Curbside Classic: 1953 Mercedes-Benz 220 (W187) – Transition To Greatness

(first posted 11/13/2017)        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.

Source: wikicommons


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.

Above: The best I could do with such lousy lighting. Below: a Cabriolet B dash – Source: wikicommons.

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.


Related post:

Cohort Outtake: 1952 Mercedes 220 Cabriolet A (W187) – A Classic In Its Time, by PN