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Collectible Classic: 1956-1960 Mercedes-Benz 220S/220SE

If you were the prince of Spain, a 1957 Mercedes-Benz 220S is the kind of car that you might give to your girlfriend. At least that's what Philippe de Lespinay tells himself as he looks at this gorgeous, largely unrestored car at his home in California. As he drives beneath the palms along the ocean, he can picture this rare coupe motoring through the French Riviera in the 1950s. And, yes, there's a slim chance that the prince of Spain might once have owned this very car before he became king.

The 220S is a time machine that takes us back to a period in car design when the ideal was beauty, not brand awareness. This is an elegant, refined automobile, and it's easy to imagine the slim rim of the steering wheel in the gloved hands of the girlfriend of a prince. It is also remarkable that this limited-production luxury coupe, from a company better known at the time for taxis than style, found its way to California from a dusty garage in Switzerland and managed to survive in original condition.

As with so many things from Mercedes-Benz, the 220S has roots as earthy as the spargel grown in the fields around Stuttgart. In 1953, the Mercedes 180, an automobile with a modern unibody chassis, was the first all-new product from the carmaker since World War II. Technically described as the Mercedes W120, it came to be known as the "Ponton," a description of its modern shape with streamlined, 1940s-style "pontoon" front fenders integrated into the body, a half step between the cycle-style fenders of the past and the unified bodywork of the future.

The company hoped that the four-cylinder W120 would sell to middle-class Germans in the way that a Chevrolet (well, maybe an Oldsmobile) sold in America. At the 1955 Frankfurt auto show, Mercedes introduced a luxurious, Cadillac-style convertible derivation with a six-cylinder engine. This convertible went into production the following summer -- joining the new W180 Ponton six-cylinder sedan -- and was followed shortly by a coupe.

De Lespinay instantly recognized the 220S's qualities when he first saw this car covered in dust inside a Swiss garage in 1982, where he had gone to look at some antique toys, a specialty of his that has made him a well-known dealer. From across the space, he could see the car's breeding, like an elegant though aging woman of the 1950s. "It had soft, gentle lines, like a grandmother in fine lace," he recalls. The 220S was produced between July 1956 and October 1959. Only 1251 coupes were built compared with 2178 convertibles (and 55,279 sedans); plus, the coupes mostly rusted away while the cabriolets found their way into the hands of collectors. (Another 1942 examples of the fuel-injected 220SE coupe and convertible were built between July 1958 and November 1960.)

Once $3500 had changed hands, de Lespinay faced some challenges, as the car lacked a current registration. He was many miles from Dijon, France, and the headquarters of Stand 21 (the famous manufacturer of racing-driver safety gear, which de Lespinay represented in the United States), where he planned to keep the car before exporting it. Calling on his talents as a designer (did we mention that he has designed slot cars, kits of plastic models, and other automotive toys for companies in France and America plus did all the graphics for Dan Gurney's Indy cars until the 1990s?), he fashioned a fake license plate out of cardboard. Then he filled the back seat to the windowsills with antique toys and drove to the border. Just as he anticipated, the customs agents looked at the toys but never thought to check the car's registration.

Even on that first drive, de Lespinay was impressed with the car's performance, despite the fact that this 220S, with 72,000 kilometers on the odometer, hadn't been driven in a decade. (Did we mention that de Lespinay won championships in slot-car racing in the 1960s and motorcycle road racing in the '70s and now regularly competes in vintage racing cars?) As he recalls, "It was snowing in the Swiss mountains on the way to Dijon, and I found myself going so much faster than the traffic that I was passing people on the outside of corners." Later, he came to appreciate the 220S's hardware, which includes 300SL-type front brakes with lightweight aluminum drums, a 300SL-type swing-axle rear suspension, and a twin-carburetor, 106-hp, 2.2-liter straight-six engine.

These days, de Lespinay and his wife, Kathryn, find themselves driving "Bertha" to and from Palm Springs, where it has won the preservation class at the local concours d'elegance. The odometer shows only 90,000 kilometers. "It drives very well," de Lespinay says. "The steering is precise and the effort lightens up at speed. The car handles very neutral, although the new Coker radial tires have certainly improved it. The engine gets 18 to 24 mpg with its four-speed column-shift manual transmission, and the car cruises easily at 75 mph." He has also discovered that the swing-axle rear suspension is surprisingly predictable in broadslides, a reminder that this cornering technique was perfectly acceptable in the 1950s, when cars would otherwise understeer like farm tractors.

When you're inside the cabin of the Mercedes 220S coupe, it sends you messages from a time when luxury meant fine design from Europe, not self-indulgence from Beverly Hills. The sleek bodywork is trim yet sensuous. The natural leather and wood of the interior creates a warm, humane environment, and there's just enough chrome to elicit pride in the overall expression.

And since the original sales agent was a Spanish distributor that did business with the Spanish royal family, there's that whole girlfriend of the prince of Spain thing.

The Specs
2.2L (134 cu in) SOHC I-6, 100-115 hp, 119-152 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION 4-speed manual
DRIVE Rear-wheel
FRONT SUSPENSION Control arms, coil springs
REAR SUSPENSION Swing axles, coil springs
WEIGHT 3100-3250 lb (est.)

The Info
220S: 1251 coupes and 2178 convertibles
220SE: 830 coupes and 1112 convertibles
$7246 (1957 coupe and convertible)
You can own an automobile once driven by royalty, Hollywood film directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, and even actresses like Barbara Billingsley of Leave It to Beaver and Airplane! if you know your stuff. Pick the Mercedes 220S coupe instead of the convertible, valued at more than twice as much, and you'll enjoy the same modern motoring experience, amazing reliability and durability, and the easy availability of spare parts. It is the kind of automobile that Americans instinctively understand, a personal luxury car. These coupes are also a great buy with plenty of value to come in the future, which is another thing that Americans like.