The List – your dream drive made real. Jonathan Privett once owned a W109/W108 S-Class but the 6.3 version has always drawn him. We arranged a satiating drive. Words Russ Smith. Photography Jonny Fleetwood.
The List – Reader Jonathan Privett is let loose in Mercedes’ exec hot-rod W109 300SEL 6.3
‘Wow! That acceleration would become addictive’
Mercedes powerhouse driven – That one’s the fuel gauge, you’ll need it’ – Reader Jonathan tries 6.3 litres of Merc
There’s no doubting the credentials of today’s lucky reader. Jonathan Privett gives a quick acknowledging nod and grin before reversing his 16-year-old 2003 Mercedes-Benz CL600 C215 V12 into a customer parking bay at The SL Shop. It confirms that here is someone familiar with both the three-pointed star and heavy dollops of horsepower. So he’s unlikely to be overawed by today’s mighty motor, which is something of a relief because he is about to meet – and at this point I feel inclined to cue dry ice and film trailer-style bassy voiceover – the Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3 W109.
This was a car that at its 1968 launch caused even hardened motoring journalists to shake their heads in disbelief. Mercedes had taken their long-wheel-base S-class saloon, beloved of the rich, powerful and sensible, and shoehorned the 6.3-litre V8 from the huge W100 600 limo under the bonnet of a car that was 700kg lighter. A Q-car legend was born, a wafting super-saloon with blistering acceleration to embarrass the finest Italian grand tourers. Introductions out of the way, the car makes a timely appearance with owner Sam Bailey – also boss of The SL Shop – at the wheel, back from being warmed up and filled with super unleaded. ‘You’ll need that,’ he says. ‘It does get through it at quite a rate.’
‘I can see why Sixties journalists were so shocked by the performance, yet it’s imperious and never feels unruly’
Jonathan Privett, a visual effects supervisor for film and TV productions, is certainly impressed by the visuals here. ‘Simply superb, that is such a good example, and that is exactly the right colour for it. I had a 280S as my daily driver from 1995 to 2002, but that was in minicab white. The dark blue really adds class.’
Fortuitously coinciding with Jonathan’s 50th birthday, his drive is almost beyond lucky. This is one of just four known 6.3 survivors in right-hand drive, and probably the best. We ask Sam for any instructions before heading off. ‘None. Just get in and drive it, and make sure you find a straight piece of road somewhere and bury the right pedal. Then you’ll understand it properly.’
No further bidding is needed, and Jonathan looks right at home. ‘This is such a familiar place to be. Yet weirdly the detailing is quite different from my base model. The horn ring’s chrome for a start; my Cairo cab-spec 280’s was white Bakelite. And it has a small rev counter squeezed into the dash binnacle – I think it’s the only W108/109 that does.’ He points at something below the dashboard by his right knee. ‘I don’t even know what that does, or that unmarked switch in front of the wheel. And it has aircon.
Wow, on a 1968 car.’ Then he shows me the quarterlight catch. ‘This is one of the nicest things about these cars. It’s so satisfying to use, and indicative of their whole ethos. It’s like Mercedes had no budget limits and just built the best car it could in every detail. That’s what I like about them. I do have a thing about details because I worked for a few years in the auto industry doing Computer-Aided Design, in Detroit. I did the door mirrors on the ’1994 Buick Park Avenue – heated and electric, so it was engineering, not just looks – and the pedals for the Dodge Viper.
‘It’s part limo, part hot rod. You could have a lot of fun in this, and shock a lot of other drivers’
Credibility raised further, Jonathan turns the Merc’s key and we’re greeted by what sounds like a powerful clearing of the throat, like a chairman bringing the AGM to order. ‘That does sound properly potent.’ There’s a quick fiddle with the gear selector, ‘Ah, “4” is Drive – it’s odd not to see a “D” to slot into.’ And we’re off, Jonathan quickly providing a stream of commentary. ‘Like all Mercs to this day it has a long throttle travel. But with this much bhp you wouldn’t want a hair trigger. Unlike a modern, you feel the upchanges in gear, but then it is dealing with a huge amount of torque. Also, unlike moderns, it holds onto the lower gears longer; they’re all into top in a flash to cut fuel consumption. ‘You can steer it with your fingertips, and there’s no play in the steering despite it being a recirculating-ball system. So there’s great response and it’s accurate, but slightly lacking in feel. It feels really secure though not like it wants to be thrown about on lanes.’ Talking of which, we’ve just turned onto a more minor road, which brings another of the SEL 6.3’s tricks to the fore. ‘The ride is astonishing. The air suspension doesn’t pass much bump into the structure at all. There’s a really good thin-pillar view out but the body feels really solid. I’m assuming there’s some kind of self-levelling function to the suspension because there’s no up and down from the nose as you accelerate and brake. It corners very flat too. And look at that BMW ahead of us – it’s dancing about on the road and we’re as smooth as anything.’
It ought to be good because these were phenomenally expensive cars when new – about a grand more than a Silver Shadow in 1968, and with this car’s optional aircon and Becker Monza radiocassette, even more costly than a Ferrari Daytona. The surprise is that M-B managed to find 6526 buyers for them in just four years. Back at the wheel, Jonathan is really settled in. ‘It’s nice that it has leather seats; mine had MB-Tex, which doesn’t feel as good but does seem to be indestructible. These are so well sprung and comfortable it’s almost as relaxing as being at home. There’s a tactile feel to the wheel; it’s a lovely thing to hold and much more comfortable over a long journey than the fat rims you get on modern cars. But otherwise I have to say it drives so much like a modern. It overlaps my Austin-Healey in age but there are light years in difference between them. If you had the wherewithal you could still easily use this every day. It obviously has advantages over my old 280S, yet at the time I was using that we had a 25-year-newer Golf and the Merc was a better car in every way. I have particularly fond memories of an 18-hour drive home from a holiday in Switzerland in it. In the Merc it was so easy and untiring to do.’
One very important facet of this car’s abilities has yet to be explored, but we finally find the ideal spot – a dead straight stretch of country lane with no traffic or junctions and perfect visibility. Jonathan needs no further invitation and from about 15-20mph buries the throttle pedal. The violence with which I’m thrown back in the passenger seat is unexpected and astonishing. Jonathan is rather taken with it too. ‘That is mightily impressive for a car of this age and size. Wow! It could quickly become addictive. I can see why Sixties journalists were so shocked by the performance, yet it’s imperious in the way it delivers it and never feels unruly. It only tails off when you lift your foot. You can see the switch below the pedal, so you have to physically activate the kickdown, and don’t lift or it changes up a gear.
‘It’s not a particularly sonorous engine, but has a guttural, aggressive growl when you extend it. Then payback when cruising is how refined and quiet it is.
Definitely a dual-purpose car – part limo, part hot rod. You could have a lot of fun in this, and shock a lot of other drivers. It pulls very strongly from 1500rpm and the acceleration is very linear, not like you get with a hot cam or anything. Thankfully the brakes are up to it. You can tell there’s a lot of car to stop but it’s very reassuring, and you don’t have to make allowances for it.’
The hint in there is that we did run out of long straight quite quickly and are now on some more typical winding Warwickshire lanes. But the 6.3 is still impressing. ‘It’s fun to hustle along and inspires so much confidence when cornering at speed, though you couldn’t honestly aim the word “chuckable” at it. It must have needed significant commitment to drive the racing version.
But what fun, it gamely hangs on in corners and the swing-axle feels so well controlled, and there’s so little body roll. ‘I can feel the front end washing out a bit, so it’s definitely a slow in/fast out car. Very fast out! There’s also surprising grip for the tyre size – 205/70 x 14 doesn’t sound a lot for something this big and powerful today.’ Those last couple of factors are quickly confirmed when an unexpectedly tight left-hander almost catches us out, but the Merc’s dynamic abilities and Jonathan’s driving skills prove more than a match for it and we sweep away with even more respect for the car.
‘The steering is not as light as you might expect from a powered system – it’s weightier than a Triumph Stag, for instance. I’d call it well weighted, and it matches that of all the other controls, which adds to the car’s quality feel. I can imagine blistering my way across England, in some style, and it would be lovely where we live up in County Durham because the roads are not well-kept. With that brilliant suspension soaking up the rough bits you could make really good cross-country progress. I see this as Mercedes’ Silver Shadow, philosophically – air suspension, big V8, quality fittings. But this is faster, better-looking and rarer. It has huge road presence and you could go anywhere in this and be well received – even get a parking spot outside the casino in Monte Carlo.’
All too soon our tour of rural Warwickshire is over. We pop the bonnet. ‘The engine is so tight in there,’ says Jonathan. ‘How on earth do you get the exhaust manifolds off? They haven’t skimped on the detail work in here either. Look at those amazing castings for the air intake and plenum chamber. They’d be incredibly expensive to replace, though knowing Mercedes it would be able to supply them. And there’s that tiny oil filler cap in the middle. What’s that for?’ Sam Bailey helps out and confirms it’s to lubricate the fuel injection system, ‘It needs to be at exactly the right level – it’s a really complex piece of kit to set up but fantastic when it’s right.’ It’s time for the inevitable ‘would you?’ question, and Jonathan has thought hard about it. ‘It’s an expensive car, about the price of a new S-class. But one of those will depreciate by around 50 per cent in three years. This won’t, and it also doesn’t look like a posh minicab. I also know the W108s are built like a battleship underneath, even though tin worm did get mine in the end.
‘The W109 300SEL 6.3 has totally lived up to expectations; it’s not disappointed me in any way apart from the aircon not working [later traced to a blown fuse]. It has everything I need, no foibles and definitely has the potential to be licence-losing. What I most like is that its design places engineering above gadgetry. No gimmicks – everything is there to make it a better car.
‘It’s a wonderful thing, still an incredible car by today’s standards. And it’s more solid and with less scuttle shake than my CL600 C215. If I had the spare cash… maybe it wouldn’t be my first choice at that level. But I am very happy to have driven it.
Thanks to Sam Bailey and The SL Shop.
Anti-dive suspension geometry and self-levelling airbags keep the nose steady under heavy inputs. Not much spare space here, but the casting detailing is impressive. Viewing the 6.3-litre V8 put a smile on Jonathan’s face. The V8’s guttural, aggressive growl under acceleration melts away into quiet refinement when cruising. Even the clock has that sense of Mercedes solidity and style about it. Jonathan is a lover of detail and picks up on the chrome horn ring. His old 280’s was Bakelite. Interior stirred memories; the quarterlight catch was a particular highlight.
1968 Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3 W109
Engine 6332cc alloy V8, ohc, Bosch mechanical fuel injection
Max power 250bhp @ 4000rpm
Max torque 369lb ft @ 2800rpm
Transmission Four-speed auto, rwd
Steering Recirculating ball, power-assisted
Front: double wishbones with anti-dive geometry, self-levelling air bags, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar.
Rear: low-pivot swing axle, self-levelling air bags, radius arms, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Discs front and rear, servo-assisted
Weight 1734kg (3820lb)
Top speed: 134mph
Fuel consumption 15mpg
Cost new £8200 CC
Price Guide 2019/2020 £20k-£60k
JONATHAN’S DREAM DRIVE LIST
‘Dad had a 1936 one. Mum impressed him by knowing what it was. They got together and I’m here as a result.’
Abarth 750 Zagato
‘Ultimate derivative of the Fiat 500, I think of it as a small, affordable Ferrari 250LM.’
Renault 5 Turbo 2
‘Ultimate Eighties rally car/hot hatch – mundanity mixed with exoticism.’
BMW M635CSi E24
‘When I was growing up someone local to me had one and I was always drooling over it.’
Lancia Aurelia B20GT
‘One of the most beautiful cars ever made. Such purity of form and detailing.’
Rover P6 3500S
‘Grandad had a 2000TC which holds fond memories. He could never afford the V8.’
‘An AC Cobra with practicality, and one that will never be mistaken for a replica.’
Alfa Romeo Giulietta SS
‘Another great beauty and a car that gets its performance from aerodynamics and lightness – the opposite of the Merc.’
Bentley S1/S2 Continental ‘Pretty and stylish, it captures the positivity of the post-war era. Where did that go?’
Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3
‘I had a base-spec 280S version and always harboured a desire for the top-of-the-range model.’
JONATHAN PRIVETT’S MOTORING CV
Clearly a man with a yen for stylish sportiness
MG MIDGET MKIII
‘My first car, bought during my first year at university. A friend had one too and we drove them to the Ferrari and Lamborghini factories.’
AUSTIN-HEALEY 3000 MKII
‘I’ve owned this for 18 years, having bought it with the proceeds of a post-divorce house sale. I have since driven it 45,000 miles and it feels like a second skin.’
ASTON MARTIN DB2/4 MKI
‘Also from the house money! It was the final lot at a Coys auction and I paid just £18,000. A driver rather than show car, I’ve done the Beamish Rally in it.’
PORSCHE 924 CARRERA GT
‘Bought three years ago. I saw one in a car magazine as a kid but never in real life until I found this 39,000-miler at Simon Furlonger’s.’
PORSCHE 911 (993) CARRERA C2
‘Mum was a fan of 911s and I bought this with a legacy she left me eight years ago, so it’s definitely a keeper. Such strong cars.’