The first thoughts of replacing steam heating with electric train heating came as early as the building of the V 160 regular production locomotives as part of a looming structural change. After experiments with the classes V 162 (starting in 1968: 217) and V 169 (starting in 1968: 219), twelve units of the class 218 were delivered in 1968/69 with a 2,500 horsepower diesel motor after it had been developed by Krupp. On road numbers 218 001-012, the special equipment for the heating was no longer needed. The heating generator was coupled on demand hydraulically to the traction diesel. The trucks, gearboxes, brake systems, and cooling system were adapted to the higher output of the motor and to the expected higher speed. The order for regular production followed the twelve pre-production units after extensive testing. This order combined all of the experience from the classes of the V 160 family.
The 398 regular production units were thus built between 1971 and 1979 as a tentative conclusion of the building of large diesel locomotives on the German Federal Railroad. In addition to Krupp, Krauss-Maffei and Rheinstahl-Henschel also participated in the building of the locomotives. Naturally, during the long procurement period numerous detail improvements were done to the series. Initially the 2,500 horsepower motor was the only unit installed, but the later production groups and thereby over half of the locomotives were equipped with a more powerful motor with 2,800 horsepower output.
The class 218 locomotives had all of the DB's available paint schemes. While the first units were still painted in crimson, starting in 1975 new production runs gleamed in the then current ocean blue / beige paint scheme. Ten locomotives based in Hagen were given a special paint scheme in pure orange with light gray at the beltline to go with the train for the short-lived CityBahn project on the route Cologne – Gummersbach (Aggertal Line). The newly introduced Orient red paint scheme with white "bibs" came into use starting at the end of 1987 while the still current traffic red scheme spread starting in 1996.
The ranks of the class 218 have thinned out considerably also in the meantime. They are still running from bases in Niebüll and Kiel, yet in the medium term only the bases of Kempten, Mühldorf, and Ulm cannot do without the class 218 locomotives. The class designation 218.8 has been applied to 19 units that function as tow locomotives for stalled ICE trains on the new construction routes as well as occasionally for towing other electric powered rail cars. Most of the locomotives for towing work are equipped with Scharfenberg type transition couplers. Fifteen units are still in service.