Curbside Classic: 1955 Mercedes-Benz 220 (W187) Cabriolet A – Back In Benz-ness

To end this week dedicated to German convertibles on a high note, what else could we have but a classic Benz? We’re talking classic in the most literal sense in this case – pretty much a pre-war design, albeit with quite a few advanced features.

I’ve been seeing this car a few times lately – and I’ve photographed it extensively, so the lighting and setting will change within this post. These first couple of photos were taken this month on a cloudy day, when the car’s colour, a bright red almost touching on blood orange, looked its best. It’s so shiny that, on a sunny day, the reflection of the blue of the sky can change that red pretty dramatically.

But no matter the angle or the hue, this is a beautiful piece of pre-war styling. OK, they did redesign the front wings to tuck the headlights in there in the late ‘40s, but that’s about it.

I mean that quite literally: the 220, save for the headlights and fenders, is essentially a 170 S body and chassis with a new engine. The wheelbase is identical, as is almost everything from the cowl back.

The 170 S was pretty much ready for production by 1943 and slated to take over from the 230 (W153 1938-43, top row), using a slightly modified (shortened) body. Of course, the timing for a new model launch was less than ideal, so the 170 S (W136/W191, middle row) was mothballed until 1949. The 220 (W187, bottom row) was launched in 1951, sporting the same basic body as the 170 S, itself based on the 230. Evolution was rather timid at Mercedes-Benz…

Body construction was also stuck in the pre-war era. A lot of wood was needed to dress up a W187 chassis – which is a bit strange, as the smaller 170 V (W136) had switched to all-steel construction a few years previously. I guess the W187’s projected lower volumes meant all-steel construction would be uneconomical.

At least, the chassis was very advanced for the ‘30s, with all-round coil-sprung independent suspension and hydraulic brakes. On that score, the 220s (and Mercedes cars in general at the time) were leading the pack.

The 220’s real secret weapon was under the hood. The 170 S, though rather luxurious, was a humble 4-cyl. car and the prewar 230 had a somewhat anemic 55hp side-valve 6cyl., but the 220 was the launch model for a completely new family of small Mercedes sixes that was to motivate several generations of cars and trucks.

Sure, the main news for 1951 was the 3-litre big six sitting under the hood of the flagship 300 (and soon the 300 SL), but in terms of lasting impact, the 220’s smaller M180 was far more significant. It was a 2196cc OHC design, initially providing 80hp. Our feature car being a 1955 model, has the 85hp version that was installed in the early Pontons.

Subsequently modified with fuel injection, improved heads and its displacement upped to 2.3, then 2.5 and finally 2.8 litres, this straight-6 became the mainstay of sensible Benz saloons for decades, including the Fintails, the stroke/8s and even some W123s.

The new OHC 6-cyl. certainly gave Mercedes-Benz an edge over pretty much all the contemporary competition, but so did the build quality of the whole machine. European cars of the early ‘50s, even in the 2-to-3-litre class, were certainly not all as well put together as this. Compared to the Citroën 15-Six for instance (a car I know well), the standard W187 saloon’s thick chromed brass trim and impeccable finish are in a different league.

And it clearly was in yet another league in this Cabriolet A form – essentially, this is a coachbuilt car made by the Mercedes factory, with appointments and pricing to match. It even came with a set of fitted luggage.

Let’s examine the 220 range in a bit more detail. Price-wise, the Cabriolet A was up there in the stratosphere, costing nearly DM 19,000 new, as compared to the saloon’s more reasonable DM 12,000. This partially explains the difference in production numbers: Benz sold over 16,000 of the 4-door saloons from 1951 to 1954, but only 1278 Cabrio As. And they were on offer for a whole year longer than the saloons.

It was customary for Mercedes to propose two or three different cabriolet bodies up to this point in time – the Cabriolet A was a 2+2, though the rear seats are totally symbolic. The 4-seater Cabriolet B was also offered from 1951 to 1954.

Although it cost a couple thousand DMs less than the Cabriolet A, fewer than a thousand units of the rather staid Cabriolet B were sold.

The last W187 variant that entered the range was the Coupé, which only arrived in mid-1953. Based on the Cabriolet A, it was even more exclusive than the drop-tops and, with the optional sunroof, cost about twice the price of a saloon – tantamount to the price of a standard 300 limo, in other words. As a result, only 85 of these were made until the summer of 1955, making this one of the rarest Mercedes models of the post-war era.

There was yet another body variant: a batch of about 40 police-spec four-door convertibles were made by the factory, but those were not for regular customers. A handful of cars were also turned into wagons for ambulance service by external coachbuilders. All told, about 18,500 of the W187 were built, 90% of which were saloons.

Slight fly in the ointment: a sublime early ‘50s Mercedes dashboard uglified by a nasty-looking late ‘90s radio set. In such a car, that’s nothing short of scandalous. To say nothing of the A/C, of course, which at least is a little more discreet.

No matter, it’ll take a lot more than a cheap radio to ruin my enjoyment of this sculptural rear end. The W187 was a true transitional model, deeply rooted in its markers’ glorious pre-war past, but also hinting at the equally glorious future that came to be. The marriage of a functional landau bar and a modern OHC engine is quite an alluring one. Pity it costs about €150k to own one of these nowadays. Pardon me while I go get me a few lottery tickets.


Related posts:


Curbside Classic: 1953 Mercedes-Benz 220 (W187) – Transition To Greatness, by T87

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