Curbside Classic: 1952 Mercedes-Benz 300 (W186) – Best German Car Of The ‘50s?

(first posted 11/29/2017)      In the spring of 1951, a recovering Mercedes-Benz came out with two 6-cyl. cars, the 2-litre Typ 220 (W187) and the 3-litre Typ 300 (W186). This was a powerful statement, which read as: “We’re back in the game”. High-end models had been off the production lines since about 1943, but the new top-of-the-range Benz was worth the wait. A unique blend of tradition, technology and glamour, the Mercedes 300 was going to be a hit within the small world of top luxury motoring.

There have been several generations of Big Benzes, but only this one (and possibly its successor, the W100) can be considered as truly groundbreaking. For context, the main predecessor models were the 770 K (W150), made in very small quantities (less than 100 chassis) from 1938 to 1943-44, and the legendary 540 K (W24), made from 1936 to 1940. Both these big straight-8s were very refined cars, but no longer in tune with the post-war world. In the early ‘40s, Mercedes was developing a 6-litre V12 car, which would have been called the 600 (above) and replaced the eights. By 1945, Daimler-Benz knew that their next generation limo would have to be quite a bit smaller than that.

Work began on the W186 very soon after the end of the war. The market was there: even in the late ‘40s, some folks were getting so desperate for a new Benz that they were getting their pre-war chassis custom-made new bodies. For instance, the above car is a pre-war Mercedes 320 chassis re-bodied in 1948 by Wendler. Mercedes canned the V12 and opted out of 8-cyl. engines for now, following a general trend among luxury automakers (including Alfa Romeo, Cadillac, Delage, Delahaye, Lagonda, Lancia, Lincoln, Packard, Panhard, Renault and Rolls-Royce) who reduced cylinder count either just before or soon after the war.

In a more constrained world, Daimler-Benz figured a well-crafted 3-litre straight-6 would probably suffice. Though based on a pre-war block that had mainly been used on trucks, the 300’s twin-carb 2996cc big six sported a new overhead-cam design with an alloy head providing 115 PS (DIN), mated to an all-synchromesh 4-speed manual gearbox. The X-frame chassis was an evolution of the pre-war design, made with oval steel tubes and featuring the obligatory rear swing axle set-up.

The 300’s engine (in triple-carb 150 PS guise) and suspension were employed on all large sports Benzes of the ‘50s, including the exclusive 300 S (W188) coupé, cabriolet and roadster and later in the infamous 300 SL ((W198) with direct fuel injection, 215 PS) – as well as that most incredible creation, the Renntransporter high-speed F1 truck. The same engine also powered the Fintail 300 SE (W112) and the W109 that followed, being produced until 1969.

The 300 S coupé and cabriolet, which came out in late 1951, even used a shortened version of the saloon’s chassis, as well as its dashboard. The normal wheelbase 300 was also available as a four-door convertible (“Cabriolet D”, in Mercedese) made by the factory – Mercedes being one of the last automakers to include this ‘30s-era body style in their range.

A few 300 chassis did end up with custom bodies. Some became wagons, hearses or ambulances, such as this high-roof 300d made in the Netherlands by Visser in 1961. Private individuals usually went for giving the car a completely new look. For the customer who preferred a more discreet option, German coachbuilders such as Wendler still could make a special or two, such as this 1952 four-seater coupé (top right). Folks who wanted a bit more pizzazz could (and did) ask for Italian carrozzerie to design something, like this 1954 PininFarina coupé (bottom left) or the Ghia saloon (bottom right), one of a matching pair made for King Ibn Saoud in 1956.

Whether with two or four doors, 300s were exceptional cars, able to compete with the best European and American carmakers. In this fight, Mercedes were almost always saddled with the smallest engine of the group – luxobarges of the early ‘50s usually started at the 4-litre mark, though sports cars were a different matter. But unlike most contemporaries, the four-door 300 had a lightness and sprightliness that, coupled with all-independent suspension, made it more effective than its kin. Eventually, fuel injection providing an extra 45 PS on the 300d’s engine gave the bulky Benz one of the better top speeds, as well.

Starting with a few modifications from 1954, the 300 was improved continually, culminating in the larger and thoroughly-revised 300d (W189) in 1957. Not a Diesel, thank God, but rather a complete update of the car’s body, turning it into a hardtop saloon and giving the wings, trunk and lights a bit of a nip and tuck. Borg-Warner automatic transmission, power steering and fuel injection were now standard and A/C was now on the options list, but prices remained sky high. But now, as the separate fender look began to shift from “conservative” to “reactionary”, Rolls and Daimler had very capable V8s and American cars were as popular as ever but much easier to drive.

Mercedes sold less than half as many W189s as they did the W186 – both models lasted about five years. The four-door cabriolet was still available, as were a long-wheelbase Pullman limousine and a landaulet – by then, these looked quite anachronistic, but there was still a small market for them. The last four-door 300s were made in 1962, though the name and the engine lived on.

And at least one 300 was regularly kept busy into the ‘70s – the strangest of them all, the 300 Messwagen. It belonged to Daimler-Benz’s own research team, who used it to gather and analyse data coming (by wire) from whatever car was being tested.

Mercedes-Benz built more than 12,ooo Typ 300 chassis (excluding the 300 SL) in a decade, over 7500 of which were W186 six-light saloons like this one. Given the car’s price, quality and exclusivity, these numbers are nothing short of astounding, trumping BMW’s V8-powered cars and pretty much any other European luxury car of the ‘50s. The one I found in Bangkok was probably made in 1951-53, as it lacks vented front windows.

Seeing this thing from afar was sensational. I felt like Captain Ahab approaching this long, bulbous and white shape sitting tight in its parking space. These are somewhat small compared to a pre-war 770 K or the 600 limos of the ‘60s, though they’re still pretty large cars. But unlike the upright and staid Rolls Silver Dawn, the increasingly silly Daimlers or the last embers of French coachbuilt follies (Bugatti, Talbot-Lago, Delahaye), the 300 sat low and wide on its chassis, giving it a far more modern look. Not as modern as a Cadillac, but comparable to Packard, which also wore a new body for 1951. The shapes were nothing alike, but they aged in the same way – i.e. pretty quickly.

If I remember correctly, one royal car of the late King Bhumibol of Thailand was a 300d, painted yellow like all Thai royal cars. I don’t know whether this earlier car has been in Thailand since birth, but it definitely wears a local colour and RHD, not unlike the W187 I wrote about recently. White cars are very much preferred here, especially as these 300s do not have A/C, nor any of the goodies (power brakes, power steering, automatic transmission, etc.) that later 300s ended up getting.

These were expensive cars in the US or the UK, where tariffs would hike up prices compared to domestic competition, but in “neutral territory” like Thailand, a Cadillac Series 75 (not available in RHD) would have cost much the same as a 300. After all, Mercedes built cars chiefly for export – Conrad Adenauer could only use so many of these and few of his countrymen could afford a 300. And in every way, the 3-litre and basically pre-war 300 was quite competitive, for folks who disliked both flashy American land yachts and arch-conservative British antiques. Perhaps some Thai magnate or some wealthy foreigner ordered this 300 at M-B’s Bangkok branch 65 years ago.

It was my first time to see a W186 in the flesh. Interior shots in these conditions are pretty lousy, so here’s a period pic to show how nicely appointed these were inside. Mercedes produced about twice more luxury cars in the ’50s than Rolls and Bentley combined, but they weren’t churning them out like Detroit, though production of Cadillac Series 75s was in the same ballpark as the big Benz, at least up to the late ’50s. The 300 was one of the last “in-house coachbuilt” cars made by a major automaker, along with the Fleetwood 75, the bigger Soviet limos (admittedly a special case) and the dramatic follow-up to the W186, the 600 Großer (W100).

With pneumatic suspension, a 6.3 litre V8, all-hydraulic assist and more, the W100 became a firm favourite of movie stars and dictators alike. The car was incredibly well-made, but the image it carried was decidedly different. The 600 was glitzy and glamorous where the 300 was plump and Prussian. The times they were a-changin’, I suppose. As impressive a machine the 600 may be, it lacks the 300’s old-world charm and detailing, such as the high-mounted turn signals.

Few post-war European luxury cars have the grace of the 300. It’s a well-proportioned design, both sleek and massive; it was penned by Hermann Ahrens, who was previously in charge of Daimler-Benz truck styling. Though the 300d hardtop is also appealing, I prefer this first iteration. Like the Gullwing, the W180 Pontoon and the 190 SL, the 300 came from the time when Mercedes styling and technology owed very little to outside influence – neither bothering to copy American styling, nor staying stuck in the ‘30s like Rolls-Royce. Mercedes then had their own styling language, but from the late ‘50s they started to borrow American grammar (300d and the W111 Fintail) and then French/Italian phrases that gave us the 600 and the Pagoda. They’re all good-looking cars, but they lack a bit of the essence of Mercedes styling that was present on earlier cars such as this one.

Even fast asleep in a garage, with cracked paint and dull chrome, there’s nothing quite like an early W186. Best German car of the ‘50s by a mile and a half.


Related posts:


Curbside Classic: 1951-1962 Mercedes 300 (W186&189) – The Adenauer Mercedes; A Timeless Classic, by PN

1958 Mercedes 300d (W189) – The Ultimate Hardtop, by PN

Automotive History Outtake: 1956 Mercedes 300c Station Wagon by Binz – She Knew Exactly What She Wanted, by PN

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