Curbside Classic: Mercedes 300SEL (W109) – Trying To Make Sense Of The Magic Number “300”

W109a

When walking the dog a while back, I came across a non-V8 300SEL parked in the street.  “What’s this,” I thought.  “Another cowboy putting California headlights where they shouldn’t be?”

W109b

Eventually I met the owners who told me it had the 2.8 liter six under the hood and was pretty much original.  A quick online search revealed what I was looking at, but not the why.

Cut to the recent CC post on the Nova/Seville hybrid. So anxious was I to know the why that I interjected and Paul patiently explained for me. Little did I know that this was akin to stopping the Superbowl to ask the referee who his childhood heroes were. What follows here is my attempt to retell Paul’s story and expound on it a bit.

MERCEDESBENZ  Typ300---2189_13

In the first few years after WWII, Mercedes got back on its feet building only four-cylinder models (170V, 170S), updates on pre-war cars. But after the D-Mark was established in 1948, Germany’s economy roared off, and Mercedes was also eager to show the world that it too was back in the luxury car game.

In 1951, it launched two new six-cylinder lines, the mid-range 220 and the top-line 300 (shown), quickly dubbed “Adenauer” in honor of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s steady leadership. Although their frames were still based on pre-war designs, and the body styling was conservative, they both had brand-new SOHC straight sixes (M180/130, and M186/189); engines that would both spawn a long line of successors.

mercedes benz 300S -00022-1

The 300 sedan was a bit staid, but already in 1951, Mercedes showed the superb 300S Coupe and Cabriolet versions, some of the very last cars that still reflected the spirit of the splendid classic Mercedes of the thirties. They were some of the very finest (and most expensive) cars available at the time, and sought after by Hollywood stars and such.

And they made quite a contrast to contemporary American luxury cars of the mid-fifties, such a Cadillac Eldorado convertible. One might actually see them as the origins of the neo-classical resurgence that soon gripped American car design. Genuine landau bars, just the thing to inspire Detroit’s finest future Broughams.

Mercedes Benz-300SL-W194-00002-front-three-quarter-in-motion

But the numbers “300” were to become significant in another way: on the race track. Mercedes also sought to also recapture its pre-war racing glories with the 1952 300SL, a sports-racing coupe using the same 2996 cc six, but angled on its side for a lower profile. Of course, that led to the legendary production 300SL.

300slr

But even that wasn’t enough. In 1954, the 300SLR made a huge impact, a magnificent sports-racing car derived from the W196 Grand Prix racer. While it also had a 3 liter engine, this one was totally different from the other 300s: an all-out racing straight eight, with direct fuel injection and desmodromic valve actuation, no less. It made somewhere over 300 hp, a fabulous number for the times.

mercedes-benz-300-d-W189

Thus, at the end of the fifties, the numbers “300” were iconic in Germany, as they represented the very “Wirtschaftswunder” (Economic Miracle) that made West Germany and Mercedes major players again.

W112

By 1961, the Adenauer was on its third chassis code and had grown long in the tooth. A replacement was being prepared (600), but until then a stopgap was required to keep the magic 300 number on a saloon.  Hence the Heckflosse 300SE.  Given its own W-code (W112), this short-lived vehicle was equipped with M189 300, pneumatic suspension, lashings of extra chrome, power steering, a substantial price markup on the W111 Fintail and its own separate showroom. There was even an extended wheelbase model (300SE lang, shown above), but it did not use the “L” as part of its rear deck badging.

CC-18-083-800

In 1965, the W108 was launched.  Styled by Paul Bracq, this was more than a mere plucked Heckflosse; a cleaner greenhouse and crisper lines delivered what many consider to be the archetypal Mercedes Benz.  It was initially launched as the 250S, 250SE and 300SE. Since the “Grosser” 600 was already in production, the W108 was really a replacement for the 220/230 six-cylinder “Heckflosse” cars, not the 300SE version. Which gets confusing, since there was also a 300SE in the W108 line-up (called 300SEb),  essentially a higher-performance W108.

Mercedes 300SEL-  3.5-test-car

But the long-wheelbase 300SEL W109 was a decided step up in price and amenities, and essentially carved out a new niche in the Mercedes hierarchy, between the lesser S-Class sedans and the 600. It was visually distinguished from the W108s by all that chrome trim on the windows, and of course its 4.5 inches longer longer rear doors. Under the hood was the 3 liter M189 “big six”, and inside, the W109 was lavished with more and finer wood, better carpet and other details, and the whole thing was carried by self-leveling air suspension.  The badge on the boot and the glovebox of the W109 said 300SEL.

W108 280SEL

By the end of 1967, the M189 300 engine was becoming obsolete.  Overly heavy and thirsty, it was replaced in the 300SEL W109 with the fuel injected M130 2.8 engine, which made essentially the same power.  Here is where things get a bit even more complex: At the start of 1968, MB released the W108 280SEL.  This was essentially a long-wheelbase version of the 280SE or a ‘stripper’ version of the 300SEL, , depending on your point of view. So now you could buy a 280SEL with the 2.8 or a 300SEL with the same 2.8 six, depending on the size of your wallet and desire for prestige.

W1089 chrome

I have focused on these two models for this post.  As you can see, there appears to be little differentiating the pictured 280SEL and 300SEL, apart from diligence of ownership.  Closer inspection of the exterior reveals that chrome highlighting for the 300SEL on the A-pillar and door window surrounds.

W109c

The interior of the 300SEL is plusher and features more wood (burled instead of zebrano) on the dash and inside door window surrounds.  This particular 300SEL recently had its air suspension replaced with a more conventional system.

Mercedes-Benz Typ 600 Limousine aus dem Jahre 1963

In 1963, the Adenauer replacement was launched.  The W100 “Grosser” 600 was such a successfully expressed vehicle, it has come to represent the apogee of diplomatic giants.

Mercedes 300SEL 6.3 burnout

In 1966, Erich Waxenberger shoehorned the V8 from the 600 into the W109 which went on to create yet another legend; the 300SEL 6.3, the Teutonic muscle car (production began for the 1968 MY). And within a few years, the new smaller V8s were also dropped in the W108 (280 SEL 4.5) and w109 (300SEL 3.5 and 4.5), creating even more potentially confusing ingredients to the alpha-numeric Mercedes stew.

In the shadow of the 600 flagship status, the 300 designation might appear to have been superseded. By 1963, the 300SL Gullwing and roadster had also  been replaced with the W113 Pagoda.  By 1968, the M189 300 engine was no longer in production.  So why did MB persist with the 300 designation through to 1972 and the end of the W109’s lifespan?

W108b

In 1955, a 300SLR ploughed into the crowd at Le Mans.  Whilst blame for the accident could be apportioned between three drivers, Mercedes Benz withdrew from racing and were not to officially re-enter the arena for decades.  At this very point in time, the silver arrows were the dominant cars in Grand Prix and long distance road racing.  Mercedes Benz was also leading the charge on the consumer front with the some of the finest automobiles in the world. For a nation re-emerging, this number meant more than just a cubic capacity.

W109d

This 300SEL 2.8 is owned by a family with a sweet story.  The husband is Australian and the wife is American, and whilst in London they decided to start a family.  He persuaded her to move to Melbourne with the promise of a gift.  This car is that gift; it’s a true curbside-parked, child-carrying classic and she never wants to sell it.  Happy Valentine’s Day to both of them!