For all Mercedes’ reputation for engineering perfectionism and its storied racing heritage, the real appeal of the three-pointed star — immortalized in song by Janis Joplin and many others — has always been snob appeal, a cachet to match all but the most elite luxury cars. Not all Benzs are created equal, however, and few are quite as exclusive or as snobby as the big coupes and cabriolets. This week, we look at the 1963-1971 Mercedes W111 and W112 S-Class coupes and cabriolet.
THE ALLURE OF MERCEDES-BENZ
What makes a car a status symbol? High performance and eye-catching style certainly don’t hurt, but speed and looks alone don’t necessarily bestow status — Corvettes, for example, have always been fast and flamboyant, but the upper crust still considers them vulgar. To make it in high society, you need pedigree, a sense of history that separates you from the nouveau riche.
Mercedes-Benz, product of Daimler-Benz AG (now simply Daimler AG, following its divorce from Chrysler), has always had pedigree in spades. Established in 1926, its corporate ancestors, Daimler Motoren Gessellschaft and Benz & Cie, were pioneers in the automotive field. In fact, Benz & Cie founder Karl Benz is generally credited with creating the first true automobile, which he patented back in 1886. Daimler, meanwhile, came up with the “Mercedes” name — suggested by distributor and racing impresario Emil Jellinek, whose daughter Adrienne was nicknamed Mercedes — back in 1902, certainly the ground floor of the motoring era.
By the 1930s, not only did Mercedes sports cars have an impressive competition record, the company’s luxury models were popular with dictators and potentates the world over, including Finland’s Gustav Mannerheim and Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. Despite its association with the Third Reich (and its role as a major military supplier, which made its factories prime targets for Allied bombing), Daimler-Benz was dutifully rehabilitated after the war and by the early 1950s, the Mercedes Type 300 limousine had become the preferred conveyance of West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer.
Daimler-Benz’s bread and butter were always the Mercedes sedans, but while they were extremely well crafted and finely engineered, they weren’t quite snobbish enough for a few well-heeled customers. The reasons were simple: They weren’t sufficiently distinctive-looking and they didn’t cost enough.
The idea of a Mercedes being too cheap may seem a puzzling one, particularly to Americans, who have often had to pay substantially more than a German buyer would for the same cars. Elsewhere in the world, however, the price of entry is not as high and low-line Mercedes sedans, particularly diesels, have long been popular for taxi service and other proletarian duties. Thanks to Daimler-Benz’s much-vaunted philosophy of design continuity, there was not a substantial visual distinction between a lowly Mercedes 190D and a posh 300SEL. Such similarities did wonders for the sales volume of the low-end models, but it was a real poser for the wealthy. How is anyone supposed to know you’re rich if your luxury car is constantly being mistaken for a taxicab?
Fortunately, Daimler-Benz thoughtfully offered an array of two-door coupes and cabriolets for customers looking for something a little more distinctive than a sedan. Other than the splendid “Gullwing” 300SL sports car, most of the two-door models rode the same platforms as the sedans. They were sometimes shortened a few inches in wheelbase for better proportions, but they were otherwise mechanically identical. The difference was style and the implied status that came with the two-doors’ higher price.
In the mid-1950s, Daimler-Benz had several different two-door lines: coupe and cabriolet versions of the smaller “Ponton” sedans; the big Mercedes 300S and 300Sc models, based on the “Adenauer” 300; and the four-cylinder 190SL and six-cylinder 300SL sports cars. Even for a company with reputation for cost-no-object engineering, the proliferation of models was expensive, particularly given that their combined annual production was never more than about 6,000 units (more than two-thirds of those the two-seat, four-cylinder 190SL). By 1957, Daimler-Benz management decided to reduce costs by consolidating their big two-doors on a single platform to be shared with the next generation of the large Mercedes sedans, known internally by the code numbers W111 and W112. The 190SL and 300SL, meanwhile, would be replaced by a single series of two-seat roadsters, code-named W113.
The initial Mercedes W111 sedan line, introduced in the fall of 1959, was a straightforward evolution of the Ponton, which had been the first unit-body Mercedes production car. Although they were considered large cars in Europe — ancestors of the modern S-class — the new W111 sedans were only slightly bigger than American compacts like the Chevrolet Corvair and Buick Special, stretching 191.9 inches (4,875 mm) on a 108.3-inch (2,750mm) wheelbase. Like the Ponton, the W111 had unitary construction with a rubber-isolated subframe carrying the engine, transmission, and front suspension. It also featured designed-in crumple zones and a rigid passenger structure, a safety innovation that Mercedes had pioneered a few years earlier. Rear suspension was Mercedes’ low-pivot swing-axle arrangement like that of the 300SL roadster and all models had front disc brakes.
The W111’s exterior styling, developed by Mercedes chief body engineer Karl Wilfert, was unmistakably Mercedes, but it was also noticeably Americanized, with slightly wrapped front windshields and even modest tailfins. The latter earned the new cars the nickname Heckflosse, “Fintail”; the factory never called them that, but the name promptly stuck and remains strongly associated with these cars.
The Mercedes W111 was available only with a six-cylinder engine, the 2,195 cc (134 cu. in.) SOHC M180. In the cheaper 220b and 220Sb, it used twin Solex carburetors, while the 220SEb added Bosch fuel injection, giving 120 hp DIN (88 kW); U.S. cars were rated at 134 SAE gross horsepower (100 kW). Four-cylinder models, dubbed W110, were added in mid-1961, replacing the last of the Pontons.
In March 1962, Mercedes replaced the final 300d sedans with the new 300SE, known internally as W112. The W112 was essentially a fancier version of the 220SEb, with extra chrome and upgraded trim. Wheelbase and overall length were unchanged, but the 300SE substituted air suspension for the W111’s coil springs and added the fuel-injected 2,996 cc (183 cu. in.) M189 engine from the older 300d, with 160 hp DIN (118 kW); in the U.S., it was rated at 185 hp SAE (138 kW). (This engine, incidentally, was a close relative of the M198 slant-six used in the 300SL sports cars.) A longer-wheelbase 300SEL version of the W112 sedan bowed at the Geneva auto show in March 1963.
THE TWO-DOOR MERCEDES W111 AND W112
Although the sedans went into production in 1959, the two-door Mercedes W111 and W112 models didn’t appear until 1961. The coupe and cabriolet were designed by Paul Bracq, who had joined Mercedes in 1957. Unlike the big Type 300 two-doors they effectively replaced, which had used a shorter wheelbase than the comparable sedans, the W111/W112 two-doors shared the same wheelbase as the sedans. The ostensible reason was that the coupe and cabriolet would sell better if they offered true four-place seating, but the shared dimensions also reduced costs and helped to avoid overlap with the upcoming W113 roadsters.
The inevitable result of all that commonality was that the two-doors looked a great deal like their sedan counterparts. Their main distinction was the omission of the sedan’s finned rear fenders; by the time the coupes debuted, it was clear that the American fascination with fins had cooled, and even Cadillac was starting to back away from them.
The coupes and convertibles were offered in two forms. First up were the W111 versions, the 220SEb, which, like the 220SEb sedan, had coil springs and the 2,195 cc (134 cu. in.) M180 engine, with 120 horsepower DIN/134 hp SAE gross (88/100kW). Introduced to the press at the grand opening of the new Daimler Benz Museum in February 1961, the 220SE coupe made its formal debut at the Geneva auto show in March, the cabriolet following at the Frankfurt show that fall. The fancier W112 versions, the 300SE, were introduced in March 1962. Like the W112 sedans, the 300SE coupe and cabriolet had standard air suspension, power steering, and the 2,996 cc (183 cu. in.) M189 engine, initially rated at 160 hp DIN/185 hp SAE (118/138 kW).
Despite their vaguely sporting air, the W111 and W112 coupes were actually a little bit heavier than the comparable sedans, thanks to the reinforcement necessary for their pillarless hardtop roofs. Even with a manual gearbox, the 220SEb coupe needed nearly 13 seconds for the 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) sprint and had a top speed of 105 mph (169 km/h) — entirely adequate, but hardly exceptional. The 300SE was more powerful, but it was also heavier, and thus only fractionally quicker. The cabriolets, which weighed around 150 pounds (68 kg) more than the coupes, were slower still, as were models with Mercedes’ new four-speed automatic transmission, which became available in 1962.
Like most big Mercedes of the time, the two-door W111 and W112 models were classy-looking, beautifully assembled, and had above-average handling, brakes, and ride quality. On the other hand, the same could be said for the sedans, which were more practical and substantially less expensive. With such high prices, the coupe and cabriolet were not huge sellers — 2,539 for 1961, 4,618 for 1962, 4,385 for 1963 — but exclusivity was the whole point and those numbers were more than double the combined annual sales of the two-door Pontons and 300s they replaced.
Mercedes dropped the W111 sedans in 1965 in favor of the newer W108 series, with fresher styling, curved side glass, and no trace of the previous tailfins. There were various mechanical revisions, most notably the new 2,496 cc (153 cu. in.) M129 six with seven main bearings. (The cheaper W110 models also received new engines and new designations, but only minor exterior changes; they remained in production until early 1968.) A new 300SEL, known internally as the W109, followed in March 1966.
Mercedes’ W111 and W112 coupes and convertibles continued, although they too received some mechanical changes. Since the M180 six had been discontinued, the W111 two-doors picked up the M129 engine from the W108 sedans, now rated at 150 hp DIN or 170 hp SAE gross (110/127 kW), and a new designation: Mercedes 250SE. The W112 300SE model retained the 2,996 cc (183 cu. in.) M189 engine, which had been upped to 170 hp DIN/195 hp SAE (125/145 kW) in late 1964. All W111 and W112 models picked up the W108’s rear axle and four-wheel disc brakes, which necessitated a switch to 14-inch (356 mm) wheels. The 250SE models also had a hydro-pneumatic load-leveling spring for the rear suspension.
The revised W112 cars proved short-lived. Sales had never topped 750 units a year, and the arrival of the smoother, more powerful 250SE made it somewhat redundant. The big M189 engine was also enormously heavy — 584 lb (265 kg), more than some big American V8s — and quite expensive to produce. In December 1967, Mercedes dropped both the 300SE and 250SE two-doors in favor of new 280SE models, using the W111 chassis and the new M130 engine, a bored-out version of the smaller seven-bearing six. In fuel injected form, the 2,778 cc (170 cu. in.) M130 had 160 hp DIN/180 hp SAE gross (118/134 kW), and while it gave up some torque to the older 2,996 cc engine, it redressed the balance with its substantially lighter weight.
The Mercedes 280SE models were slightly more expensive than the previous 250SE, but they were usefully cheaper than the departed 300SE — although at close to $10,000 POE in the U.S., neither could be called inexpensive. Since they were about 110 lb (50 kg) heavier than the 250SE, they were still not outstandingly quick; 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) took close to 11 seconds and top speed was perhaps 115 mph (185 km/h).
THE MERCEDES 280SE 3.5
By the time the 280SE coupe and cabriolet arrived, Mercedes’ position was being challenged by BMW, which had finally emerged from its postwar doldrums to become a formidable rival. The Bavarian automaker’s new six-cylinder sedans and 2800CS coupe had better performance than Stuttgart’s finest, similar craftsmanship, more modern styling, and significantly lower prices. Something needed to be done if Mercedes was to keep pace.
In August 1968, Car and Driver editor Brock Yates, driving a 250 sedan, complained about the labored performance of the Mercedes six and automatic transmission in U.S. traffic, noting that a small V8 would be a dramatic improvement. Daimler-Benz had come to a similar conclusion, and was already preparing such an engine for a fall 1969 debut. Known internally as the M116, it was a 3,499 cc (214 cu. in.) overhead-cam V8 with aluminum heads and Bosch D-Jetronic fuel injection, making 200 hp DIN/230 hp SAE gross (147/172 kW). It was roughly 30 lb (14 kg) heavier than the 2.8-liter M130.
While it was primarily intended for the W109 sedans, the V8 quickly found its way into Mercedes’ W111 coupe and cabriolet, which were confusingly badged “280SE 3.5.” Puzzling nomenclature aside, the new engine gave both cars noticeably brighter performance. Although curb weight was up to 3,600 lb (1,630 kg) — actually more than the 300SE — the V8 coupe could now reach 60 mph (97 km/h) in less than 10 seconds and a top speed of 127 mph (205 km/h). Prices rose commensurately; in the U.S., the 280SE 3.5 started at an eye-watering $13,430 POE (east coast), enough to buy a Porsche 911 and a Ford Mustang. (The six-cylinder 280SE continued in Europe, but it was dropped from the U.S. lineup once the V8 arrived.)
It’s worth noting that had Mercedes really wanted to trounce BMW in raw performance, they could have shoehorned their other V8 into the W111 coupe. Back in 1967, Daimler-Benz experimental engineer Erich Waxenburger had stuffed the big 6,332 cc (386 cu. in.) M100 engine from the 600 limousine into a long-wheelbase W109 sedan, creating the 300SEL 6.3, a stately-looking luxury car with muscle car acceleration and a top speed of more than 135 mph (217 km/h). However, while the 300SEL 6.3 was essentially in a class of one, a 6.3 coupe would probably have invited unflattering comparisons with true sports cars like the E-Type Jaguar or even (horror of horrors) the Corvette Sting Ray, not an appetizing prospect. It probably didn’t matter — people didn’t buy big Mercedes coupes to drag race any more than did Thunderbird drivers.
Despite the addition of the V8, the W111 was an aging platform and its days were obviously numbered. A telling sign was the introduction in 1969 of the Mercedes 250C and 250CE, hardtop coupe versions of the new midsize W114 sedans. The six-cylinder 280SE coupe and cabriolet were dropped in January 1971, the 280SE 3.5 models that summer. In all, two-door W111/W112 production totaled 28,918 coupes and 7,013 cabriolets, 4,502 of which were V8s. Those were not large numbers, even for Mercedes, but they were undoubtedly profitable cars.
The W114 coupes continued through 1976, followed by coupe versions of the W123, but the two-seat R107 and R129 would be Mercedes’ only convertibles until the fall of 1991. Big coupes, however, returned with the arrival of the W126 S-class in 1981, and they have remained a staple of the line since then, spawning the current CL and four-door CLS series. Just as they did forty years ago, they carry a significant price premium, despite being mechanically identical to their sedan counterparts — as always, the price of exclusivity is high.
For all that, we must confess a certain irrational fondness for the old W111/W112 coupes. As conservative as they are, they’re less stodgy-looking than the contemporary sedans and less precious than the SL roadsters. Their performance is unexceptional, but we have to admit they do have class and it’s hard to put a price tag on that.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for this article included Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); “Mercedes Benz 250C and 250CE,” Unique Cars and Parts, n.d., www.uniquecarsandparts. com.au, accessed 17 September 2011; “New ‘Upper Class’ Mercedes,” The Motor, 14 August 1965, reprinted in Mercedes-Benz S Class & 600 Limited Edition 1965-1972, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2006), pp. 6-8; Dave Schisler and Lynn Yakel, “The Gullwing: A Chronicle,” Gull Wing Group International, n.d., www.gullwinggroup. org, accessed 17 September 2011; Rainer W. Schlegelmilch and Hartmut Lehbrink, Mercedes (Cologne, Germany: Könemann VG mbH, 1997); Maarten van Eijck, The Heckflosse Homepage, n.d., www.heckflosse.nl/ HistoryHome.htm, last accessed 17 September 2011; and Mark Wan, “Mercedes-Benz Car Archive,” Autozine, n.d., www.autozine. org/ Archive/ Mercedes/ Mercedes_archive.html, last accessed 17 September 2011. Reader Nathan Phoenix offered some corrections in an email to the author in September 2011.
Period road test data came from Karl Ludvigsen, “Preview Test: Mercedes-Benz 280SE 3.5 Coupe V8,” Car and Driver December 1969, reprinted in Mercedes-Benz S Class & 600 Limited Edition 1965-1972, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2006), pp. 74-75; “Mercedes-Benz 280SE 3.5,” Car and Driver September 1970, reprinted in ibid, pp. 86-89, 93; “Mercedes-Benz 280SE 3.5 Road Test: The vintage coupe gets a lovely new engine,” Road & Track September 1970, reprinted in ibid, pp. 94-97; and Charles E. Nerpel, “Driver’s Report – Mercedes 220 SE Coupe,” Motor Trend Vol. 14, No. 4 (April 1962), pp. 64-67.
Exchange rate data for the dollar and the mark came from Harold Marcuse, “Historical Dollar-to-Marks Currency Conversion Page” (19 August 2005, UC Santa Barbara, www.history.ucsb. edu/ faculty/ marcuse/ projects/ currency.htm, accessed 30 July 2009). All equivalencies cited in the text are approximate and are provided for illustration and informational purposes only — this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!