This isn’t a road-test report, but the long week-end I recently spent with a Mercedes-Benz 300SE so profoundly impressed me that I cannot forgo setting down my impressions of this fine motor car.
Erik Johnson of Mercedes-Benz (Gt. Britain) Ltd. offered me this acceptable form of travel at Whitsun but certain technical failings, reminder that nothing in this World is perfect, particularly complex machinery serviced far from the parent factory, caused postponement. However, this advanced automobile was worth waiting for and last month I found myself setting off along A30 in torrential rain in this big, yet seemingly compact, very fully equipped saloon, which combines the latest of automobile engineering concepts in its specification. Subsequently it went into Wales, up to Oulton Park, back to Hampshire, every mile enjoyable and so fatigue-free as to add nothing to my age.
There are those who dislike automatic transmission and sneer at power steering, but the DB (Daimler-Benz, not David Brown), 4-speed epicyclic gearbox with fluid coupling, controlled by a l.h. stalk-lever as slender as a normal Mercedes gear-lever, its remote indicator panel mysteriously labelled 2340 RP, overcomes the usual arguments against automation by enabling the driver to go into 2nd or 3rd gear, merely by moving the lever to these positions, after which these gears are held, to give maxima of 43 and 70 m.p.h., respectively. In “4” there is full, smooth automation, overridden by kick-clown to 80 m.p.h. If “3” is selected, the change-up out of “2” is postponed and third speed held without interference from automation.
The speed with which the 300SE gathers pace is extremely impressive, and acceleration figures do not need to he recorded to convince the driver of the safety factor inherent in such pick-up, which is all the more impressive as it is accomplished in smooth silence, the scintillating three-pointed star riding arrogantly ahead. The Mercedes-Benz goes to 80 m.p.h. almost anywhere and 100 m.p.h. comes up frequently in ordinary, unhurried travel. I did not try for absolute top speed, but George-Monkhouse, ardent Mercedes-Benz enthusiast, who motors in a 300SE, tells me his car works up to 115 m.p.h. given motorway space in which to do so, which is exactly what the makers claim.
Such a deceptively quick, bulky car needs safety factors in keeping. The 300SE has them. The aforesaid Daimler-Benz power steering combines finger-light control with accuracy and precision and has good castor-return action. Geared at three turns lock-to-lock of the big white steering wheel with its padded hub and full horn-ring, it is useful steering in the likely event of the car going into a slide. The turning circle is that of a normal family car.
All-round independent suspension not only renders the car extremely comfortable, but very stable in fast motoring conditions. The wheels are sprung on air chambers with spring bellows and plungers instead of steel springs. This pneumatic suspension, energised by an air-cooled single-cylinder compressor on the n/s of the engine, driven by vee-belt from the crankshaft and lubricated by the engine oil circuit, is self-levelling. The wishbone i.f.s. and trailing link i.r.s. are stiffened by torsion bars and another torque rod for the low-pivot swing-axle i.r.s. prevents the rear of the car rising under the action of the brakes. Damping is by hydro-pneumatic shock-absorbers and auxiliary rubber cushions that come into play towards full bump. The result is a well-regulated, smooth, entirely level ride, yet with very little roll when cornering, considering the size and comfort of the 300SE. This is not, however, soggy suspension. The ride, indeed, is quite hard at low speeds, even to transmitting some shudder to the body and steering wheel, while the wheels, shod with tubeless 7.50 x 13 Continental Super Record Nylon tyres, can be heard following undulations in the road. It is possible to drive home on the rubber buffers should the pneumatics fail, and the only penalty of this elaborate but worthwhile suspension system is a noise like a distant siren which goes on for a while after the occupants have vacated the car, while it adjusts to a level keel. There is no need in praise the handling. Anyone who saw these big saloons driven fast round Brands Hatch circuit to 3rd and 4th places in the Six-Hour Saloon Car race will appreciate its quality, even if these big cars were beaten by the Ford Cortina GTs.
The Dunlop Servo disc brakes, too, are fully able to cope with this 1 1/2-ton vehicle which is likely to be cornered at the ton. Initially they seemed to be too fierce, with a bit of lag on the pedal, but I soon found that the slightest pressure from the ball of the foot on the normal-size brake pedal was sufficient to bring the speed down with no dramatics of any sort. These are extremely powerful, yet 100% progressive brakes; they do not squeak (Crewe please note!).
To these safety factors that make the considerable performance of the Mercedes-Benz 300SE fully usable are coupled the luxury, comfort and refinement within, associated with all the cars from Stuttgart. The seats, upholstered in dull-grain non-slip leather of the finest quality, are notably firm, shaped for comfort, and the squabs of the front ones recline under fine adjustment by Keiper patents. A detachable cushion over the transmission tunnel is provided for occasional carriage of a third front-seat passenger. The back seat is likewise dished to accept two occupants, or three when the wide central arm-rest is folded.
Unlike English luxury cars in which expanses of wood are a throw-back to the vintage era. Daimler-Benz use, with more restraint, a facia and screen, door and window-cappings, of veneered beechwood, which I have seen craftsmen preparing in the woodworking shops at Sirdelfingen. this contrasts nicely with the surrounding leather crash-padding. Nor is the instrumentation over-elaborate. Before the driver a hooded vertical VdO speedometer reading to 140 m.p.h. on a colour-changing pointer, which should say “Marples” after 50 m.p.h., incorporates turn-indicator warning arrows, a tele-thermometer normally indicating 190°F, a vague fuel gauge with warning light incorporated in its red “E” mark, total and trip recorders (no decimals), an oil gauge, its needle on the-stop at 45 Ib./sq. in., instrument lighting rheostat control knob, and three warning lights for low oil pressure, low generator charge, and handbrake on/pneumatic suspension pressure too low or on its wheel-change setting. Very conveniently placed for the right hand are the 2-speed screen-wiper knob and a neat little turn-button for the lamps, which pulls out to bring in the foglamps. Under the facia a toggle-handle provides for instantly cleaning and wiping the screen when it is pulled (this is a substitute for a foot-control on l.h.d. cars). The hand-brake is a substantial pull-out lever for the left hand. The only other control items are a n/s toggle for releasing the bonnet, with a suspension air-bleed valve above it. A r.h. stalk gives positive operation of the turn-indicators and works the self-cancelling, very necessary lamps-flasher.
A big key actuates the ignition and locks the steering; two other, differently shaped keys opening doors and fuel-filler, and boot and glove locker, respectively. Reverting to the facia, there are aircraft-type air vents either end which didn’t pass enough cold air, I thought, a switch for the rear-compartment light, a Vdo Clock, the hot and cold air horizontal controls which provide exactly the required amount of ventilation or warmth to either or both sides of the car, a cigar lighter and a rather small cubby-hole, its lid matching the facia and having a substantial lock. There is a foot-dimmer, permissible with automatic transmission.
This instrumentation is very neat but, I confess, not at all easy to read. Notable items of great practicability are a heater fan, sounding like a hair-dryer but very quickly demisting the screen, and a radio aerial which is raised and lowered merely by switching on the Motorola radio, of excellent tone and volume (no fumbling for a winding handle, as on the Daimler V8!). There are front and rear speakers, with selection by a convenient knob.
Further refinements embrace items like rigid grab-handles on roof and doors, with coat-hooks on the former, those neat hook-finger Mercedes internal door handles, anti-dazzle rear-view mirror, a shielded reading lamp over the mirror which can be set for courtesy-action from the front doors, delayed a few seconds after a door has been closed, knurled knobs that firmly close the guttered quarter-lights, door arm-rests, over-lapping wiper blades to clean a big area of the screen, discreet pull-out ashtrays, padded upholstery in the rear-compartment ash-trays and, on the window-winding handles (2 3/4. turns), sill door-locks, splash guards behind the back wheels, spring-loaded pockets in the front doors, parcel nets on the backs of the front-seat squabs, automatic illumination of the cubby-hole, and vanity mirror in the nearside anti-dazzle soft-swivelling visors. But the only way to fully appreciate the refinement of the 300SE’s interior appointments and its silent, supple running is to ride in one. Nevertheless, it is possible to build up great esteem for this Mercedes-Benz merely by contemplating it. The lines are beautifully balanced, the lamps properly in-built, bonnet (very easily opened) and hoot-lid stay up unaided, and the luggage boot area is like a sizeable cupboard, spare wheel upright on the o/s. Opening the bonnet reveals a sight to excite the engineer. There is a positive panorama of machinery, from the fuel-injection tracts and the Bosch electrical installations to the belt-driven pumps for the power steering and pneumatic suspension.
The 85 x 88mm., 2,996 c.c., o.h.c. light-alloy 6-cylinder (Type M.189-111) engine with Bosch petrol injection into the inlet ports, (a de-tuned 300SL, power unit) develops 195 (gross) b.h.p. at 5,500 r.p.m. and runs up to 6,000 r.p.m. It starts promptly but idles rather fast to give creep to the automatic transmission. It is content with normal premium petrol and any one of 316 makes of oils listed in the instruction book. Fuel consumption came out at 19.2 m.p.g. in varied driving conditions and after 850 memorable miles no oil had been consumed. The fuel-filler cap, Ford-like behind a sprung rear number plate, refused to unlock for two petrol attendants, one a charming thing in red slacks, the other an old man in a white coat …. It is with difficulty that I refrain from terminating these impressions with a string of superlatives, but to do so would be to risk accusations of bias and re-open a vehement controversy, so I will content myself by remarking that two things about the 300SE impressed me, apart from the quietness, comfort, refinement and practical planning of its equipment already conveyed. These were its very good accelerative powers, not only from low speeds, but from normal to high cruising speeds, which made traffic negotiation almost a pleasure, and the manner in which the brakes could be put on hard on wet and slippery surfaces without a trace of wheel-locking or incipient instability, so that great confidence was fostered for rapid motoring in the rain. I purposely did not log any journey times but it was impossible not to notice how quickly the miles wafted by and how familiar landmarks came up unexpectedly soon. For escaping the turmoil of the office and the restrictions of my Hampshire abode for a peaceful retreat further West, this Mercedes-Benz 300SE would, as I remarked to my wife, be a fairly satisfactory substitute for a light aeroplane – especially as I cannot “drive” one of the latter.
I can see that even greater quietness might be possible, that a slight improvement in a very few totally unimportant details might raise the refinement factor a couple of per-cent, and I know that there are people who are prepared to pay an extra £1,500 for Another Make in order to encompass a longer bonnet, more angular radiator grille and the pleasure of hearing doors shut like those of a Regency carriage. Nor, suppose, would That Maker tolerate the groans and grumbles that emanate occasionally from the Mercedes self-levelling suspension, or its doors, that merely shut with a tinny noise like those of many modern cars, albeit they do so with a nice double-click action. But for a price of £4,012 11s, 10d. in this country, purchase tax paid, I regard the Mercedes-Benz 300SE as a sound and sensible investment.
The accompanying panel provides a few more details about a remarkable car, which perhaps I may be permitted to describe one of the World’s best ?
On returning the 300SE, reluctantly to Brentford I was able to look round the headquarters of Mercedes-Benz (Gt. Britain) Ltd. The old Trico factory beside the Gt. West Road has been acquired and here ten operatives give new Mercedes-Benz and D.K.W. Auto Union cars which have been shipped from Zebrugge to London, their pre-delivery inspection. The heavy wax coat they wear for shipment is removed by steam hoses at 80/100 lb./sq in. pressure and the chromium parts untaped. Dealers are, however expected to carry out a second pre-delivery check before handing the car to the customer. In one month earlier this year, 500 cars were brought in so dealers now receive a bonus, starting at 10s a day, to collect cars they have ordered on schedule, to relieve congestion at this new clearing depot.
Every care is taken to maintain the traditional Daimler-Benz quality and high finish, at Brentford, A new body shop looks after the crash repairs. The front and rear sub frames, designed to cushion impacts, not only make Mercedes-Benz cars preferable to many others if you intend to indulge in an accident, but this form of construction reduces repair charges, while replacement doors, etc, are not much, if any, more expensive than those for mass produced vehicles.
A Heenan & Froude dynanometer has been installed for power testing, engines ranging from 3-cylinder D.K.W. 2-strokes to Daimler-Benz lorry engines. There is also a roller dynomometer for checking power at the drivenr wheels, carburation etc., being checked against temperature and barometric pressure, while the ingenious DB automatic gearbox has its own elaborate test and demonstration rigs, energised by a 220SE power unit. In a separate bay 230SL sports models are attended to by skilled operatives who hold special driving permits, which ensures safe and sympathetic test driving of these fast cars. There is a paint shop and drying oven to take one car and soon a new paint oven plant, capable of quick drying at a temparature just below that which would be detrimental to tyres and electrics, will be instralled.
Across the busy Gt.West Road the Auto-Union premises have been revised, priority going to a comprehensive spare parts store for all Daimler-Benz products, commercial vehicles included. I was told that spares to a value of £1/2-million are held, with another £1/4-million worth spread amongst the dealers and distributors. A simple but effective system serves to prevent stocks of any parts failing, additional supplies being ordered from the Acton warehouse when required. There was even a 300SL space-frame chassis in stock, and gull-wing doors etc., for this now obsolete model. An emergency spares service operates and Mercedes-Benz (Gt. Britain) Ltd claim to be able to despatch any part by train within six hours of it being called for, even if this costs the dealer concerned a discount penalty for not stocking it himself.
Orders are booming and the popularity of the various Mercedes-Benz models in this country can be summarised as:-
220SE saloon 31%
190 and 190D 21%
220SE coupé and convertible 8%
300SE saloon, including long wheelbase saloon 5%
300SE coupé and convertaible 2%
Automatic transmission – and how nice that Daimler-Benz make their own! – is ordered for about 25% of all cars supplied and the demand for it is expected to increase at a rate of approximately 10-15% per year – W.B.