Vintage Car Life Road Test: 1961 Mercedes 220 SE – “It’s Easy To Understand Why So Many Cadillac Owners Are Switching To This Car”

Why am I doing so many vintage reviews? Curbside Classics are all about the view of the past, but from the present, which has both pros and cons. With hindsight, we can see just how the various decisions by the carmakers unfolded over time; hence my early interest in GM’s Deadly Sins. But hindsight has its limitations too, as we invariably tend to put our own spin on history. So having done that for some 14 years, it’s interesting to me how cars were perceived in their time, and not just in terms of their 0-60 stats, but when their impact on the market and the future became significant.

No single brand had a greater (deadly) impact on American luxury brands than Mercedes. But when did Mercedes really start to become a “thing”, as something that was beginning to be felt as a threat to Cadillac? Lacking detailed US sales stats of the various import brands, my conjecture was about 1962 or 1963. This review from 1961 clarifies that very well, as it points out that US MB sales were three times higher (in 1960 or 1961) than they had been before Studebaker-Packard became the US distributor for the brand in 1957. Undoubtedly S-P’s larger dealer network played a significant role in that; just how much we’ll never know. But the years 1958-1961 was a time when there was a strong momentum away from large US cars, and their image suffered as a consequence.

This review of a 220 SE is significant, not only because it’s thorough but examines just why the 220 series was constantly sold out, despite costing as much or more than a Cadillac sedan, but was of course much smaller and had a relatively tiny 134 cubic inch (2.2 L) six cylinder engine. The review ends with this prescient statement: “It’s easy to understand why so many Cadillac owners are switching to this car”. No one can say Cadillac didn’t see it coming; they just chose to ignore it for way too long.

Yes, the 220 series was the best selling Mercedes at the time, not the cheaper 180/190 four cylinders. I might point out that on our block in Iowa City in 1962-1964, there were no less than two 220 SEs in residence; one was owned by a private practice doctor (and not an older one at that; maybe 40-42), and the other was the head of the university’s famed Hydraulics Laboratory. Admittedly he was a German, but he did buy a beautiful ’64 Studebaker Daytona coupe for his wife.  There were no Cadillacs on our block, FWIW. And there were several other 220s in town.

Car Life answers the question as to why these 220s were in such demand: “general recognition of the fact tht the obviously high quality of materials and workmanship is not superficial, and that the car definitely follows through and meets the owner’s highest expectations…in short, the Mercedes has earned the reputation for being worth the price”.

The 220 SE was the top version, with a 134 hp rating, exactly one hp/cubic inch, thanks in part to its fuel injection system that always gave instant throttle response. That hp rating might not have seemed like much, but its torque was particularly impressive  (152 lb.ft) for its displacement, resulting in very good all-round performance (0-60 in 12.2 seconds, comparable to many American V8 sedans at the time) and also averaging 18-19 mpg. The Tapley meter (accelerometer) readings placed it midway between a Corvette and a Valiant, and equal to a V8 Lark. Top speed was 105 mph, and the Mercedes was utterly composed and quiet cruising at 85 mph.

The column shifter for the four speed manual came in for some criticism, and Car Life wondered why a floor shift wasn’t available, given the (very comfortable) bucket seats. That option did come along shortly, within a year or two, IIRC.


The quick (3.5 turns) steering was highly rated, and “handling qualities are absolutely impeccable” with neither understeer or oversteer: “the . Mercedes’ low pivot swing axles in the rear essentially removed any remaining vices that are typically associated with the term “swing axles”. It eliminated all the significant vices of heavy live rear axles, and played a key part in the Mercedes’ ability to feel composed in any type of driving situation, regardless of the speed, pavement condition, weather, etc.. “it sticks to the road far beyond what most drivers would believe possible”.



The relatively small (9″) but wide drum brakes with cooling fins resulted in “braking action is absolutely free from any pulling, chatter or fade”.


Car Life urged anyone who was interested in cars, even if they weren’t likely to buy one, to examine the Mercedes.  “The way the car is put together, the fit of the doors, the quality of every detail, is such that you just can’t but be impressed; even a look under the hood is impressive”. And then they end with the line in the title.