Were those black beauties expecting me? I had already seen them separately – I even featured the Beetle in one of my Singles posts and was about to do the same with the Benz – but somehow, I seemed to have stumbled upon their digs, one very fine morning indeed. Paydirt!
What a well-matched pair this was, too. Despite obvious differences, these two shared several key traits: both German, both dressed in black with whitewalls, both date from the late ‘60s and both feature driving wheels equipped with the infamous swing axle.
Oh, and then there’s the matching license plates. Woah! What’s the deal with that? It wasn’t a fine morning any longer, I had just entered the Twilight Zone. Actually, this was like the movie Twins. Remember that? Actually, I’ve never seen it myself, funnily enough. I only remember the trailer, but with that sort of film, two minutes is plenty to understand the premise.
The Danny de Vito role is played here by the Volkswagen, obviously. I know, an Italian car (like a Fiat 500) would have been a bit better for the movie simile, but this still works. Kind of. The Mercedes is a dead ringer for Schwarzenegger though, isn’t it?
From a personal perspective, these two particular cars also take me back to a specific time and place. The time is 1989-1990 and the place is Bethesda, MD. I was a cub scout and our leader, whom we called Akela, drove a maroon W108. Another scout leader, a young German woman (we called her Bagheera), had a Beetle.
I rode in both cars. The Benz was of course much more impressive, with its huge ivory steering wheel, acres of chrome and spacious cabin. It had the US-style quad headlamps, leather upholstery and a floor shifter, so this one’s interior is not exactly doing a Proustian number on my memory banks. It looked better in my head.
I’m pretty sure Akela’s W108 was a 1966 250 S, i.e. an earlier model than the black car featured here, which partially explains why this one seems unfamiliar. They upgraded to 2.8 litres in late ’67 and must have got rid of the white bakelite steering wheel around that time as well – a big mistake, in my opinion.
Bagheera’s Beetle, which was a mid-‘70s green one, had its charm too – the engine note was especially appealing and unique. But it just didn’t have the Benz’s cachet and the rear seat, even for ten-year-old moi, was quite cramped and sad. At least the soundtrack was interesting.
Incidentally, I have no idea whether this Beetle has the new-for-’67 1500 or the older 1.3 litre flat-4, but I’m betting it has the bigger engine.
I do prefer the Euro-spec composite headlamps seen on these and on their Fintail predecessors. The sealed beam stacked quads don’t look too bad, but these give the car a smoother and more sophisticated appearance.
I kind of feel the same way about the Beetle, actually. I prefer the older pre-1967 blister-like headlamps, rather than the flatter ones this car has. These headlamps, which were only added later to other markets, as well as the bumper overriders and rather generous amount of bling make this Beetle’s American provenance highly likely. Few were sold new in Japan, back in the ‘60s.
As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, I caught these two before individually prior to finding them as a matching pair. I saw the VW a couple of times at least, but I ran into the W108 only fairly recently, one fine evening. The car was parked curbside and the driver was inside, tinkering with his phone.
Managed to take a couple decent shots of the rear end, which is lucky as this angle was not really available on the daytime photo shoot. That rear end is where Paul Bracq really justified his salary – not merely shaving off the Heckflosse’s fins, but redesigning the big Benz comprehensively and masterfully from the A-pillar back.
I love the Fintail too, but it’s impossible to see the W108 and not view it as a much improved and cleaner design. And there’s the fact that this is the Benz I remember from my younger years, whereas I’ve never had a close encounter with a Fintail.
It would be interesting to know what this 90-06 number means to the owner. Could be that he was born in June 1990 – dates are written backwards here, year / month / day, so it could be that. Or it could be the palindromic or “mirror image” nature of the numbers that are the attraction, though you don’t really see it with the font they use. Who knows. I’m no Dan Brown, so I’ll refrain from using numerology and mysticism to try and explain this, but the guy with the two classic black German cars probably didn’t pick those numbers at random.
We moved back to old Europe in the summer of 1990 and my brother and I didn’t fancy joining a new scout group. Coincidentally, I haven’t ridden in a W108 since then. Thirty years on, I still have a major soft spot for these – if I ever bought a classic Benz, it would be that one. The Beetle, on the other hand, feels less special and it objectively is. Besides, I have since discovered other rear-engined streamlined cars that offer more legroom and exclusivity. But I guess it all goes back to being a ten-year-old boy sitting in that cramped rear seat and hearing that flat-four clatter. Some impressions last a lifetime.