Mercedes' first monocoque was a best-seller and now makes a stylish, practical buy, says Malcolm McKay. Photography Tony Baker.
Mercedes’ family car for the 1950s was - as you would expect - meticulously engineered. Immensely strong, its bodyshell was insulated from vibration because the engine, suspension and steering were fitted to a rubber-mounted box-section subframe, slung across the front a bit like a pontoon bridge - hence the nickname ‘Ponton’.
Full-width styling was in vogue at the time, but the Mercedes’ imposing radiator grille made it stand out against more plebeian rivals. Though it started with a pedestrian sidevalve engine, its all-synchromesh four-speed gearbox and fully independent suspension were carried-over #Mercedes
features that were still well ahead of most opponents. Separate driver and passenger heating controls with powerful through-flow ventilation and a laminated windscreen were advanced, but six-volt electrics, no passenger sunvisor and rubber floormats were not.
More upmarket models soon appeared and, while rubber floormats continued, six-volt electrics were only fitted on the sidevalve cars. The straight-sixes were phased out before the ‘fours’ because their successor came first, but not until the #220SE
had become the first mid-range car to be fitted with fuel injection, giving a massive boost in torque as well as more power.
Saloon numbers have been decimated to the point where you now see almost as many cabriolets for sale. But find a good survivor and they are wonderfully endearing cars, feeling refined and supremely reassuring. Coupes are rare and perhaps not as well-proportioned as the delightful cabriolets, which have become enormously desirable, with prices soaring in recent years.
While bodyshells do rust, their solidity means that problems are usually quite localised, unless the car has suffered extreme neglect such as being left in a garden or a damp garage for decades. In those circumstances, you can expect rot almost anywhere, on any car.
Parts availability is good, with Mercedes itself still stocking most bits, and everything else can be sourced via specialists. There is no point being insular - while a few firms exist in the UK, if you want to find rare parts you have to look to Belgium, Germany, the USA and beyond. Components are not usually outrageously expensive, though chromework can be costly- especially if you need a lot of it - and wood interior trim on those that have it is also tricky.