top-spec O 319 offered lovely views and plenty of light courtesy of glazed roof and a foldable sunroof.
Unlike the VW, which was rear-engine, the L/O 319 employed a front-engine design with either a diesel-powered or gasoline inline-four cylinder. With the engine situated between the driver and the front passenger, rather than ahead of them, the front seats could be pushed far forward. Such “cab-over” design allowed for excellent visibility. With its flat nose, oval grille, and large round headlights, the L/O 319 shared styling cues with the full-size Mercedes O 321 H bus, which launched in December of 1954. Mercedes-Benz built the L/O 319 line from 1956–67.
In 2017, Sal Orlando, of Atascadero, California, saw a 1963 O 319 at a car show in San Luis Obispo. He knew nothing about Mercedes vans, but he did have an interest in buying an old VW van, and the Benz just fascinated him. “It was awesome, but it needed a TON of work,” he says. Someone else ended up buying the van and kicked off a restoration process, and eventually Orlando bought it from that gentleman with the intention of finishing the project.
By that time, Orlando got the idea to open wine tour business with vintage shuttles. He got a tip about a month later about yet another O 319, a 1961 17-passenger two-door, this one posted on Craigslist. Once he discovered it was in better shape than his current ’63, he sprung into action, hoping to fix up both vans for the business.
“People love the VW buses, but they’re not hard to find,” he says. “I couldn’t believe I came across two of these Mercedes, which are so much more rare. And in reality, if we’re being really honest, we like to stand out, right?”
To make sure the ’61 van did just that, Orlando got to work. Back in the day, the van was apparently bought new and used by a ski resort in Idaho as an employee shuttle. It had been repainted sometime in the 1980s, and his goal was to clean the whole vehicle up to the best of his ability and return it to the original two-tone burgundy and cream scheme. “I wanted to really restore it to its former glory,” he says.
Orlando kicked off the process by fully dismantling the whole interior, glass, and stripping all of the trim from the exterior of the van. “There is a whole lot of real estate on this beast, which meant plenty of sanding,” he says. New metal had to be welded in to repair corroded sections, and the van got everything from new carpeting for the cab to all-new upholstery for the 16 seats (two of the folding passenger jump seats are missing). Orlando installed Dynamat under the roof and a thermal/sound deadening spray coat to keep it insulated.
Mechanically, the O 319 received a refreshed braking system, muffler, clutch, radiator, alternator, leaf spring bushings, and more. The original 1.9-liter diesel four-cylinder was working when Orlando bought the red ’61 van, but his first ’63 van had come to him with a 2.2-liter Toyota 20R inline-four and five-speed manual transmission, and he determined that the 20R’s extra power would be better suited to the O 319 to keep up with modern traffic.
“I love cars, and my ’63 Vespa is my pride and joy, but I’m not a mechanic. I did as much of the work as I could, taking it apart and putting it back together, and contracted out everything else. The engine, bodywork, paint, and upholstery were all done by professionals.”
All that said, Orlando put in untold hours of work to source the parts he needed, many of which were in Germany from special suppliers. “I would regularly stay up past midnight so I could call Germany and try to explain and understand what parts I needed. There was a huge language barrier. Just speaking louder does not work.”
Though he does not profess the finished Benz omnibus to be a perfect concours-quality restoration, Orlando says confidently that it’s damn near close. In his estimation, “It’s pretty bitchin’.” Evidently he isn’t the only one who thinks so, because at the few car shows he’s brought it to, people are blown away. “Seeing people’s reaction is half the fun. Most of them have never heard of a Mercedes van like this, let alone seen one in person.”
Unfortunately, Orlando laments, he’s decided not to pursue the wine tour business. Which means the van has to go. Without the promise of returns it’s become a financial burden, and he’s opted to list it on Bring a Trailer, where the auction is now live. The restored ’61 van’s original four-cylinder diesel and four-speed gearbox are included in the sale, and Orlando even said that he’d seriously consider throwing in the unrestored ’63 bus, too.
Because these vans are so rarely sold publicly, it’s tough to say what they’re really worth. Way at the top end of the spectrum, however, RM Sotheby’s sold flawless, impeccably restored and highly modified 1959 O 319 for a whopping $162,400 back in 2018. That example, however, was upgraded with a modern drivetrain and expert custom engineering work that includes an air-ride suspension. It was also converted into a camper, which was not a configuration that Mercedes-Benz offered on the 319 line in period.
“I’m happy I was naïve enough to go down this road,” Orlando says. “It’s so cool, and it deserved to be salvaged out of the graveyard. I learned so much, and it was no doubt the school of hard knocks, but I’m still glad I did it. I just hope somebody enjoys sharing it with the world as much as I do.”