Mercedes Mystique, German Engineering, Marketing and Matchbox cars

I recently acquired a used Mercedes-Benz, which has surprised a lot of my friends as an odd choice.   That lead me to ponder just how I ended up with it, which lead directly to this post.  My first experience with a Mercedes was one very much like the car you see in the picture below.  It was owned by a friend of my Uncle Carl.  The car was brand new so it would have been a 1959 model.  It looked old fashioned to me with the radiator grill looking very much like American cars of an earlier era and the overall body shape reminded me Chrysler products of the early 50’s.    It looked just slightly more modern than my parents 1947 Packard.    Considering what the new 1959 cars looked like, the Mercedes looked positively ancient.

(photographed by R. Persicke in Arnis, Germany)

I have been fascinated with cars since an early age and so whenever a relative of friend with an unusual automobile would come by, I would be all over it, asking interminable questions, wanting to look under the hood, etc.  The appearance of the Mercedes caused quite a stir as it drove up, as my uncle Carl rarely visited us. He was much older than my father and had sort of a parental interest in my dad.  He was always trying to get my parents to move to Portland where my father could work for him and stop working in the plywood mill.  In addition, my grandfather (on my mom’s side) was visiting us and he was quite interested in machinery of any type.   So, we all went out to take a look at it.

I already had a collection of “Matchbox” cars: my father would bring me a new one every two weeks on payday.  One of my favorites was a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, which was the “best car in the world” and cost $16,000.   The upright radiator on the Mercedes-Benz reminded me of the one on the Rolls, so I asked the car’s owner (who’s name was Johnny): ” Is it as good as a Rolls Royce?”  My uncle chimed in with:  “Ask your grandfather, I’m sure he appreciates fine German Engineering.”   My grandfather, who was born in Germany, was a tool and die maker by trade and also possessed with the patience of Job.  My uncle was tying to shield Johnny from the barrage of question he knew were going to come from his annoying nephew. (Carl was childless, and we already had a combative relationship)

Fortunately, Johnny was a car nut, and anxious to show off his new toy to anyone, even a hyperactive kid with the curiosity (and energy level) of a ferret.   Even at that age, I could pick up on the fact that my uncle found the German car kind of silly, dismissive of the idea that this little “German Rambler” cost more than his new Chrysler Imperial.

My grandfather disliked my Uncle Carl, and quickly joined Johnny in explaining that the Imperial was huge but crude compared to the sophisticated Mercedes.   My Uncle derided the “little car” for not having an automatic transmission, a “puny” six cylinder engine, and for being “noisy and cramped” inside.   “You can only get two people in the front seats.”

I didn’t quite grasp all the reasons why the Mercedes was “sophisticated”, but I later found out that it had a fully independent suspension and an overhead cam engine and that the transmission, while still a manual, had four gears.  My grandfather seemed fascinated by all the technical  details and Johnny was only all too happy to have an ally in what was obviously an ongoing “friendly” debate with my Uncle.

I remember going for a ride in the car, and remember that the car moved around a lot less than other cars (mainly my parents Packard) when we went around corners over bumps, and that I liked the mechanical sounds that it made and the fact that you could hear the exhaust note.  It reminded my Uncle of a “sewing machine”.  Johnny was quite busy shifting up and down through the gears and seemed to be having a lot of fun driving, when most other people, except for my baby sitter, seemed to regard driving as a chore, if they thought about it at all.

The result of all of this was that the Mercedes became the “second best car in the world” in my mind, along with a bias towards “German engineering” that I seem to have to this very day.  I’ve owned nine German cars so far in my life and I trace all this back to my grandfather.  I remember him telling me that German cars were much “better designed” than America cars, and that even Volkswagen had engines “just like you have in airplanes”.  I also got a little Benz sedan as my next “Matchbox” car.

The other Mercedes-Benz cars I remember from my childhood were a little diesel one that Mr. Walker (the man that owned the music store where my mom worked part time) owned that made clattering noises and smelled like a logging truck, a 190SL that was owned by a lawyer, (It looked a lot like the 300SL Matchbox car that I had) and a “fintail” sedan that a local doctor owned.

With hindsight one can see that different conditions in Europe and the US resulted in vastly different approaches to automobiles.     For one, the US had oil, and for much of our history we were able to supply a much higher percentage of oil than most other countries that had high automobile ownership.  The US became a society on wheels way before most other countries.    Europe was a good 20 years behind the US in terms of per-capita ownership.

Since oil was relatively cheap, American automobiles became larger and were typically equipped with larger and more powerful motors.   V-8 engines wer relatively rare anywhere but the US prior to the 1970’s, where we’d had them in family cars since the first Ford V-8 in 1932.   Our larger engines had enough torque that they worked well with the two or three speed automatic transmissions that were common back then.  Smaller four cylinder cars with automatics were not only sluggish to drive, they also didn’t get very good gas mileage compared with the four speed manuals typical in European roads.

European roads were also not as good as roads in the US, so suspensions were more sophisticated to deal with both more bumps and curvier roads.   The fact that Europeans tended to race on road courses instead of oval shaped tracks has had an effect on auto design also, with nimble handling valued as much as brute horsepower.

The ability to make a 1,000 mile trip was not much of a priority in Europe, since most countries rarely had a dimension of greater than 300 miles.

Europeans tended to use relatively small engines and developed horsepower by making them more sophisticated whereas Americans could get more power by just making the engines bigger.  The 3.8 liter motor in the first Jaguar XKE worked out to 232 cubic inches and was considered quite large in Europe, while that would be considered fairly small for an American Sedan or station wagon. European cars also got taxed by engine size in some countries, so there was further incentive for smaller engines.

Mercedes-Benz had earned it’s reputation for advanced engineering back in the 1930’s with both the Ferdinand Porsche designed SSK  and W125 and W154 Grand Prix cars as well as a lineup of advanced-for-the-day passenger cars.  Designed by legendary engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut, the race cars were the dominant racing cars of the era, and quite technically advanced.    All this screeched to a halt during WWII as the Mercedes factories were prime targets for allied bombers.   In 1945, Mercedes-Benz had virtually ceased to exist.   The tooling for only one model, the 170 managed to survive and the companies first postwar designs were based on that model.

The first true postwar products Mercedes made with the “Ponton” sedans like the one in the first photo at the top of this page.    The drive-trains were carried over from the 170 models, but the body, which was of unitized construction, (no separate frame) and the suspension were brand new.

Mercedes also returned to racing, with the amazing Uhlenhaut designed 300SLR and W196 Grand Prix cars dominating sports car and open wheeled competition, respectively.   However, disaster struck at the 1955 24 hour race at Le Mans in 1955 when a 300 SLR plowed in to the back of a much slower Austin Healey and somersaulted into the crowd, killing the driver, 82 spectators and injuring over 100.    Mercedes withdrew from organized racing at that point and didn’t return for over 30 years.

Max Hoffman

It’s impossible to talk about German Cars in the United States without mentioning Max Hoffman.  At one time or another, he was the sole US distributor of  BMW,  Mercedes-Benz,, Porsche and Volkswagen.  (as well as Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin and   MG)  he is credited with convincing the factory to make various models to sell in the US, the 300SL (road version of hte 300SLR race car), Porsche Speedster, and the 2002 BMW amongst them.    Although he was an automotive enthusiast, he knew that sometimes European tastes didn’t exactly coincide with American ones.  He imported Mercedes-Benz automobiles from 1953 to 1957, when Mercedes handed over importation duties (After buying Hoffman out of $2 Million) to Studebaker from 1957 to 1963.  Studebaker then folded and Mercedes started handling importation itself, with many Studebaker-Packard dealers becoming Mercedes Benz dealers.

Hoffman is important because he realized that Americans would buy “foreign” cars at premium prices and the importance of having a sophisticated image involving mechanical superiority and driving pleasure, if you were importing cars that cost more than the typical US automobile.   Some argue that BMW’s current success in our market is due to Hoffman’s insistence that they put the larger 2,000 engine from a four door sedan into the smaller 1,600 body.   Prior to the 2002 model (the car from 1968, not the 2002 year), BMW had barely dented the US market and were better known for producing the “bubble car” Isetta than “real cars”.  (Pictured Below)

File:Iso Isetta.jpg

Copyright:  Pablo Alberto Salguero Quiles

During the 60’s, Mercedes-Benz updated the Ponton sedans with the W111 (commonly called the Fintail, because it had American-inspired fins on it’s rear fenders) and W112 models, that introduced disc brakes, crumple zone technology and a fresh (if ungainly from some angles, mainly because of the fins) appearance with much more window area.   In the car magazines, the fintails, along with their relatives under-the skin: the 230-250-280 SL roadsters, were regarded as superbly built, if unexciting vehicles.

The six cylinder cars were re-styled in 1965 by a design team lead by French designer Paul Bracq (later design chief at BMW during the early 70’s, and Puegeot in the late 70’s).  These cars, the W108-109 series, while looking much more modern, had the same basic suspension design as both the Ponton and Fishtail sedans.   This ushered in a look that would serve as the pattern for Mercedes Sedans for next 20 years or so.

In 1968, the W114-W115  series, also styled by Paul Bracq,  not only updated the looks but introduced some new engineering, as both the front and rear suspensions were also significantly upgraded.

These were the cars that made the Mercedes Mystique in the modern world.    They did this at opposite ends of the spectrum.   The ones with the little 4 cyl diesel engine became famous as Taxis in much of the world and some of them have run up to 2.5 Million miles.   They were durable (with the chassis designed to take much more power), reliable and and rugged.  Simple enough to be repaired by third world mechanics when they did break, but designed well enough they didn’t do it very often.

The car magazines were mostly positive about the cars and they were considered the most advanced and modern ones in the world.   You still see people who refer to these as “The Best Cars Ever Made”.   Most of the Sedans that survive seem to  the 240D and the 300 5 cyl diesels, with the occasional coupe.

While the more basic versions were sold and marketed to most of the world as premium quality vehicles and used as Taxis, the US arm of Mercedes concentrated on selling the cars as “premium luxury cars with a high level of engineering built into them”.  The more basic models with smaller engines were never sold here and most of them were well optioned and most had automatic transmissions, air conditioning and power seats.  Models with V8 engines were developed with the US market in mind.

The next generation, The W123 series, was produced from 1975 to 1986.   Paul Bracq was no longer at Mercedes, but the designs are little changed from the W114 Models and mostly are regarded as a continuation of the older vehicles, with a similar reputation for reliability, durability and ruggedness.  They were even more popular than the W114, and MB produced  over 6 million of them over the next decade.

The next two series, the W201 and the W124 followed the W123 with the W201 known here as the 190E or “Baby Benz” was built on a 105 inch wheelbase and the W124 built on a 110 in wheelbase.


The Baby Benz was replaced by the W202 “C Class” in 1993, which in turn was followed by the W203 in 2001 and the current version, the W204 in 2007.

That sort of brings us, (or at least me) full circle.  I recently became a Mercedes owner for the first time after years of looking at them, reading about them and occasionally even manging to drive one.  If I’ve been captured by the mystique, it happened a long time ago.  But I still see a lot of the same things I liked about the preceding 50 years of Mercedes Sedans: subdued classic styling with not a lot of decoration for it’s own sake, advanced engineering and a high standard of finish.    It’s a 2001 Mercedes C320 that I own by the magic of letting someone else pay the first $35,000 of depreciation during it’s first 65,000 miles of existence.

I mentioned why I bought it in an earlier post:

After a couple weeks of ownership, my impressions still hold up.   It’s even more fun than I’d thought initially and I’ve taken it up on a couple of mountain excursions and found it an absolute blast to drive in an undignified manner.   The steering is very precise, the car goes where you point it, it has enough power to induce over-steer (if you turn off the stability control) and the brakes are fantastic.   It’s fairly small car,  about the same size as my old 1965 Mustang, (actually 3 inches inches shorter) with a wheelbase one inch shorter and it’s the same width.   It weighs about as much as a new Mustang V6 , so it’s a fairly easy car to toss around.

I know it was a fairly expensive car when new, so I do understand parts and repairs are not likely to be cheap.  But I have no car payments, so the pain of repairs should be somewhat lessened, if needed.    I just need to make sure I take care of the expensive parts, like the transmission and engine.  I’ve been assured those parts are fairly durable, as the existence of plenty of them out there with over 150,000 on them already proves that.

I’ll keep you posted.

Author: fauxsuper

Guitarist since 1964, motorized vehicle enthusist all my life, Married with two step children. Born and rasied in Lebanon, Ore.

4 thoughts on “Mercedes Mystique, German Engineering, Marketing and Matchbox cars”

    1. You should, when I was a kid I hung out a lot at Lambert Ford: addressing questions to everyone, including your father. A lot of our automotive education is from the same sources.

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