Driving Mercedes-Benz’ Midsize Classics
Time Travel in the Black Forest: Faintly familiar Mercedes-Benz sedans of the past take us to a uniquely modern destination
SINDELFINGEN, Germany — If the grilles of these faintly familiar sedans don't clue you in, then the enormous three-pointed star posed behind them should let you know what the story is.
We're here in the plaza of the Mercedes-Benz customer center in Sindelfingen, a Stuttgart suburb where tens of thousands of people design, test, and build the company's cars. We've been provided an opportunity to get some context for the latest Mercedes-Benz E-Class by driving a selection of midsize Mercedes sedans from the last 70 years. We think this is a fine idea, though it seems about as glamorous as renewing your driver's license.
After all, these are simply mid-size sedans, and they aspire to no more than practical transportation, even if they do wear that iconic star. Nevertheless, the prospect of some laps on the Sindelfingen test track sounds good, although this short loop's high-banked curves don't approach the daunting, 90-degree inclination of the famous Wall of Death at the test track in Untertürkheim. And a drive into the Black Forest will be pleasant, even if this region is no more than the Disney edition of rural Germany with an extra helping of trees.
Some nice cars from the Mercedes-Benz museum's heritage collection, plus some nice people including past principals in Mercedes-Benz design and engineering, and it all comes with a solid lunch. So, you know, it's all nice.
1947-1955 Mercedes-Benz W136/191
There's no sense trying to keep track of these cars of different eras by sorting through the badging of different chassis and engine combinations, so instead we refer to them by their internal engineering codes, just as Mercedes geeks do. This is Benz's first sedan following World War II and, just like contemporary American sedans of the same time, it is really a relic of the 1930s—the 1936 170 V, to be exact. The upright, carriage-like body with its rear-hinge, "suicide-style" front doors bounds up and down on a separate frame, while the solid-axle suspension front and rear carries narrow tires. Meanwhile, this 170 DS model's 64-hp, 2.2-liter, four-cylinder diesel engine smokes so profusely that you'd think it was burning charcoal.
And yet there's nothing half-hearted about the W191. This is an exercise in quality, not expediency. To be sure, it has been impeccably restored by the Mercedes-Benz museum, yet you can see and feel the car's dedication to reliable, durable performance in everything within the cabin, from the slick action of the column-mounted shift linkage for the four-speed transmission to the tightly woven cloth upholstery. It's interesting to think that when the W136 came off the production line in 1947, the battered roads of postwar Germany were filled only with the military vehicles of the occupation troops and the occasional VW Beetle.
1953-1962 Mercedes-Benz W120/121
Everyone at Mercedes loves the W120 "Ponton." This nickname comes from the distinctive bodywork style of the 1930s-'40s era, in which fenders became integrated with the central body as if they were pontoons.
More than style is at work in this car, however. The W120 is the first car from Mercedes to embrace unibody construction, which is the integration of body and frame into a single, structurally rigid unit. Guntrum Huber, who joined Mercedes in 1959 as a simple test engineer yet ultimately rose to become the head of passenger-car engineering, reminds us, "In those days, there were engineering departments for the engine, frame, and suspension, but the body was just handicraft — a sheetmetal shell." Huber continues, "When body engineering came along, only a few could do the complicated calculations, and they made them by hand with a slide rule."
The Ponton was the first Benz to come in any numbers to the U.S., where it was distributed through Studebaker dealers. You used to see them on the road in the 1960s, but they died out in the 1970s, rusting quietly on college campuses. This car looks dowdy beyond belief compared to the Jaguar sedans of the era, yet its so robust and reliable that you can drive it anywhere without a care, which is very unlike an old Jaguar. We're sure the Mercedes guys will hate to hear it, but we can't help thinking of this car as the very first Toyota Camry.
1961-1968 Mercedes-Benz W110
If the Ponton W120 is a Toyota Camry, then the "Fintail" W110 is some kind of Buick. With this car, Mercedes-Benz embraced everything that made the American automobile of the 1950s widely acknowledged as the best car in the world — spacious passenger accommodations, expressive style inside and out, and an easy, unchallenging way of going down the road.
You can't help but see the influence of General Motors in this car's vestigial bodywork fins. Yet the key technology in the W110 is actually something quite prosaic in the context of modern times, which would be the car's automatic transmission. Mercedes-Benz was unique among European carmakers to embrace it, and the "automatic" badge on the back of this Fintail indicates just how proud the company was of its accomplishment. This car also features power steering, electrically operated windows, a sunroof, and air-conditioning. So American, is it not?
1968-1976 Mercedes-Benz W114
With the W114, we see the essence of the Mercedes-Benz look that is still with us today. Simple, square-rigged, and yet elegant in form, spiced with flashes of expressive chrome. And within the W114's cabin, you find quality materials combined with an American-style front bench seat and the distinctive Mercedes steering wheel with its large-diameter ivory rim. But there's more to the car's American character than you'd guess, as this generation of car represents a time period when safety requirements created a brave new world for Mercedes.
Huber tells us the W114 reflected extensive safety testing during the early 1960s with the W110 Fintail. Huber had just joined the company as a development engineer, and the man later known as the "father of the airbag" recalls those simpler times: "To test sensitivity to crosswinds, we closed down a runway at the Stuttgart airport, then we got the U.S. Air Force to park a DC-3 transport so the blast from its propellers crossed the runway. I drove through the crosswind at full speed, and we marked the car's path by dumping a cupful of chalk on the ground."
Karl-Heinz Bauman knows a little bit about safety, since he developed the pop-up rollover bar for the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class, not to mention a long list of other crash-safety measures. But like Huber, he can remember a time when there was no laboratory for crash testing. He tells us that when Mercedes couldn't get the Fintail up to sufficient speed to trigger a high-speed rollover crash, the engineers built an enormous wooden ramp to help tip the car on its side. Then they enhanced the test car's speed by strapping a homemade steam-powered rocket to the rear bumper. Bauman later shows us a film of the testing, and it looks just like the Joie Chitwood Thrill Show, circa 1956.
Baumann says the modern E-Class has 11 active-safety measures, and he also says autonomous cars are interesting, yet he notes, "You might program the car, but there will still be variations in weather, traction, and circumstance. Even if there were only one car on the road, there can still be an accident."
1976-1983 Mercedes-Benz W123
The W123 is the Mercedes sedan that lives on in the collective automotive memory of most Americans — a comfortable, right-size car with all the styling cues that still define the cars of the three-pointed star. It featured a range of engines — inline-fours and inline-sixes, gasoline and diesel, plus the first-ever Mercedes turbodiesel. By giving people the right kind of fuel mileage, the right kind of miles per hour, and, most important, the right kind of purchase price, a Mercedes suddenly became the right kind of car for a lot more people. As a result, the factory built some 2.7 million examples of the W123, including Mercedes' first station wagons.
For all this feat of manufacturing and marketing, however, Frank Nothe confides that his long experience as the chief program engineer on a whole range of cars from the 1970s to the 1990s taught him that road testing is really Mercedes' secret technology. "Real cars on real roads with real people," he tells us. "Millions of miles. No computer can teach so much. "
1984-1995 Mercedes-Benz W124
For those of us at Automobile, the W124 quickly became a legend — and not just because this was the first model formally known as the "E-Class." For the first time, Mercedes went beyond its comfort zone, something you could see in the styling of this daring shape from Bruno Sacco's design department.
With this car, Mercedes embraced performance. We still remember the 1986 AMG Hammer, the E-Class into which AMG's Hans-Werner Aufrecht dropped an S-Class V-8 and rocked the enthusiast-car world. Mercedes quickly responded with the 500E, a limited-production E-Class that came off the assembly line in Sindelfingen and made its way across town to Porsche, where a 5.0-liter Mercedes V-8 was installed under the hood. Even if ultimate performance wasn't your goal, the Mercedes-Benz 420E still delivered plenty of V-8 power.
"Every era has its fashion," laughs Jorg Abthoff, the chief of Mercedes engine development from the mid-1970s until the 1990s. "First it was more cylinders, then it was more valves, and now it is more turbochargers. But always the intention has been more power, more speed. And we at Mercedes have always done our part, though we are not always recognized for it."
2016-present Mercedes-Benz W213
"I cannot understand the Americans," says Peter Pfeiffer, former director of Mercedes-Benz design. "Sometimes they will change a car's design completely and forget everything about its past. We would never do that at Mercedes-Benz. We always try to make sure that there is at least one important thing that connects a new model to the one before it."
It took many years for Mercedes design to become about more than just body engineering, Pfeiffer says. But he also tells us that styling direction is not just about the design department's preferences. "Always we would have everyone at the table — the designers, the marketing executives, and especially the production people," he says. "The meetings would sometimes be very noisy with many voices — and, of course, there is even a word for it in German. But always it was the intention to make this not one person's car or one department's car but instead 'our' car. Like the new E-Class, this is the car from our company, not just one person."
It's fashionable these days to pick out the alpha model of current nameplates — the one, true expression of soul and technology that best represents a car's heritage. But we think you really can't simplify the E-Class this way. You find familiar bits and pieces of the modern version here and there among heritage cars, and yet you can't really say one car is more Mercedes-like than another. The message here is spaciousness, comfort, and safety, plus a kind of honesty. If you visit the Mercedes-Benz museum at the factory in Sindelfingen — now observing its 10th anniversary — you can see this story evolve in is entirety.
Sitting in front of Mercedes' visitor center after our drive and enjoying the sunshine (a miracle in Germany, eh?), the cars are lined up once again in front of the giant three-pointed star. And it seems the thing that holds them together is really the place where they are made. The tens of thousands of people at work within the few square miles surrounding this very spot are the face of Mercedes-Benz, not a grille with a three-pointed star.
The way we see it, an E-Class sedan is really about a process, not a particular technology. The E-Class itself might change, but the way it's made does not.