A look back at Mercedes that deserved more recognition for their sometimes hidden qualities - this month... Why I love the W112 300SE? This much style didn’t come cheap in the early 1960s, the 300SE the ultimate Fintail and a favourite of one Mercedes Enthusiast contributor.
Sports cars have never really appealed to me. I can’t deny the prettiness of the Pagoda SLs, but I have always preferred room to stretch out and the space for suitcases or shopping.
That’s not to say I don’t appreciate performance and handling, though - I like a fast car as much as the next man or woman, and if it goes round bends without a fight so much the better.
But style is equally important. I admire discretion in a car, yet I’ll admit a weakness for the American excesses of the late 1950s - whitewall tyres, an abundance of chrome, and tail fins that made a car appear capable of space travel.
Convey these requirements to a late 1950s #Mercedes-Benz
engineer and the only result can be the Mercedes-Benz Fintail, and more specifically the #W112
300SE . In taxi cab W110 #190D
form, the #Fintail
looked elegant, perhaps even (dare I say it) cute, but mix in an extra dose of style, luxury and power, and I don’t believe Mercedes made a better looking car than the 300SE saloon.
Growing affluence on both sides of the Atlantic meant Mercedes’ timing seemed just right. Launched at the #1959
Frankfurt motor show following over two million miles of prototype testing, the initial cars were the 111-series 220 Mercedes. The car maker’s innovative unitary construction included a passenger safety cell and crumple zones. In #1961
, the range grew with four-cylinder ( #W110
) base models and a flagship - the #W112
300SE. Faced with the opportunity to sell luxury cars to the burgeoning American market, some manufacturers went entirely too far-witness Jaguar’s gigantic Mk 10-while Mercedes-Benz simply went as far as it dared.
Hugely expensive at twice the price of a 220 model, the 300SE saloon stood out with extra chrome along its waist and around the C-pillars. An automatic transmission, servo-assisted steering, air suspension and a #Bosch
fuel injected, three-litre alloy engine made for an impressive specification on paper.
Although whitewall tyres were an optional extra, you’ll rarely find a period image of a 300SE that isn’t wearing a set, while discs on all four wheels with separate circuits for front and rear meant the braking was fail-safe. The air suspension used pressurised rubber bags in conjunction with hydro-pneumatic shock absorbers, allowing the car to self level. Large rubber bump stops ensured the 300SE could still be driven should the system fail.
The W112 was deliberately kept apart from the lesser Fintails, even to the extent of having dealers put the cars in separate showrooms. It wasn’t until #1962
that 111-series coupes and cabriolets were introduced, yet the these would still outsell the 300SE by 24 to 1.
Vertical speedo later dropped by Mercedes-Benz.
With this much legroom who needed a LWB?
Mechanical injection for two valve #M189
Chromework suited the North American buyers.
I don’t believe Mercedes made a better looking car than the #300SE
The perfect grand touring Benz saloon.
Rear swing axle with air spring set up.
The four-door saloon kept its fins, which even by 1959 were becoming passe, but the coupe and cabriolet models had theirs shaved, radically altering their appearance to complement clean lines that still look fresh to this day.
We say ‘fins’, but Mercedes called them ‘peilstege’ - sight lines to aid parking. Mercedes chief designer Karl Wilfert conceded that they were, “In Rufweite der Mode” - within earshot of fashion. Mercedes had clearly attempted to Americanise the car, and Americans seemed touched by the gesture, but not enough to buy Pintails in significant numbers.
A four-speed automatic transmission was standard on the 300SE, but #Mercedes
would fit a four-speed manual gearbox if the customer insisted; in March 1963 the manual gearbox officially became an option, and a long- wheelbase version of the range topping Fintail debuted.
A 1964 Autocar roadtest described the 300SEas “neither beautiful nor dainty,” but it had a “massive and solid appearance.” Testers drove it the length of the Ml motorway at 100mph (most UK motorways were less busy then, with no speed limit) and concluded after 1,465 miles of testing that “the comfort and size are well up to the Mercedes image.”
The 300SE is hardly flawless. The saloon drew criticism over its Americanised speedometer design and those tailfins, which so rapidly dated its appearance. A prodigious thirst meant Mercedes was forced to fit a larger fuel tank to models made after #1963
, the increase from 65 to 82 litres offering just 50 miles more range. The air suspension suffers from water leaking past the seals - especially if the car isn’t used regularly - and, with all that shiny chromework, they are prone to rust.
The 300SE was - and still is - complicated, and expensive to buy, maintain or repair. The 5,202 examples built were bought by rich enthusiasts who refused to settle for a lesser Mercedes which, in many ways, were just as good. They wanted luxury and obvious prestige, regardless of the cost.
But fashions had already began to change, and when the six- cylinder Pintail’s replacement arrived in 1965, it was clear Stuttgart had played the W108’s design very safe. Mercedes claimed the W112’s indirect successor - the range topping W100 600 - was designed to be the best car in the world. That’s how good it had to be to follow the 300SE.
The Fintail saloons certainly would not be the last vehicles Mercedes-Benz built for the American market, but they were the last to be styled for it.
Mercedes-Benz 300SE W112 Fintail
Engine M189 2.996CC 6-cyl
POWER [email protected]
TORQUE 184lb ft @ 4.000rpm
TRANSMISSION 4-speed auto, RWD
Top speed 115mph
FUEL CONSUMPTION 20.6mpg
YEARS PRODUCED 1961-1965
Figures for a #1964
on car - 300SEs built before then had 158bhp/185lb ft torque, fuel consumption determined at X of top speed (110km/h. 68mph) plus 10 per cent.