In the open-air CC treasure trove that is Tokyo, one can be overcome by an embarrassment of über-riches. Over the past couple of months, after two years of mostly seeing W123s and R107s, three truly classic Benzes crossed my camera lens in quick succession: an early W111 two-door and two V8-powered W109 saloons. The coupé will have to wait, as one got the honours of CC’s front page quite recently. But that left the W109s – which one to pick? The achingly beautiful one or the living legend?
Yes, because the choice was between this 100%-perfect (in my view) stunner of a 3.5, with its gorgeous composite headlights, ivory steering wheel and pristine upholstery, or a slightly less magnificent one with the gargantuan 6.3 litre V8 – a.k.a the best sedan in the world, according to many contemporary journalists. Well, I found the sexy silver one first, so let’s stick to the chronological order…
CC has featured a number of W108s, but the W109 is a far rarer bird. Our most esteemed CContributor-in-hiding and erstwhile expert in fuzzy maths, Prof. Don Andreina, authored a must-read thinkpiece pondering the significance of the number 300 in the context of the S-Class in general and the W108/W109 in particular, which is such a fair point that I will take this occasion to expatiate upon it, if I may.
When the W109 was born, back in 1965, the fact that its model name was 300 SEL was completely justified. The letters were easy enough to decipher: it was an S-Class. But that denomination is apocryphal, and the exact significance of the “S” in “SEL” is the subject of some speculation, as it seems to have varied over the years, being said to stand for anything from Sport or Super to Sonder and even Standard. The engine was fuel-injected, so E was for Einspritzung, which is straightforward enough. For its part, the L here stands for Lang, i.e. long wheelbase, as W109s all have 10cm extra rear legroom compared to (most) W108s. So far, so muddled.
The bigger issue is the 300 bit. Ever since the launch of the 300 limo, back in 1951, this haloed numeral always referred to the presence of the Jewel of Stuttgart that was the M186, an alloy-headed OHC straight-6 displacing 2996cc (or roughly 300cl) that powered all the blue-blooded Benzes of the period, from the Adenauer to the 300SL and the W112 Fintail that preceded the W109. Then, in late 1967, the venerable six, by then producing 170hp, was pensioned off. Mercedes kind of lost their marbles at that point.
The old 3-litre used in the 300 SE (W108) and 300 SEL (W109), as well as the 2.5 litre M129 used in the 250 S/SE (W108), was replaced by a single 6-cyl. engine, the 2.8 litre M130 – effectively a bored-out M129, offering the same 170hp as the 300’s old six. So W108s became 280 S/SEs, which was all well and good. But the W109s kept the 300 SEL designation, and did so until this base 6-cyl. version of the W109 was nixed in early 1970 due to slow sales.
The issue with the 6-cyl. W109s was that they did not offer much value, given their considerably higher price, over the W108. That became especially true when the junior S-Class got a LWB variant added to its range: the 280 SEL might have had a bit less chrome on its pillars and less wood in its cabin, but it was the same car as the 300 SEL in all other respects, minus the W109’s pneumatic suspension.
Then the 6.3 happened, pretty much around the same time as the range was revamped. All pretense of the 300 number making any sense was dropped. This is a story for another post, but Mercedes intended to put their new small-block V8s in the W109 as soon as, but someone took the 600 limo’s massive motor and managed to convince the Daimler-Benz board that this was a good idea. Instead of calling it, I don’t know, the 600 SEL or the 630 SE, Mercedes dubbed this fantastic FrankenBenz the “300 SEL 6.3.” And then they just kept that nomenclature for the smaller V8s that came after: the 3.5 joined the range in 1969 and the 4.5 made it to the platform just before closing time in 1971. It didn’t matter what was under the hood anymore, it was 300 SELs all the way down.
I know, I’m making a thousand-word mountain out of an alphanumeric molehill, but it’s a pet peeve I have regarding Mercedes. For many decades, their system made some sort of sense, then they come out with a 4-engine S-Class range and not a single numeral in the model name fits any of the engines. Plus, they put the 200hp 3.5 litre V8 found in our feature car in the SWB W108, but called that the “280 SE 3.5.” Why? Why not “300 SE 3.5?” Aaarrrrgh!!
I care because this is the only thing that really bugs me about this car. Everything else about it is pure, unadulterated bliss. This magnificent dash, coupled with that ‘50s-flavoured cream bakelite steering wheel and shifter knob and the uncharacteristic, but oh-so-beautiful grey cloth of the seats – just look at this cabin! Rolls-Royces and Jaguars of this era pale by comparison; Cadillacs and Lincolns aren’t even in the same league.
The tell-tale cloth interior and the old-style license plate mean this car is highly likely to have been imported into this country from new. It may be 50-plus years old, but it looks as if it came off the boat last month – the usual Tokyo banger, I guess.
Much as I can understand those who baby their cute Mark II wagon, wax and polish their RX-7 every weekend or lavish attention on their precious S13 Silvia – and it’s a great thing they take the time and energy to do this, of course. Let’s not kid each other though: this silver beauty is a lot more worthy of such adulation. But there’s plenty of car nuts around here to cater for both the more mundane domestic stuff and the older exotics, it seems. So barring an unforeseen catastrophe, this W109 should be able to carry on being the very illustration of postwar automotive excellence for another 50 years at least.