Curbside Classic: 1966 Mercedes 250SE Coupe (W111) – Losing The Fins, Mostly

The “Heckflossen” (“fintail”) Mercedes sedans were controversial from day one. Why would such a traditional and classy company like Mercedes stoop to adding that American affectation? I heard that and variations of it at the time it arrived to great fanfare in the late summer of 1959, when I was still in Austria. That’s not to say it wasn’t well received; rightly so, given its technical superiority as arguably the most advanced sedan of the time in the world.

And it’s not like fins hadn’t shown up in a wide variety of European cars, including on some of the most expensive Ferraris and such. But somehow, on a Teutonic Mercedes, they seemed a bit out of place. No problem; we’ll just shear them off for the coupe and convertible, with the result being not only perhaps the most beautiful Mercedes, but also a template for the company’s rear ends for some time to come.

For those of you needing a quick refresher in the subject of heckflossen Mercedes, here’s the tonic. Our much-missed (but well) contributor D. Andreina gave us a deep meditation on all thing heckflossen here back in 2017 (I’ve borrowed a few of the images from that post).

In a nutshell, the decision to give the new W111 sedans (220S top; 220 and/or 190 bottom) fins was also controversial within Mercedes, with no less than Karl Wilfert, Chief of Body Engineering and Styling calling for them to be cut. He lost that round. But not the next.

There was of course a long tradition at Mercedes of coupe and convertible versions of their sedans. The “Ponton/Pontoon” version was a rare bird in its day, given its lofty premium in the 1950s. Its styling is also not universally praised, although it’s certainly become another classic Mercedes.

So it was a given that the w111 series would of course have a coupe and cabrio version too, and styling work began in 1957, a year or two after the sedan.

According to Don, the first approach was to use an SL-style front and, which was also being considered for the still-born W220 sedan (lower right). It also had a panoramic windshield, another styling export from Detroit. But what it clearly didn’t have is fins; at least not in the sharply defined definition as on the sedans. Instead, the ends of the rear fenders were now defined by a pointed peak; a vestigial fin, at best. A more refined and appropriate look, undoubtedly. The coupe also clearly has an overall-lower body and as a first for Mercedes, curved side glass. As to whether that top photo is really of a proposed laundalet version or the rear glass wasn’t ready, I’m not sure.

In any case, I rather like that front end, and I’m a bit sorry that Mercedes chickened out on it. The question of when and how the classic radiator grille should be replaced was an endless debate within the company. It would be a few more decades before the S-Class coupe finally dropped it.

There’s also these photos (from Don’s piece) of this approach, closer to the definitive version, but sporting the fins. We may never know just exactly how and when the fins were plucked, but the result is anything but a “plucked chicken”.

It was of course the right call; the coupe (and cabrio) weren’t just a w111 sedan with a new roof; their bodies were totally new, with a significantly lower belt line along with all the other changes, which made them look much less boxy than their sedan counterparts.

The rear end previewed what was to come in 1966 with the W108/109 sedans. Of course the fender tips/winglets were filed down some more, but otherwise it’s a very direct progression.

This progression of the theme was continued largely intact on its successor, the w116. It became a Mercedes hallmark almost as much as the radiator shell.

The same can be said for the front end, which is almost a dead-ringer for the W108’s. In reality, the w111 coupe is really closer to the w108 than its w111 sedan stablemates. Perhaps they should be called “The First S-Class”, which is a somewhat nebulous and debatable distinction anyway.

These pictures show that Mercedes gave serious thought to using the W111 coupe’s roof for what became the W112 300SE, which ended up just using a W111 body with more bright trim. Or is this a concept for what was to become the W018? Its tall and boxy W111 body suggests otherwise, and the coupe roof is not all that well-suited. But then the W108’s actual C Pillar is essentially an evolution of the coupe’s.

The coupe featured the first use of curved side glass on a Mercedes, and added considerably to the effect of having left its boxy fintail roots behind.

These coupes and cabrios came with very substantial leather-upholstered thrones.

The dash was also unlike the odd vertical speedometer nacelle of the w111 sedan, and feature lots of genuine wood. Of course that tends to get weathered from sun exposure. It too previews the W108’s dash to a considerable extent.

The W108 dash appears to be essentially identical except for the use of a padded binnacle and some other detail changes. Another validation that the W108 was really the sedan version of these coupes and cabrios.

The front seats have been pushed all the way back in this one, resulting in…zero leg room.

There was also a “Safari seat” option for these, but it;s quite rare. It includes smaller, sportier bucket seats front and rear. I assume they’re from the SL.

I’ve never seen these in the flesh, but they certainly change the interior’s character.

This coupe has its turn signals incorporated in its headlight nacelles, unlike the blue one earlier. I see pictures of both versions.

Of course these round headlight versions are all US market cars, as the European version had these fine composite headlights, which first appeared on the sedans and were a pretty big deal at the time. These are on a 250 SE convertible I shot a few years back.

Over its then year lifespan, these coupes and cabrios came with several versions of the classic Mercedes SOHC six and finally with the new 3.5 L V8. The original 220SE came with a 118 hp version of the fuel injected 2.2 L six. For the 1966 MY, the newer seven-main bearing 2.5 L version replaced it, and upped the power rating to 148. Two years later the 2.8 arrived, with a 158 hp rating (all are net ratings; the gross numbers used back than are higher. The 3.5 LV8 was rated at 197 net hp; it also had a lower and wider grille.

This 250SE has the four speed automatic. Folks tend to be impressed that it already had four speeds when it first arrived in 1961, but the so did the GM Hydramatic in 1938, and for good reason. Like the original Hydramatic, these M-B automatics did not have a torque converter but used a fluid coupling, which does not provide the necessary torque multiplication (or effective lower gearing) that a torque converter does. The gear ratios are 3.9833, 2.3855, 1.4605, and 1.000; first through fourth. So no overdrive, and the ratios are very similar to a four speed box.

The lack of a torque converter makes it significantly more efficient, with losses in the 2% range than the more typical 10%.

I once rode in a friend;s 250SE sedan along with the driver and two passengers. In the hills surrounding LA, it really had to work hard; that’s the reality of only having so little displacement for a good-sized car. Prior to the V8 models that came out in about 1970, Mercedes were designed for European conditions, and that was not necessarily ideal for American ones. But that didn’t stop folks from wanting them and acting on those feelings.

The light was terrible when I shot this car; a low sun on a cold, crisp day. It was nice to have the sun out so much this winter, but a light overcast is much better for shooting.

Related reading:

Mercedes W110/111/112 Fintails: The Elusive Pluckenheckflosse  D. Andreina

Mercedes 250 SE Convertible: The Classiest Mercedes Of Them All?   PN

Car Show Outtake: 1965 Mercedes 220 SE Convertible  J. Dutch