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 were 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 ball park 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.
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
Great find, well done! Never seen one in the wild but have looked at them up close. I’ve ridden in a restored 300d and that was pretty special.
Despite their restrained contemporary look they are in fact beautifully coachbuilt in the pre-war manner. Every piece and each fastening is a work of art, and there are a lot of them and nothing comes from the parts bin.
A friend has a 300b and I look forward to the day that’s back on the road. It’s a joy just to sit in. He may drop by here soon to preach the gospel of “The G00b” and to enquire whether anybody has surplus gearbox parts on the shelf.
Great article! When I was a kid in Titusville, FL in the late 1960s, someone had an early-series 300 Cabriolet. The Mercedes was often used in local parades, but it was no longer seen by the turn of the 1970s. I don’t know what happened to the car, but it would have been sad if such a rare car died or was junked. The cool part about the later 300d was that it was a pillarless hardtop sedan. Is that cool or what? It is my understanding that the rearmost side windows did not wind down, but had to be manually removed.
There was no room for the rearmost windows to move to. They did slide out and stored in covers in the trunk. I’ve always thought the 300d high on the list for most perfect looking Mercedes, in hardtop or cabriolet. 30 years ago when I moved back to Northern Cal from Southern Cal, Will, a close friend bought a large area of land for a summer retreat. He asked if I could help move some of his cars north. He had a Jaguar XJ12 coupe, two M-B 450 SEL 6.9, one standard sedan, and one custom coupe created because he did not like the sport car based coupe. also a 59 Cadillac 62 convertible, a 64 T-Bird convert, (with those two we brought classic wood boats from the late 40’s to NorCal), a custom very expensive motor home, 55 feet long with expansions to a home, and last a 1960 300d with stunning red leather interior, power windows, a/c, perfect wood, lovely ivory steering wheel. Years ago some work was done to make it more compatible with high speed freeways, and acceleration, the wide whitewalls gleamed, and every car he had was a mirror finish black. I loved the car from first sight, but only got a few minutes behind the wheel in Malibu when he exercised it. I got to drive it 600+ miles at 80 mph very comfortably with a/c on. These were very special cars, the last of old world quality and materials,factory done.
Unfortunately the fire that went through Northern California several weeks ago , destroyed it all. He still has 30 + cars in SOCal, but only had one 300d.
What a find! You are right about Mercedes unique styling in that period – it is like nothing else.
I’ve mentioned Doc’s Mercedes 300Sc Cabriolet before. He bought it from an exotic and special interest car company in Los Gatos Cal., Their descriptions of cars he bought from them was generally accurate, but overall conditions were less than stellar at times. When Doc told them he wanted a 300 Cabriolet, they found one rapidly, called him he didn’t worry about exact condition. It looked decent but not show. The 300 came directly to my restoration shop. All wood was refinished, leather cleaned and treated, carpets steamed and refitted, full chassis cleaning, full detail, the only thing needed was a set of wide whitewalls, but Doc held off because the tires on it were a correct series new Michilin tires. The larger photo was me standing by the car the evening I took it back to him, the smaller photo was it’s first Concours. We took the Mercedes, Doc’s 74 Dino 246 GTS, and his original, 41,000 mile 1938 Buick Century dual side mount, blue sedan. His cars took first places, plus the Mercedes added Best of Show, the photo was before spectators were allowed in. The 300Sc looked new. It had fairly light steering for non-power, and was an easy car to drive except it was geared too low. It would reach between 105-110 mph, at high revs, the feel and look was of quality. The night I returned the car to Doc,he flung himself under it to check serial #’s. Doc was a magnificent doctor, burn specialist, nerve repair, and reconstructive surgeon with hands insured for a million dollars, he was normally very careful with his hands. The serial number confirmed it was the introductory Paris show car, along with two chassis. He also confirmed it with Daimler-Benz. Doc had a large collection of cars, many I had picked up or driven across country for him., he didn’t like the high revs at speed on the 300, but didn’t want to change it’s originality, so he sold it and replaced it with a 70’s 300 SE Cabriolet in burgundy with tan interior, V8 and all accessories. Very nice history.
Nice story, LRF.
That would have been a 300 S (according to the pics), not the 300 Sc, which came in ’55 and had fuel injection.
Any idea where that car is today?
It was sold to someone in the Monterey area, then several years later it was for sale in Hemmings, however another 300 S Cabriolet was advertised back east with the same serial number listed. Doc’s car had been authenticated by Daimler-Benz when they sent a rep to check it out. Never heard how that played out for the other car, and never saw Doc’s car again. Sorry about the Sc, it was in 81 and I couldn’t remember the full designation. Doc was a good friend and renaissance man who could paint, sculpt, sketch, invent, raced sports cars very successfully, and play his 1898 concert grand piano like a concert master. He designed his own estate. He was generous with his cars, often having me drive them to keep them exercised, and often sent me across the country to drive new acquisitions back, they all made it but one Maserati Mistral convertible. I eventually got here after repairs all across the country.
Great write up, Tatra87! thank you.
My mother’s uncle was a high priced corporate lawyer in New York, and 1 of his “hobbies” was buying and driving exotic foreign cars (is that redundant?). One of the cars he would own was one of these Mercedes-Benz 300s…a 300d hardtop.
I was a very small child when he owned it but one summer afternoon my Mom’s uncle took me and my grandmother for a ride to visit my Mom’s sister and her family… a round trip of about 100 miles.
What I remember about that trip was having the whole back seat to myself, riding with nearly all the windows down. “Uncle Leo’s” car was Navy blue or black, with tobacco colored upholstery. And I remember the seats as being firm, but not rock hard. The car? I remember as very refined, not loud or noisy like a comparable Detroit car. No squeaks, no little rattles.
BUT, I thought it somehow looked a bit stodgy.
I’m not aware of significant import tariffs for the US in the 1950s. The biggest obstacle to imported luxury car sales was the general excellence of domestic luxury cars, esp Cadillac. The market eventually created room for a “sophisticated” alternative to Cadillac, but that was a little later.
Back in the early ’50s, US import tariffs on foreign-built cars amounted to paying an extra 10% – which was not high compared to other car-producing countries such as France or Britain, where it was more like 30%, but still significant, especially as it penalised luxury carmakers most.
Tariffs gradually came down throughout the ’60s on both sides of the pond, thanks to both GATT and the EEC. But they are still present nowadays and very high in some new car-producing countries. In Thailand, the complex tax regime instituted for imported cars currently means any car over 3 litres will be taxed about 110%, though the rate is probably much lower for ASEAN imports.
“High-end models had been off the production lines since about 1943”
Are you sure they were still building cars by this year? Unless these were for top officials (who could not be denied), M-B had their hands full building military stuff like trucks, aero engines, and tanks (the Pzkw III was their design). Surely Speer would’ve quashed anything else by this time.
All German cars built after the summer of ’39 were built for officials and/or the military. But those folks use their cars a lot, so demand was still high. The Wehrmacht requisitioned many additional cars in occupied territories, but there was apparently still a trickle of new cars made both in Germany and Italy up to 1943.
Back in 2014 I was out walking the dog and ran across a late ‘50s black hardtop 300d (W189) in an impound/storage lot in a quiet northside (Chicago) neighborhood. What a beauty! Never saw one before – I enjoy going back just to look at it. Unfortunately, it was only parked in that spot for a couple months.
That’s an amazing find!
This 300 is a regular at the February Fountain Hills Concours. I believe the car was originally from the Chicago area and was restored in the ’70s in Michigan. It is the star of the show for me.
I saw one on Maxmilianstraße (Munich‘s equivalent of Rodeo Drive) other day.
Same colour as the one I found, too! I wonder how many were painted white. Seems black is the usual hue, as befits this kind of vehicle. But I have no idea if one could order any colour or which colours were available aside from black.
Killer looking saloon. PF coupe was the nicest. Perfect timing T87… hehehe
OH, c’mon: the Ponton’s basic stying was stolen line for line from the tragically dowdy 1949 and following Chyrsler-Dodge-Plymouth bodies.
Terrific car, terrific post.
Truly a significant car that removed any doubt about M-B’s position in the world, and the modifications on the 1954 second series were masterful. Somehow, that window layout and pillar style is just so German.
And the Renntransporter is spectacular!
Great post as always! The Messwagen looks interesting, and the parade car with the bodyguard obscuring the rear fender shows that it could have made a good-looking ute too!