Curbside Classic and Driving Review (With Video): Mercedes 220 Diesel – I Drive The Second Slowest Car Sold In America

(this post appeared inadvertently yesterday for a few hours due to operator error)     Is it karma, for all of the risky, jail-baiting, high-speed driving I’ve done over the years? Because for some reason, I keep getting invites to drive the slowest cars ever sold in this land.  One year ago, it was a Subaru 360, for which there are 0-60 times on the web ranging from 37 to infinity. Then the other day my friend Nick showed up for a visit in this lovely Mercedes 220D, and offered me the keys. Would it be any faster?

Obviously, I couldn’t resist, especially as it would make a fine counterpoint to my ’86 Mercedes 300E, which was the fastest production four door sedan when it first came out, and whose top speed of 140 mph and o-60 time of some 7.5 seconds was duly confirmed, by me. So now it was time to probe the other extreme of Mercedes’ performance envelope. With 57hp on tap, a trunk chock full of spare parts including a transmission, and two tall guys on board, the results were inevitably going to be very different.

Nick bought this car recently and is in the process of prepping it for a sale. He’s had some work done on it, including a full bumper-to-bumper evaluation by a vintage Mercedes specialist, who’s proclaimed it hale and hearty except for a needed minor structural repair near the steering box attachment, apparently a common issue on these W114/115s. And a wee bit of rust repair is in the works. But it’s a very attractive car, especially with that two-tone paint job. I’m not sure if that was an original color combo, but in any case, this car was obviously repainted at some point.

My immediate gut reaction to seeing it in front of our house was that it was originally a European car, even before I noticed the “CH” (Switzerland) sticker on the rear. But the full provenance of this particular car is still a wee bit of a mystery, and rather stumped me for a while.

Nick said this was a 1973 MY car, and initially, I had no reason to doubt that. For some reason I felt compelled to shoot the manufacturer’s tag on the front bulkhead next to the radiator, although I didn’t really take its information in at the time, as we were eager to get going. But it’s a good thoing I did, as when I looked at this shot later, I knew there was something very inconsistent. It says very clearly that this is a “Fahrgestell” (Chassis) 114 015, and a “Type/Model” 230/8. Neither of those corresponded to a 220 D.

The 114 series is the six-cylinder version of these W114/115 cars, and the fours are 115s.  And the 230 Model was a gasoline six cylinder sold other than in the US from 1968 through 1973 (the US got only the 250/280 sixes). The 230 was by far the most common of the W114 sixes sold in Europe.

Just to keep things a bit complicated, but not relevant to this car, there was also 230 gas four cylinder (W115.017), that replaced the 220 gas four in 1974. And since Mercedes still took their badging pretty seriously, it got a “4” added to it, to make sure everyone knew you were not deserving of the higher degree of prestige and status that a six cylinder Mercedes was so worthy of.  Note how the “4” is affixed slightly below the level of the “230”. Four cylinders = lower status.

At that point, the six cylinder 230 became the 230.6, and got a “6” added to it its badge, to make sure everyone knew you were truly deserving of the higher degree of prestige and status that a six cylinder Mercedes was so worthy of. Notice how the “6” was affixed on the same level as the “230”, and even shared its underlining. In status-conscious Germany, this was like the difference of having a “Doktor” or “Diplom Eng.” as a suffix on your calling card or door bell name plate.

Back to our diesel, which by the way, were only driven by taxi drivers and affluent farmers back then in Germany. Seriously; no one that could afford a Mercedes back then would touch one of these stinky, clattering slugs. Leave that to those damn Amerikaner, who are so fad-obsessed and will pay ridiculous amounts for one of these lowly stinky diesel taxi cabs!

The affluent farmers bought them because the would cheat and use their non-road-taxed tractor diesel. The difference in price was very substantial, and the authorities finally took to putting dye in either the highway or farm diesel, and would go out on rural roads and stop diesel Mercedes and take a sample of their fuel to see if they were cheating. And slap them with a hefty fine if they were.

Ok; maybe there were a few other “civilian” oddballs who bought a diesel in Germany and most other European countries, but before the first energy crisis of 1973-1974, diesels just were…gross. One respected their efficiency and durability, but back then everyone in Germany was obsessed with how fast their cars could go on the Autobahn, or just wanted the Mercedes prestige that started (barely) with the gas fours, and then jumped significantly with the sixes. It also explains why Mercedes would not put any diesels into their S Class until the 1991 W140 in Europe, whereas the the W116 S Class 300SD was made specifically for the US stating in about 1977. And even then (1991), it was a big deal for Germans to consider a diesel S Class. But by then, the turbo diesels were a lot more powerful and refined, and of course we all know how the Diesel-Welle took over. And now it’s in serious decline.

Back to the diesel at hand. This manufacturer’s tag really stumped me. Would someone swap in a diesel four into a six cylinder gas car? That seemed like a real stretch, but it was all I could come up with initially. Stranger things have happened.

But then as I looked at the pictures of this car again, I realized that this was a post-face lift car (1974 or later), due to the missing front window vent windows.

Yet it clearly has the narrower “radiator” shell and other front end hallmarks of a pre-face lift car. Aha, Aha! It all makes sense now; this car obviously had a front end accident at some point in its life, and had the front clip of a 230 six grafted on, including the manufacturer’s build plate. Mystery solved; mostly.

The fact that this 220D also had air conditioning seemed odd. In Europe in the seventies, AC was very uncommon. And in Switzerland, no less? Whatever. I suppose it might possibly have been added later, although that’s probbaly a bit of an undertaking. For thta matter, I don’t know whether this is even the original engine, or just what the complete history of this car is either. Nick just assumed it was a US car, although the CH sticker and the 250,000 km badge on the radiator shell are pretty clear tip-offs.

As are the European instruments on the left side, including “OEL” for the oil pressure gauge. Obviously, a US market speedometer has been swapped in. Note the markers for the top speed in each of the gears; that would be handy for my 0-60 run. pretty much all European cars had these, as tachometers were not common except for overtly sporty cars and/or some expensive ones. They are quite effective too.

The AC control is in English, as is the “Fasten Seat Belts” indicator. Love those Becker radios.

This is clearly a mix-and-not-match car, as the upholstery shows.

 

Yes, this is a stick-shift car, which coming from Europe, is only to be expected. And it will perhaps help a bit in our acceleration run, although the Mercedes four speed automatic really gave up little if anything to the stick due to its “tight” torque converter and four gears, which were very similarly-spaced as the manual, and did not have an overdrive top gear.

I wanted to shoot the startup of this venerable old-school mercedes diesel, an engine that has built a reputation for being nigh-near indestructible, as long as it has some oil in it. it’s just so well built and so low-stressed, that these can rack up hundreds of thousands of miles without any issues.

Nick gave the glow plugs a 30 second warm-up, and then hit the starter. And it came to life with the inevitable clatter and shaking. If ever the term “agricultural” truly applied to a car engine, here it is. Might as well be a tractor starting up. 2197cc shaking out 57 or 59 net hp, depending on the source (60PS DIN), at 4200 rpm; and 93 net ft.lbs. of torque at 2400 rpm. Those are the vital statistics, assuming this is actually an OM615 engine. These are not direct injection engines like modern diesels, hence the need for the glow plugs to warm up their pre-combustion chamber, where the initial combustion takes place.

It was time for me to slip behind the huge steering wheel and let er’ rip. We headed out a few blocks, and then I handed Nick my iphone and told him to roll a bit of spontaneous video.

Nick held my phone vertically, and I didn’t notice. That explains why it’s vertical, duh! But then this is not an attempt by me to break into the YouTube video business; just a way to document the drive. This first video starts out at the intersection of 28th and Chambers, where it heads up a pretty good hill, an opportunity for me to see how it does. Not so hot. I got it up to about 35, but then the hill steepened some, and its speed just melted away, and I had to downshift into second. It reminded me of many drives in diesel Mercedes in the mountains of Austria, slooowly chugging away.

These engines are just inherently very phlegmatic. Diesels love them some boost, and without it intrinsically make less torque than a comparable-sized gas engine. On the level, the Mercedes was reasonably ok; of course we were driving on a quiet neighborhood with no traffic to speak of. But it will get you there, rowing through the gears and trying to avoid losing momentum, as untold thousands of diesel taxi drivers in Europe’s cities will attest.

Once we got over the hill a bit, and headed out Loraine Highway, Nick decided to roll some more video. We finally hit a stretch where I got it above 60. And that included some curves taken at well above the posted recommended speed. This old Benz is still as solid as a the proverbial bank vault. The steering is a bit ponderous, yet once under way, has decent feel and inspires confidence, as does the highly capable all-independent suspension and four wheel disc brakes. The fact that these cars were so far ahead of the state of the art, especially in the US, makes them feel a lot less “old” now than a typical American car from the late 60s-early 70s.

The W114/115 was a big deal when they arrived in the summer of 1968 or so, as they were all-new, and not a further evolution of prior Mercedes, except for the drive trains, of course. These cars may look similar to the W109 S Class of 1966, and share a 108″ wheelbase (the swb cars) but that’s deceptive. The 114/115 had a completely new chassis, with a new ball-joint front suspension and semi-trailing arm rear suspension that finally ditched the low-pivot swing axles. The w123 is just a direct evolution of the w114/115, and feels quite similar when driving: heavy, solid, yet quite willing to take a corner at good speed, or anything else that can be thrown at them. These cars inspire endless confidence in their abilities to take on whatever comes their way, fast or slow.

We pulled over on a flat section of Loraine Highway, and made our run to sixty. I didn’t know until I got home and timed the video how long it took. My comments are of course to be taken with a bit of salt (as almost always), but it did feel a wee bit faster than the 28.77 seconds I timed it at from the video.

Too bad Mercedes didn’t offer turbo version of the 240 D; actually, there was an aftermarket kit, and I remember reading a test of one so equipped; the reviewers liked it even better than the the non-turbo 300D.

Automobilecatalog.com lists a 0-60 time of 26.6 seconds for the 220D, which considering the trunk full of parts including a transmission, and two tall guys in the seats, is probably just about right. And I read somewhere that the key to the best times on these are by dumping the clutch at 2200 rpm, which keeps the engine at about 1700rpm minimum on take off. Needless to say, I did not do that. But it did hit 60 in third gear, which is right where the marker is on the speedo. Top speed is 84 mph.

It all felt rather familiar of course, as the 40hp (34 net hp) 120cc VW Beetles I drove back in the 70s had just about the same 0-60 time, although that dropped considerably on one of them after I put on 1350cc barrels and pistons, and optimized the timing. And then there’s my ’66 F-100 six; I should do a 0-60 run on it some time. I’m quite comfortable behind the wheel of a really slow car. Or a fast one. I’ve got them both. It’s nice to have the choice, depending on the mood.

What about merging on the freeway in a really slow car? Folks always say that’s when they really need that 350 hp. But if you’ve ever driven a big truck or bus, you’ll know that they manage to merge into freeways just fine too. It’s not exactly magic.

Who knows where all this car has been? Has it climbed the mountains of Switzerland (slowly) for a driver who really liked to be frigid? And why are those tail lights not the ribbed version that was used from 1974 on? And that chrome horizontal trim piece below the star was longer on the 1974 and later versions. Did it get hit in the rear as well as the front? What’s the real story of this car? And how many hundreds of thousands of miles has it actually logged? We may never know.

And it’s ready for more; much more, actually. By the time Nick is ready to sell it, it will have been thoroughly gone through and ready for anything. If you’re interested in joining it on its next chapter, let me know.

 

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CC Driving Review: Subaru 360

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