There are not many classic cars roaming the streets of Bangkok. It’s a pretty hostile environment, full of suicidal two-wheelers, Red Bull-addled tuk-tuks and short-tempered taxis. Plus it’s really hot and humid out here, so A/C is pretty much a necessity, except at night and for about two weeks in January. So if one can catch a ‘50s car in this place, it’s going to be one that’s sleeping in a car park, like this old Benz.
You don’t see these every day, but it’s not really that surprising to encounter one in Bangkok. Of all the older cars still on the road in this part of the world, I’d say a good third would be Mercedes-Benzes. Yes, that is a hint as to upcoming CCs by yours truly, now that I’ve settled in the Thai capital. Finding one this old is rather uncommon, though. But something about this 220’s colour, RHD layout and general demeanour tells me it’s probably always lived in Thailand.
For a car launched in 1951, the W187 looked more like a late ‘30s design – on the outside, at least. Daimler-Benz had last been in this segment with their Typ 230 (W153, above), which came out in 1939. Aside from a few details such as the headlamps, the W187 looked quite similar to the previous generation, keeping certain traits, such as the B-pillar-hinged doors and traficators, that were already becoming passé in 1951. The W153’s body was only a source of inspiration though: the pre-war body reappeared almost unmodified, albeit with a 4-cyl. engine, as the 170 S (W191) in 1949. Though its career was cut short by the war, the W153 had inaugurated a brand new X-frame chassis and a revised all-independent suspension that seemed still head and shoulders above most of the competition, so that was carried over with minimal changes into the new 6-cyl. model.
The new bit was the engine: a 2.2 litre OHC 6-cyl. producing a rather limited 80 hp – the first all-new post-war Mercedes engine, and one that would serve under the hoods of a variety of Daimler-Benz products for the next three decades. The new 220 was very old-fashioned on the outside, but few RWD saloons could compete with its technological advance and quality.
Mercedes proposed the 220 as a four-door saloon, as well as three two-door variants: two-seater roadster (Cabriolet A), four-seater tourer (Cabriolet B) and close-coupled coupé based on the Cabriolet A. This was a marked difference with the pre-war models – four-door convertibles, landaulets or Pullman limos that could be had on W143s or W153s were no longer on offer.
Nor were there any “Universal” wagons yet – those would come in later generations – though at least one W187 was turned into an ambulance, in Maribor (present-day Slovenia, then in Yugoslavia) of all places. It’s a pity, as the result is quite nice.
Inside, the only noticeable difference with a pre-war Benz was the column-mounted shifter. No automatic transmission was available on this generation of 6-cyl. Mercs, though: a four-speed manual was all one could get. There was a nice amount of wood trim on these as well, including on the windows, and full leather trim. Some call German saloons “austere luxury”, but it’s really not the epithet that comes to mind in this instance.
As soon as the W187 was launched, Daimler-Benz started work on the next generation, which came to be in 1954. This short lifespan highlights the W187’s transitional nature: although it was a very good car in its day, its maker had no illusions about the model’s ability to last as an executive saloon. BMW, Borgward and Opel were also eager for a place in the sun amidst West Germany’s economic miracle.
It was perhaps a shrewd move on Stuttgart’s part to launch a stylistically outmoded car with a new engine, unlike the competition’s more fashion-conscious offerings. That way, a few years down the line, a completely fresh-looking Benz was ready, complete with a well-tuned motor and a shiny new unibody, while everyone else was stuck with warmed-over body-on-frame saloons. By the mid-‘50s, Mercedes had crushed BMW and Borgward pretty comprehensively in this segment.
Just over 16,000 of these saloons were made from 1951 to 1954, plus a couple thousand two-door soft-tops, which lasted until 1955. The coupé is the rarest by far, with only 85 units made. These numbers may seem on the small side, but they were still rather impressive: BMW sold half as many 501s during the same time. On the other hand, Citroën made over 30,000 of their comparable 6-cyl. Traction Avant, the 15-Six between 1951 and 1954. German cars were not as popular for export as they would be in later decades – at least in most of Europe and North America: only 253 Mercedes-Benzes were sold in the USA in 1952. But in Asia, the Middle-East and South America, Mercedes already had something of a following, even if the markets there were still comparatively small. Eventually, a production facility assembling CKD fintails and light trucks was started in Thailand in the ‘60s. Similar developments took place elsewhere in Asia and South America.
This nice cream-coloured 220 is a crucial part of how Mercedes-Benz rebuilt themselves after the war and became a global luxury leader. The strategy involved a low-end 4-cyl. saloon (the 170V), a deluxe 4-cyl. (the 170S), an executive 6-cyl. (this 220) and the flagship 300 limo, which also premiered in 1951. Add a sports model or two in the mix, and you have a complete lineup. This was an extremely effective range policy, covering the middle-class, the wealthy and the heads of state / glitterati, respectively. Few ‘50s automakers had such a clearly defined range under one marque, and it all started with the W187.
Cohort Outtake: 1952 Mercedes 220 Cabriolet A (W187) – A Classic In Its Time, by PN
Wow, what a charming original car! This one’s style looks like it has one foot firmly planted in 1938 and the other in 1950. I am not at all well versed in these old MBs, and always enjoy a chance to learn a little more about them.
I recall reading that Daimler Benz continues to support every MB ever made with parts and technical assistance. Does that assistance go back as far as these?
I´m not sure, but I think so. I read in an vintage car magazine a couple of weeks ago that MB was starting to reproduce transmission parts even for the SSK. A late 20s sports car.
It’s a bit like the immediate post-war cars in the US, except for the several-year delay. Germany and these car companies didn’t really get back into proper production until starting in 1949. Developing all-new cars was just too ambitious.
VW produced about 1750 Typ 1s in 1945 and quadrupled production the next year. MB restarted car production in 1947, as did Ford and Opel. But they were all producing pre-war designs.
DKW, Borgward and NSU-Fiat were back in the game by 1949 — and BMW by 1951 — but with new designs.
Nice find, and a good account. I am always impressed when I read of Daimler-Benz (and indeed BMW from the early 1960s on) in this period about how the company took a long term view to volume, seemingly recognising that volume and success would come to those who truly earned it, rather than racing to a high volume, driving down the image, reputation and price. Daimler and BMW have effectively led the market to where they want, not the other way around, something few others seem to have been able to do.
Racing to a high volume? BMW barely survived the 1950s; the market for larger expensive six cylinder cars just wasn’t big enough. They only barely squeaked by with the Isetta and the 700 until they got their four cylinder range going. Building that six/V8 501 just about killed them.
And I’m sure the volumes of these 220 cars was very modest too. Germans just couldn’t afford expensive cars like this until the mid 60s or so.
Opel did pretty well with their large Kapitan because it was a bit cheaper than the Benz or BMW sixes.
Was it any different anywhere else in Europe?
“BMW barely survived the 1950s..” as far as I know even the german press of those days mocked them for making cars for loaners (Isetta) onthe one side and bankers (Barockengel/V8) on the other side
What a huge contrast with the W194 models that they raced at Le Mans in 1952 – the first Gullwings . . .
Wow! Thanks for the great write up! I hope there’s more to find!
Thanks for another great series post.
Pretty nice find .
In about 1973 I stumbled across a 1957 (?) 170D and foolishly didn’t buy it…..
The geek in me is fascinated by the prospect of factory SWL radios. No idea what state-of-the-art was for car shortwave. Anyone know?
What a radio in the Cabriolet! I went back into Wikipedia Media and found the high-res original. You can see it’s got five bands, two shortwave (“K”), two medium wave and one longwave. Yet there’s no brand name anywhere to be seen.
I find myself quite attracted to this car. 1930s styling with 1950s drive train; a resto mod after my heart.
Mercedes may have had older styling at the time, but it was quite elegant on the 300 series. Doc had an exotic car dealership looking for a 300 Sc in white, if possible. He had bought a huge number of cars from them, and quite frankly sometimes they were less than stellar The Ferrari’s, Maser’s, Citroens, and Lancias were in good shape but the American cars from them usually needed expensive work. When he got the call they had bought one for him, he called me and we picked it up from the bay area. It needed detail, but was basically a very nice car. Doc was elated and as usual with this dealer, the transaction was done, and $65,000 paid very rapidly. We had gone there in Doc’s new Saab 900 Turbo coupe in black. Thankfully traffic was light and I followed him back home. We dropped the 300 off at my shop for a “mini restoration” I often did when he bought cars, bringing them up to show standards. Over the next five days I refitted the carpet, cleaned it all, refinished the interior wood, and buffed the exterior to a new sheen. I always took his cars back to him as soon as finished. Crunching on his gravel driveway I parked, As he came out he took the picture of me by the finished car, the only thing not new (52) looking was narrowline whitewalls. As soon as he took pictures, he flung himself on the ground and slid under the car. This was very unusual, he was THE burn specialist, micro surgeon, and reconstructive surgeon for northern Cal,. His hands were insured for a great amount and he was normally very careful, here he was crawling around under the car. Then I heard from under the car, “It IS! IT IS!” The dealership had not checked the history of the car, or had the serial number mean much to them. Doc had noticed it and researched the car while I was detailing it. It was serial number 00001, the first 300Sc Cabriolet ever built, and the Paris show car. He rarely took his cars to show, just enjoyed driving them (some multi million dollar Ferrari’s) I convinced him to take his Mercedes, the Dino 246GTS, and a original 40,000 mile 38 Buick Century dual side mount sedan in deep blue. they were all in different categories and he took first in each class. Unfortunately the rear end ratio on the 300 was too low and rpm too high at highway speed, it would run up to 110 mph but rpm and other factors made it tiring to drive any distance, so the 300 was sold on and a more modern driver replaced it (a 1960’s 300 SE V8 Cabriolet in dark burgundy with tan top and interior and wide whites)
Wow – that’s a far cry from the 1953 M-B 180 I speculated on buying when in the USAF in early 1970, before I found my 1964 Chevy! Definitely a pre-war style.
Um the brasiliano magazine Classic Show.
That’s a 170D – much smaller Benz of the same era, with a Diesel engine.
What a car! Sure resembles the bigger 300 with those headlights.
That incorrect rear wheel does detract from it quite a bit though.
Man, that Coupe is dead sexy!
Only ’50s 220 I ever saw here in Maine was a very rare and rotted cabriolet.
What a sight in the late ’70s!
Have owned 5 old Benzes from ’66 to ’82 model years. Loved every inch of them.
In the ’70s and early ’80s, I had a 1953 220. I had it repainted in two shades of red, with the color break at the fenders. It had a folding sunroof. Enjoyed it, but you had to be careful making abrupt land changes at even modest speeds, as it seemed to have a high center of mass.
The Pontoon 180/190 design was world’s better (handling, interior space, performance), since the 220 basically was a late ’30s design with a modern engine, as pointed out earlier in this thread.