Reportage: The legend of the tape runner: At the last minute

If you're not at home in the car scene, the term "belt runner" won't mean much to you.

Reportage: The legend of the tape runner: At the last minute

If you're not at home in the car scene, the term "belt runner" won't mean much to you. Such a conveyor belt conveyor is actually the last model produced in a series. This means that after this single copy, production ends and the production facilities are switched to the next generation or a completely different vehicle. A manufacturer like Mercedes celebrates this conveyor belt in special vehicle series and brings it into its own collection as a particularly exclusive model. The vehicle is usually parked here largely unnoticed for a few years because the model that has just been discontinued has no particular value for the collection or museum. This only changes after a few years, when it is brought back into the light of day for anniversaries or special occasions.

This happened at the snowy start of winter 2023 when production of the Mercedes CLS, internal name C257, came to an end. It's not just the current generation that's over, because the entire CLS series, which was once emphatically exclusive and positioned between the E-Class and S-Class, is being discontinued. In terms of volume, the Mercedes CLS has hardly set any records since 2004, but it created a lot of image and established a vehicle segment that did not exist, at least in Europe. The first generation of the Mercedes CLS in particular caused a stir as the elegant C219 series, created by the then chief designer Peter Pfeiffer. The differences with the technically largely identical E-Class of the W211 were too great. Visually, the four-door coupé sedan was such a big show that one would have expected from a beau brand like Alfa Romeo, Maserati or Aston Martin.

Around 170,000 CLS models were sold between October 2004 and July 2010. There were also around 170,000 of the successor generation C218 with a second body variant of the shooting brake station wagon from the beginning of 2011 to the end of 2018. The current generation C257 - manufactured since the beginning of 2019 - is retiring after 140,000 vehicles. The reason for the discontinuation is not any lack of success, but rather the technical consistency with the E-Class. The new E-Class, the last vehicle developed by Mercedes with an internal combustion engine, does not have a technical coupé sedan offshoot. Here the new generation CLE, as a symbiosis of the C and E-Class as a two-door coupe, has to be enough to please the aesthetes. The ever-increasing number of electric models with a star means that the Swabians also have to reduce the combustion engine portfolio because of the excessive variety of vehicles.

The Mercedes CLS is retiring with a belt conveyor that is truly impressive. Painted in the dark color emerald green metallic, the nappa leather interior is a remarkable symbiosis of saddle brown and black. This is a CLS 450 4matic, which had only run 14 kilometers when it was finally taken over at the production site. Its new price: 110,000 euros. The 270 kW / 367 hp coupé sedan with the M256 in-line six-cylinder is almost fully equipped and rolls on 20-inch rims with AMG design. Because the car will be used for communication purposes in the long term, the usually dark-tinted rear windows were removed for possible photo purposes. “Usually, a conveyor belt is recorded in the production system with a configuration that includes the special equipment and color combinations that were common during the construction period,” explains Matthias Knebel, who is responsible for the vehicle collection at Mercedes. “To put it simply: a conveyor belt corresponds to the buyer's preferences at the time and document how a Mercedes-Benz typically appeared on the street.”

The Mercedes vehicle collection, housed in a secret and highly secured hall in Fellbach, contains numerous particularly exclusive Mercedes models. These include 600 series state limousines, the armored S-Classes of ex-Chancellor Helmut Kohl and a few conveyor belts. The pattern of the belt runners can be seen in the example of the S-Class Coupé of the C126 z series. This is painted in the then very popular exterior color “blue-black metallic” (code 199) and has champignon leather on the inside (265). The coupé was ordered and delivered with the additional optional extras of an electric sunroof, air conditioning and the prestigious headlight cleaning system. “The belt runners are usually facelift vehicles and document the latest status of the respective series. The documentation also explains the frequently occurring full equipment,” explains Matthias Knebel, “Special editions, usually limited, are reserved for our customers - accordingly, such vehicles are purchased on the open market a few years later if necessary.”

Not every vehicle that is being phased out ends up in Mercedes' exclusive, multi-million dollar classic collection. Only one to a maximum of three vehicles of particularly important models are added every year - such as the dark green CLS from the C257 series. The Swabians' oldest conveyor belt is the luxury sedan and later state sedan of the Mercedes 600 (W100 series), which was introduced in the 1960s. However, a tape runner does not only have the task of remembering future anniversaries. Matthias Knebel: “For us, all conveyor belt conveyors are important vehicles for documentation, possible replacement parts production in the distant future and, of course, for communication.” At events, the vehicles are not only shown statically, but also driven. The vehicle with the lowest mileage in the vehicle collection is a Mercedes 560 SEC with just 130 kilometers driven. But first the Mercedes CLS 450 4matic has to wait a few years before it is brought back into the light of day.

Incidentally, at Mercedes, it is not just the tape feeder that is archived. The vehicle of a series is only the most visible part. However, there are a large number of documents, files or images that belong to the history of a series. In addition, there are the specifications, ideas for implementation, scale models or prototypes until the vehicle is fully developed and in production. Additional archivable material arises from construction documents, technical drawings or sales literature. This goes into the archives and collection along with a tape recorder to preserve the knowledge for future generations.