Here’s a genuine milestone car. The Mercedes W108 began the lineage of modern S Series cars, which took its maker to the pinnacle of the global luxury sedan market. In the US, it single-handedly broke the backs of Cadillac and Lincoln. A youthful ride in one left me permanently altered. Its long and glorious rein reached an automotive pinnacle with its offshoot, the legendary 300SEL 6.3. And it all started with this somewhat modest but exquisite 250S.
Before we begin our paean to one of my all-time favorite cars, let’s make sure our Mercedes-speak is on the same page. The W108 series refers to the “junior” S Class cars, all of which began with the numbers 250 or 280 (with one minor exception), even the later V8 powered ones. They came in both short (108″) and long (112″) wheelbase versions, but didn’t have the air suspension and higher exterior and interior trim levels of the “senior” W109. Those all began with the 300 SEL designation, regardless of engine. We’ll pay the W109 its own due CC respects, when I find a nice one. Sadly, isn’t too likely to be a 6.3. But then, Eugene is full of surprises.
A little MB genealogy: Yes, the S (for schnell or super) designation had been used before by Mercedes, back to the legendary SK and SSK models in the twenties. But prior to the W108/W109, the S designation was applied to distinguish the higher trim/horsepower versions of the basic MB sedan. But in 1965, Mercedes began a two sedan platform strategy, which would allow the new S Class to be more clearly differentiated from the lowly “taxi-class” W 110 cars.
Although, under that handsome new finless skin, they weren’t all that different. Same 108″ wheelbase, as well as Mercedes’ unique single-jointed, low-pivot, camber-change minimizing rear swing-axle suspension. It would be the last appearance of that classically complicated Germanic solution: vee vill make swing axles work vell!
W108s are one of the most timelessly beautiful cars ever. It’s never looked “dated”, like its finned predecessor. Every line, the tasteful blending of the classic radiator grille with the modern proportions overall, the airy greenhouse, and the elegant tail end, all speak to a mature and deft designer’s hand. That would be Paul Bracq’s, who also penned some of MB’s other most enduring designs: the “pagoda” 230/250/280SL; the W112 Coupe/Cabriolet, and the paradigm-shifting 600. No less than most of the truly desirable Benzes of the post-war era.
This 1966 250S is TTAC reader Martin’s pride and joy, a very original and rust-free ex-L.A. car. It marks the low end of the W108 S series. But there’s nothing low-rent about the superb craftsmanship and materials everywhere you look. This is a car that really inspires pride of ownership, along with the knowledge that it still has a long useful life ahead of it.
When we think S Class today, it conjures up images of large, heavy, powerful, and very expensive. None of these apply to this positively delicate and graceful car. It’s about the size of a current Camry, weighs less than one (3240 lb.), has 128 horsepower, and cost the equivalent of $38K. The definition of what defines an S Class has changed profoundly in forty years.
But the W108 redefined the luxury car market forever in the US. Although it cost more than a Cadillac, despite its modest size and power, discriminating American luxury car buyers embraced the S class with their open check books. Cadillac made the fateful decision to go down market in the late sixties, just when this car hit the market. By the early seventies, 280SEL 4.5s and the like were ubiquitous in the doctors’ reserved parking spaces at the hospital.
I was sold after my first ride. My father’s cousin in Kansas was the typical Detroit canary. He drove a Fleetwood in the early sixties, then a 1965 Chrysler. When we visited him in 1970, he had just traded in the Newport on a shiny new 280SE. He took me for a brisk ride around the Kansas City freeways, on a balmy evening, with the sun roof open. Pure magic. And quite the contrast from our Coronet wagon.
Admittedly, in the late seventies, a drive in a 250S like this one dented the adolescent magic a bit for me. There were four of us in it, and we were navigating the foothills and mountains around San Bernardino. 128 horses, even Stuttgart-bred ones, can only do so much, especially with an automatic and the A/C on. Ah, the pain of growing up—having to face limitations, even with the legendary Mercedes.
Well, Mercedes had a solution, several, actually. The 3.5 V8 came along in 1970, and the 230hp 4.5 a year later. And of course, the legendary W109 300SEL 6.3 had been available since 1968. With 250 horsepower, and a price more than double of the 250S, it was the ultimate (flying) milestone.