There is was again. Once more, out of the corner of my eye, a black Benz flashed its distinctively pointy derriere as it turned around a corner and out of sight. This happened on a fairly regular basis – about once a month, for over a year, the same Fintail would appear – either it was stationary while I was driving past in a vehicle, or the other way around. I saw it at random hours of the day, and at night as well – obviously a local.
Or maybe somebody who wants me to think they’re local. Paranoia was setting in. I’d bagged a few interesting Mercs in my little corner of Asia over the past 18 months, but this black W110 was resisting me. What in the Heckflosse did that Benz want? Why couldn’t it just stand still and be photographed? I began to call it “fintailing” (definition: a particular car keeps showing up in your area, but only a glimpse at a time. If you manage to photograph the car once in passing, that’s “finteasing.”)
Until the other day, when I finally caught up with it, hiding in plain sight.
So who likes Fintails? I’ll raise my hand – why don’t I see Dr Andreina (whose excellent post on car’s design is a must-read) and a few others raising theirs, too? Come on, such a classic shape! There are so many variants that fall under the W110 / W111 / W112 denominations that it can be tricky to keep up. Fortunately, there is ample information and factory photos available on-line on all these cars. Talk about a rabbit hole. So, mostly for my personal benefit, here’s another set of T87 tables, which I would entitle: Heckflosse für Dummies.
Taken altogether, the W110 / W111 / W112 family was made in over a million units, at a minimum. I’m not sure the totals above include the CKD kits assembled in various places around the world – including Thailand.
The 4-cyl. cars, initially 190 / 190 D, became the 200 / 200 D in the summer of 1965, with several small changes, the most visible being the deletion of the A-pillar turn signals, chrome-less fins and revised rear lights. Under the bonnet, the 200 had a 2-litre (1988cc) OHC 4-cyl. engine fed by two Solex carburetors, which produced 105 hp (SAE) / 95 hp (DIN), usually mated to a 4-speed manual gearbox. A 4-speed automatic was available, but few 200s were ordered with it, compared to their more prestigious siblings. Gearshift placement, both for auto and manual versions, was up to you: column or floor, no extra charge. Alas, given our feature car’s darkened windows, I was unable to tell what the interior looked like – much less photograph it.
So here’s some from the web – the top left one is what it might have looked like in there, albeit with the wheel on the right, of course. But Thai-owned classic cars, like many aspects of Thai culture, are not always what they seem on the outside. Aside from the automatic box, here are the factory options you could specify when ordering your W110 in 1967: ivory steering wheel / switchgear – heavy-duty clutch / suspension / battery – searchlight – two-tone horn – radial / whitewall / all-weather tyres – steel sunroof – tinted glass – radiator blind – special paint — bumper guards – heated rear screen – roof / ski rack – first-aid kit – glovebox lock & light – power steering – Full MB-Tex / full leather interior – Becker radio with rear speaker & electric antenna – passenger-door mirror – petrol tank lock – viscous fan – fire extinguisher – coconut floormats. No, I’m not making that last one up.
You’ll notice that there is no sign of “A/C” on that list. I cannot imagine how boiling that black Benz would be without it, so I’m guessing this one got some locally-installed system at some point. There are also these wheel opening chrome surrounds – a bit too wannabe W112 for my taste. But otherwise, this car looks pretty stock, especially for a 50-year-old Thai Fintail.
I’m a huge fan of the W111/W112s, but I confess that these lesser Heckflosse have always seemed a bit odd to me, and it’s all about that front end. I don’t know why Mercedes thought it was a good idea (even just for fun) to graft the face of the previous generation Pontoons onto the Fintail’s kisser. This really doesn’t work at all, making the W110 appear taller and narrower than it ought to. Pontoon-style round headlamps were perched high on the fenders and given a thick chrome surround. This, coupled with the rear fins, was still OK when the 190 / 190 D arrived in 1961, but it started looking dated very soon after that.
But the W110 was only dated on the outside. On the technical side, the cars were literally built like tanks. The low-pivot swing axle was tamer than earlier models’ “full swing” rear end, which had a naughty reputation for twerking in fast corners. The engine was bulletproof, but barley adequate power-wise. They were not cheap cars – though far removed from the 2-door / W112 a super-premium territory, the W110 sat just below the W111 saloons. But as always, it’s hard to understand these things without context. So we find ourselves yet again on the French market, in the fall of 1962, to see what the W110 had to face within its price range.
Tough crowd, this – as always with this family / lower executive segment. If I were to write this for a French audience, I would also include a “CV” column for the fiscal horsepower. Cars had to pay a yearly tax, which was calculated according to a formula that chiefly included engine displacement. The tax was progressively higher, becoming pretty significant above the 10CV level (around 1800cc) and very expensive above 15CV (over 2800cc). So the Belgian-built 3.2 litre Rambler, for instance, was relatively cheap to buy, but the yearly tax made it more expensive, in the medium-term, than a 2-litre car. The more modest Mercedes 190 was an 11CV car, so it didn’t suffer from that problem. But in the French clientele’s mind, this put the W110 in the same category as the Citroën DS 19. And you could buy the absolute top-of-the-line Prestige model, complete with leather seats and built-in radiotelephone, for a fistful of Francs less than the staid Stuttgarter.
If solidity and reliability are top of the wishlist, how about the Volvo?
The 200 is of course a better car than the 190 – bigger engine, better-looking fins that had to be hand-finished and all that. The addition of the 230, a 6-cyl. stuffed under a 4-cyl car’s hood, was a return to the 219 Pontoon (W105) concept. But the second generation W110s were also notable for their delightful Universal wagons, built in Belgium by IMA from late 1964, initially on the 190. Most Universals were based on the 200 / 200 D, but some were also made on the 6-cyl. W110. Except for the 190 versions, these wagons were equipped with the hydro-pneumatic compensating spring at the rear axle, which was also fitted to late-model W111s. The Universal’s dimensions were identical to its saloon counterparts, except for a 3cm increase in height due to its 15” wheels.
The good people over at the IMA (Importation de Moteurs et d’Automobiles) works, located halfway between Antwerp and Brussels, also made some 230 S W111 wagons along the way. Judging by the photo above, the last Fintail wagon – a 230 S – only made it out the factory in January 1969, over a year after the W111 saloon had vacated Sindelfingen’s assembly lines. Also according to this picture, IMA claim to have made 2754 Fintail Universals altogether, including about 300 of the W111 variety. Afterwards, IMA produced the wagon version of the Strich Acht (W114-W115) until 1973. They switched to assembling Saab 99s until the factory closed down in 1978.
Of course, IMA weren’t the only game in town. Small runs of passenger wagons, panel wagons, ambulances or hearses were made by various European coachbuilders using the same W110 professional chassis IMA used. These could be ordered with a standard or a stretched (310cm) wheelbase. As if the Fintail needed yet more wheelbase variations…
Which brings us to the “W110 Lang” 7-seater limousine (200 D or 230), on the gargantuan 338cm wheelbase. Sometimes called Pullman, it was made by German coachbuilder Binz and initially proposed only for certain export markets, starting in late 1965; in 1967, the limo became a full member of the W110 European range, alongside the saloon and the Universal. Production numbers are unknown – estimates hover around a couple hundred units. Short-faced, long-arsed and far from glamorous, these Pullman limousines are doubtless the ugliest sleds in all Fintaildom.
Much as I don’t like the front end, the rest of this M-B 200 is right up my alley. The generously panoramic greenhouse, the C-pillar vents (taken from the W111), the roomy trunk and those famous fins – I like them all. Yes, even the fins. I know it’s a controversial thing for some, but these are hardly ’59 Chevy Batwing-crazy. Besides, think back to when the Heckflosse was launched, in 1959: rear ends were plenty pointy, even in old Europe. If I went Biblical and said: “Let he who was ever without fin cast the first stone,” there’d be a few pebbles from Jaguar and VW, but precious few others.
Besides, the removal of all chrome accents on the fins in these later W110s made those even more discreet and, to my eyes, desirable. My fantasy Fintail would have the 220’s front end, the 300’s engine and the 200’s simpler tail. And black, just like our feature car. It’s the only colour that really suits this car’s formal look. Brighter colours are best left to the 2-door variants.
As a result, there is something delightfully sinister about these. They are so numerous in films of the period – especially Cold War spy thrillers set in Mitteleuropa, like Funeral in Berlin or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Not a few Fintail saloons were also used as getaway cars in ‘60s films — and in real life. The Mercedes’ modest acceleration was less important than its Panzer-like build quality and reliability, one supposes.
The W110 is everything a classic car should be: evocative and indestructible, familiar yet extraordinary, made in large numbers and exported widely, and superbly put together in the first place. Were it not for that Pontoon face, I would be besotted. But as it is, the Heckflosse I really want is probably the base 220. The rare 230 S wagon is also very tempting, but the saloon’s shape is still unbeatable. And it lurks better, too.
CC Outtake: 1966 Heckflosse Reporting For Duty, by Wolfgang