1971 Mercedes Benz 300SEL 6.3 – In Mein Merry Muscle Car

OK, I give up, I confess.
That was me listening to Jethro Tull, the ’70s band that hipsters love to hate, while blasting through Ohio on I-80 one disgustingly humid evening this past August. Having left New York that same afternoon in a big old 1971 Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3 headed for Empire, Michigan (population 378), I was undertaking what you might call a multipronged, long-distance salute to the past. And tune-wise, I thought, hipsters be damned. If you can’t let it all hang out in your own private automobile, you might as well be on the bus. Why not a musical interlude with the flute-wielding egoist Ian Anderson and his merry olde band of rock conjurers? Why not march back to the time of Tull?

Long trips in big cars that get terrible gas mileage-like the 6.3-take us vividly back to that time, the 1970s, while somehow reminding us of yesterday, when cars got appalling mileage, too. They fairly cry out for sound tracks of indefatigable pretension.

We are, however, led to believe that such journeys may soon be history due to high gasoline prices. Which could be just as well at a macro level.

But here at Automobile Magazine, we say there’s nothing wrong with paying a little respect to the great American gas-guzzling road trip, while we can. We’re not quite ready to bid it a fond farewell. We admit that $4.65 for a gallon of premium ain’t traveling cheap-and that’s before you even factor in the old-technology riot (especially if something goes wrong) that is the Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3, a marvel for the ages but one hard-drinking guzzly bear. Then again, what isn’t costlier these days?

As many who read this magazine can attest, history is fun in an old car, even more so in a fast old car. What can we say? Apologies to the polar bears and our children’s children, but burning gasoline is still a gas. Which is not the reason I chose my old Merc for this trip, although it sure has the incinerating petroleum thing covered. How does less than 13 mpg grab you?

Like old people, old cars carry you back to the time of their creation. OK, thirteen miles per gallon was insane, even in 1971. But when it’s 2008 and you’re being overtaken on the inside by some lunatic in a BMW 3-Series while reliving history at 105 mph with power to spare in the passing lane of a Pennsylvania mountainside, you can’t help but imagine what an awesome thing a 6.3 was in its day, when everything else was slow.

Many recoil at the thought, but I am here to tell you that taking a long road trip in an old car is no kinkier than, say, reenacting Revolutionary War skirmishes or the Battle of Verdun, dressed in tights or old helmets, the way some do. Not only do you get to drive the funky old thing, but you actually get somewhere.

So, what was my hurry this time? Here’s the short-wheelbase version of the story. Long ago, I spent parts of two consecutive summers in Empire, a lazy village west of bustling Traverse City (population 14,532). On the northwestern edge of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, Empire was (and is) home to Lake Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes, a place of extraordinary beauty, carved by glaciers and sporting unusual (for a northern lakefront) white sand. Tourists flock here now in the summer, but back in the day, it used to be a more closely guarded secret.

For my introduction to the quiet life of Empire, I must thank Sam Jones, my next-door neighbor in New Jersey while we were growing up. Sam’s paternal grandparents thought Empire was a pretty swell place and bought a house in the woods there, in the 1930s, as a summer retreat. By the time we came around, they’d passed on and the house needed painting badly. And, as luck would have it, we painted badly.

Housepainters didn’t come any cheaper than teenaged Sam and me, plus our two associates from back east. Like us, they came along for room, board (primarily cheap beer and Slim Jims), and permission to sleep late and knock off early. That’s why we came back the second summer; we hadn’t finished the job. Nor had we yet learned to fully appreciate a locally popular but little-known Milwaukee brew whose greatest distinction, as near as we could tell, lay in its obscurity and mellifluous name: Blatz. As we often said while popping frosted cans so named, Schlitz may have been the beer that made Milwaukee famous, but Blatz was the one that made it nauseous.

Speaking of slow and incompetent, it was somehow appropriate that we traveled a great distance to this beautiful and unassuming place hard by a very great lake in a cart-sprung Opel Kadett wagon that belonged to Sam’s dad, Hal, not an air-suspended, magic-carpet contemporary, the Mercedes-Benz I’m driving for my triumphal return to Empire, thirty-two years later.

The Kadett wagon (a racy 1.5 liters, if memory serves) was never in a hurry. But it blew a radiator hose in Hell (Michigan), causing a subsequent thirty-six-hour pit stop in Holland (Michigan) owing to a unique upper-hose design that defied every universal replacement part and piece of duct tape that we threw at it. A brand-new, already-rusting Plymouth Volar wagon handled transport chores the following summer, when it wasn’t in the shop. All these years later, the 6.3 made it there and all of the way back, without issue. Mostly. This is what I call progress.

Flash forward to 2008, and Mike Clark, a young associate of mine in the business of show, has invited me to attend his marriage to Maura Boylan at her parents’ summer home along the same Empire shores where I’d frolicked as a lad. Turns out, the Boylan seniors set up just down the road a piece from the cottage Sam Jones built himself in the woods a few years back, not far from his sister Bronwyn, who returned to the area to teach. Layers of cosmic coincidence that even the Tull at their most masterfully insightful could not anticipate or explain.

My battle plan called for driving two days of 900-plus miles each, with only old-fashioned wind noise (blame those useful vent windows), an iPod, and the great muffled sound of a bulked-up, uncatalyzed Mercedes V-8 to keep me company.

Fortunately, I had a giant among engines at my disposal. A Mercedes M100-a handbuilt, expertly poured, 6.3-liter (386-cubic-inch) lump of cast iron-was diverted from one of the company’s 600 limousines in 1967 and was then dropped, at engineer Erich Waxenberger’s direction, into the company’s stretched W108 platform, the W109. Largish and resolutely upright, with a giant, cheese-eating, chrome Mercedes grille, the resulting sedan was almost as regal as the high-tech Swabian limo but was substantially lighter, weighing nearly 2000 pounds less than the 600 Pullman. Thus was born the 6.3.

Blessed with independent air suspension, ventilated four-wheel discs, and a sharp-shifting autobox-with a generous, for the times, four speeds-the 6.3 was a wildly sophisticated and instantly regarded hot rod at its introduction in 1968. At close to $14,000 (this when most economy cars cost less than $2000), it was seriously expensive, meaning only 6526 examples were built over five years, although there was never any doubt that this luxury sedan with performance that put the priciest sports cars to shame was worth every penny.

Road & Track, upon learning of the 6.3’s existence in June 1968, headlined its snoozy item “a big-engined option for a semi-big sedan.” But by the time they’d driven it for the November issue, they’d fallen in love, concluding that it was “merely the greatest sedan in the world.” Car and Driver’s Brock Yates was, if possible, even more smitten, declaring it “the most stimulating, desirable four-door sedan to appear since the Model J Duesenberg.” Taking the 6.3 for a visit with Don “Big Daddy” Garlits, our old friend Yates reported that the drag racer popped the hood and-after inspecting the masses of hoses, wires, and bespoke fuel-injection parts covering the engine-lamented, “Oh my God, the poor mechanics.”

Garlits forgot to mention us poor future 6.3 owners, so I will. Mercedes-Benz’s air suspension (launched in 1963 in the 600 limousine series) exhibited revelatory antidive properties, allowing the car to pull up straight, strong, and true under heavy braking. In spite of a V-8 scaled for locomotive service, understeer is surprisingly tame. But the air suspension’s precision valves and rubber bellows need replacement every so often, at a cost ranging from $5000 to $10,000 today. Along with the breathtaking cost of parts and general maintenance, this not-if-but-when inevitability helps to explain the preponderance of old 6.3s seen, collapsed on their bump stops like the lowest of low-riders, behind garages around the world.

I, on the other hand, am in regular business with mine, and after a marathon interstate session, I arrive in Empire, where wedding festivities are in full swing. I visit with Sam, then meet photographer A. J. Mueller and assistant Jason Mathews, who somehow manage to sneak the 6.3, riding high, into a wedding photo. After a beautiful ceremony on the beach and a lovely reception at The Homestead in nearby Glen Arbor, I get to bed late. At 6 a.m. Sunday there’s a wake-up call for breakfast with Bronwyn, followed by the return voyage. Don’t tell me this trip was short-and not just because it was so very long.

It’s not like setting out for Kathmandu in an Austin America with a semiautomatic transmission, but fear still lurks in the background when you’re driving a 6.3. You’re not certain, as you would be with the Austin, that something will explode, but rather that if anything does, it will be life-changingly expensive, assuming it’s in stock, which it probably isn’t. Even the 215/70VR-14 Michelin XWX tires the 6.3 wears (some fancy shoes way back when) will set you back $515 each. Having to replace one could ruin your whole day. And yet they qualify as “cheap” for a car whose ideal owner is either a millionaire or an older, factory-trained master technician, ideally both. Today’s new breed of Mercedes wrench doesn’t speak 6.3ish, either, a mounting concern for owners of a vehicle that represents the pinnacle of fiendish automotive complexity in the precomputer era.

The good news is that the 6.3 was engineered to a standard rather than a price, meaning longevity was definitely on its engineers’ to-do list. It may be less obviously emotional than some of its rapid German and Mediterranean “competitors,” but with regular oil changes, its engine will reportedly soldier on for as many as 300,000 miles between major rebuilds. Of course, when the rebuild comes, that’s when you start looking for the spot on the lawn where a car might sit for a few decades, collapsing ever downward, waiting to meet its maker.

Wherein the charm? Easy. A good 6.3 is fast. With 300 hp, mountains of torque-434 lb-ft sounds prodigious even today-and a comparatively svelte 4000 pounds to push around, it is an old-world car with new-world get-up-and-go, a roomy, unbelievably solid, five-seat, four-door sedan rapid enough to lose your license in any land, courtesy of a 0-to-60-mph time on the right side of seven seconds and a top speed verging on 140 mph.

That was Ferrari fast in 1971, and it staked out new territory not just for postwar Mercedes sedans but all cars, making the 6.3 historic in my book. (A racing 6.3 was the object of then-independent AMG’s first efforts, too.)

Americans are more famous for big engines, but the Germans also knew well that there is no replacement for displacement. This car pulls like a steam-powered train. The only problem is that this legendary supersedan doesn’t run on steam. So it was really in its element back in 1971, when the oil industry’s finest cost about 36 cents a gallon. Today, gas is about ten times more expensive, lending my trip to Michigan an additional quality of epic adventure, being epically costly, as gasoline drained my credit facility of $672.07. That’s what 13 mpg will do for you.

About fifty miles from home, at 1:30 in the morning and in a light rain, the iPod-filled Belkin transponder spun around one last time, not only dumping my iPod onto the floor as it had several times already but spectacularly shooting flames out of the cigarette lighter socket.

Normally I would have stopped, but after 72 hours and more than 1800 miles of hard running, I didn’t even back off. Doing the math, I knew that if the car self-immolated, it would save me big money in the long run. But being a machine of substance, the Mercedes wasn’t self-destructing, only the transponder was.

Sitting down on the couch after reaching home, I popped a Blatz (yes, they still make it) and recalled a late-period Tull lyric. My 6.3 may or may not be too young to die. But it’s certainly not too old to rock ‘n’ roll.

Mercedes Triple 6s

Two years after the muscle car 6.3 was retired, Mercedes-Benz dropped an even bigger bomb on the luxorocket market. The 450SEL 6.9 hit U.S. soil in 1977 with a bored-out, dry-sump M100 displacing 6834 cc. Despite producing less power and torque than the 6.3 (thanks to emissions controls), the 6.9 was a bit faster than its older brother, achieving 140 mph. Road & Track again declared the big Mercedes the fastest and “most sensational four-door sedan in the world.” A hydropneumatic suspension replaced the 6.3’s air suspension, and 7380 units were built before production stopped in 1980. Mercedes didn’t again sell a V-8 displacing more than six liters until the debut of the AMG-designed 6.2-liter that’s currently terrorizing affluent neighborhoods in various AMG models.

– Jason Cammisa

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