The Mercedes-Benz 450SE
One of the world’s better cars, though not entirely free from shortcomings. Superb road behaviour.
When I thrashed unmercifully, with no regard for exotic price, the then new 450S-class Mercedes range round the Salzburgring circuit in Austria in early 1973 I was easily convinced that here was the best all-round combination of luxury, handling and performance in the world. Jaguar’s XJ12 was quicker and smoother, the Rolls-Royce range excelled in luxury, the big BMWs felt more sporting, but as all-rounders the members of the 4 1/2-litre Mercedes S-class were unsurpassed.
Those feelings took a little bit of a bashing when I turned to more representative road testing of the 450SL for the May 1974 issue of Motor Sport; enjoyable, like any open car, with the roof removed, but a little too boring and unsporting for a two-seater sports car, with too much wind noise to maintain the Mercedes image when the hard-top or soft-top were erected. Certainly the SL fills a specialist gap in the market, yet, as I remarked at the time, the 450SE saloon offers a lot more car for, then, £1 less, now, strangely, £520 more. Now, having road-tested the 450SE, I feel my initial circuit impressions of the 450S-class were justified. If not perfect in every detail the SE and longer wheelbase brother SEL (the L means you pay an extra £1,135 for a 3.9 in. improvement in rear leg room and better upholstery/carpeting) are undoubtedly among the Better Cars in the World. They suggest that Rolls-Royce will have to go some way to prevent their Best Car in the World self-acclamation being denounced in favour of the latest addition to the S-class, the 6.9-litre, hydraulically-suspended 450SEL. The 450SE’s mechanical details, even gearing, are identical to those of the 450SL I tested. Only the wheelbase and track differ. Thus that huge, heavy bonnet with attached imposing grille, surprisingly hinged at the rear in this safety-conscious car (I still shiver at the memory of my XK150 bonnet flying open on the M1), though with duplicated safety catches, covers a 4,520 c.c. V8 engine of 92 mm. bore by 85 mm. stroke which produces 225 b.h.p. DIN at 5,000 r.p.m. and 278 lb. ft. torque DIN at 3,000 r.p.m. The block is of cast-iron, along with the exhaust manifold, five main bearings support the crankshaft, the cylinder heads are cast in alloy and each carries a single overhead camshaft. The compression ratio is 8.8 to 1 and my bits of paper tell me that 98-octane fuel is required, though I assume that more recently Mercedes have made efforts to comply with Germany’s lead-free fuel conditions. Bosch electronic fuel injection fuelled the fire quite impeccably on the test car, yet I understand that the latest 4 1/2-litre Mercedes V8s are fitted with the same Bosch mechanical injection which is attached to the 6.9-litre engine.
Mercedes’ own design of automatic transmission is fitted as standard, controlled via a tunnel-mounted, “golf-club” shape lever in a zig-zag gate and offering speeds in its three gears of 59 m.p.h., 96 m.p.h. and a 130-m.p.h. maximum.
The suspension follows standard Mercedes practice with certain brilliant “tweaks” unique to the 450S range. At the front there is a double wishbone arrangement with coil springs, double-action telescopic shock-absorbers and an anti-roll bar. Progressive antidive control is incorporated as is zero steering offset, an aid to braking stability under irregular conditions. The traditional diagonal swing axle arrangement at the rear includes coil springs with progressive rubber helper springs, double-acting shock-absorbers and an anti-roll bar. That is a very basic description; what makes it so special is its so-called starting torque compensation which eradicates tail-squat during acceleration, so that the rear wheel camber remains constant, full spring travel is retained and so is the occupants’ equilibrium. Conversely, under braking the action of the outboard disc brakes is harnessed to slightly wind down the rear suspension, restricting weight transference and, in conjunction with the front anti-dive geometry, ensuring that this big Mercedes remains uncannily level under the hardest of retardation. The actual stopping is looked after by massive disc brakes all round, ventilated at the front. A highly-effective drum-type handbrake utilises the naves of the rear discs and is operated easily and conveniently by a pull-out lever on the right of the facia. Disconcertingly, the car’s body moves forwards or backwards when the suspension settles itself after the handbrake has been applied at rest.
This elegant, substantial and impressive four-door saloon bodywork is shared in the S-class by the straight-six-cylinder 280 models and the 350SE with the 31-litre, 200 b.h.p. V8. Apart from the boot-lid badge the only detail which signifies the depth of one’s wallet appears to be the 450SE’s growth of wipers and washers for the curved lenses of the huge, rectangular, halogen headlights. These can be operated, only when the headlights are switched on, by the left-foot pedal which simultaneously works the powerful screenwashers. Experience of these headlight washers in murky weather suggested that they should be regarded as essential equipment on any car.
The exceptional safety aspects of this 16.27 ft. long body are widely enough known not to require detailing. If you’re going to have an accident you’re more likely to survive in the 450SE than possibly any other car in the world. I didn’t think the paint finish on the test car was all that good, possibly because of neglect, the boot lid, finished inside with a primer-type paint, felt positively tinny, the nearside front door fitted fairly badly and the door locks were crudely obvious from inside the car with the doors closed. On the subject of moans, the standard electric windows were too low geared and both I and petrol pump attendants complained about the fuel filler flap being hinged at the bottom so that the strong spring fought with the filler nozzle or had to be repelled with one hand. The flap’s paintwork was badly chipped as a result. More satisfactory details on this Mercedes body are the screen pillar deflectors which keep the side-windows clear of water and dirt, the dirt-repelling design of the rear lights, the detachable hazard-watning triangle within the boot lid and the big exterior mirror on the driver’s door, adjustable from within the car, though badly in need of a matching sister on the opposite side. All the doors, the boot and the fuel-filler flap are locked by a splendid, central, vacuum-operated system.
Entry is easy through the big front and rear doors and interior space is plentiful in all directions. There is no shortage of rear leg room even in this short-wheelbase version. Much as I like leather, I think I would have rejected this £450 extra in the test car in favour of standard cloth; the material compounded the inherent hardness of the Mercedes seating and the stitching of the pleating showed a standard of workmanship somewhat lower than that employed by Jaguar’s trimming department. The individual front seats are generously proportioned, split by an armrest which can be folded out of the way and the driver’s seat can be adjusted for height as well as reach and rake. Perversely, the knurled-knob rake adjusters both face the inside, right beneath the arm rest hinge and against the centre tunnel, almost inaccessible. Some of the plastic bits used in the interior are positively Ford-like, particularly the plastic cover over the passenger seat hinge mechanism, which continually fell off in the test car. The loop-pile carpet had none of the look of quality one would expect in the price of the car.
The driver is faced by a big, padded, rough-grip and comfortable four-spoke steering wheel containing a huge padded horn boss. There is no adjustment facility for either reach or angle. By Jaguar standards there is a dearth of instruments in the console forward of the wheel: Vdo provide a big, central 160 m.p.h. speedometer, a quartz clock, noisy when the car is stationary and a separate unit showing the contents of the 21 gallon fuel tank, water temperature and an oil pressure gauge which remained at 45 psi with the engine running. But no tachometer is fitted to UK market cars. Apart from the lights master switch tucked away on the right of the facia all the major electrical switching is taken care of by the single steering-column stalk : headlight dip and flash, indicators, two-speed plus intermittent wipers, the tiny rocker switch of which automatically returns to the slow speed position when switched off. The stalk was floppy and heavy to use. Auxiliary switches for courtesy lights and heated rear screen are contained in the centre of the facia; the latter control switches off automatically after half an hour.
There are usefully deep stowage pockets in the front doors, a lockable glove locker, stowage nets on the backs of the front seats and a tray in the centre console, useful for holding cassettes for the Blaupunkt radio/cassette player in the test car. As the tape player insisted on playing at twice normal speed the cassettes were of little use. There is a large rear window sill behind the rear seat headrests, in the deck of which is a locker containing a first-aid kit.
For occupants accustomed to lesser cars the most noticeable interior feature of the 450SE is the thick padding on the doors, which curves up above the line of the window base. This is functional as well as aesthetic: warm air is ducted through the doors to demist the side windows and the door panels are heated. This is just one facet of an excellent hcating/ demisting(ventilation system, though I feel a summer road test would have shown the need for the optional air-conditioning equipment (£755) and/or an electric sun-roof (£276). This is not a car to be wasted on a chauffeur. In spite of its size (it is 6 ft. 1.6 in. wide) and its 34 cwt. the 450SE is astonishingly easy and nimble to drive, even to slot through traffic. Much of the credit for this goes to the wonderful, power-assisted, Mercedes-Benz recirculating ball power steering; it is accurate and not over-light yet it enables this big car to be driven with the abandon of a Mini. In my book it is the best power steering in the world. I must give similar credit to the Mercedes automatic gearbox. Perhaps the one I had in the SL was not set up so well, for I failed to appreciate it as much as that in the SE. This three-speed box is so smooth and quiet, is so sensibly behaved in traffic (I abhor boxes which are forever changing up and down in these conditions) and has a splendid kick-down arrangement which allows selection of intermediate to hasten overtaking acceleration from below 85 m.p.h., or, with the lever in Drive, to kick-down into Low below 41 m.p.h. In the Intermediate hold position, kick-down will select Low below 47 m.p.h., a most useful facility in hilly country. In fact I used this hold far less than I do with most automatics, for this gearbox has such ideal characteristics when left to its own devices. Like that of the SL, the gearbox was slow to take up in reverse.
Off-the-line performance is disappointing, over 3.5 sec. taken from zero to 30 m.p.h., a penalty of high gearing and the physical effort of giving this heavy car some inertia. It was interesting in this respect to compare the 450SE with our Managing Director’s 280SE 3.5, now with some 80,000 reliable miles on the clock, yet little sign of age. This lighter, lower-geared car felt much quicker off the line, right up to the middle ranges, when the extra power, torque and improved streamlining took the newer car galloping ahead. It is in these middle and upper ranges, rather than in sheer standing-start acceleration, that the 450SE excels, all-powerfully, simply “whooshing” through overtaking. The engine is by no means silent when pressed like this though the gruff rumble from under bonnet is well-enough muted.
This car produces an uncanny sensation of an 80 m.p.h. feeling at 40 m.p.h. and a 40 m.p.h. feeling at 80 m.p.h. At higher speeds its characteristics of stability and safe handling are superior to any saloon I can recall. It will cruise quite effortlessy and stably at 120 m.p.h., albeit the test car had a mild tremor from the rear end above 90 m.p.h.
It would be far from true to suggest that the 450SE is silent. There is slight wind noise, the engine is quiet enough when cruising but not when accelerating and there is an unexpected amount of tyre and suspension noise. Their levels are relative, of course—I’m not talking in terms of Mini-type noises. In respect of other noises—the sound of other traffic, the howling and nationally destructive gale through which I battled—the 450SE offers total insulation, a cocoon of silence. The performance of the suspension in conjunction with that aforementioned steering is the true indicator of Mercedes-Benz engineering qualities. The handling is so light and well-balanced, there is little roll, the roadholding qualities in the dry are astonishing, though the deceptive speeds need some watching in the wet and finally there is that lack of disturbance from squat or dive. However, as a passenger I was disappointed to find that not only was suspension noise imperfectly insulated, I could feel the suspension working via the floor. Unlike Jaguar, who compromise themselves on the side of comfort, Mercedes aim for safer handling, partially achieved by fairly stiff suspension. As a result the ride is quite firm at low speeds, but there is no wallow or harshness at normal speeds, which is more important. I could never agree that Mercedes make the most comfortable seats in the world, a shade too hard for my liking, particularly at the fronts of the cushions, but I must confess these grew on me. Firm seats and suspension or not this car’s sheer effortlessness of movement and invincible driveability make it supremely comfortable, relaxing and even enjoyable transport however long or short the journey. Fuel consumption varied from 12-14 around town to 16.7 m.p.g. on a run to the North.
I cannot find any criticism to make of the brakes; they stop this heavy machine from single figure or three figure speeds with the same sensational lack of drama thanks to their power and the anti-dive action of the suspension.
Surprisingly, in view of the torque transmitted through the rear 205-70 Michelin XWX tyres, a limited ‘slip differential is not fitted. The inside wheel tended to spin slightly on damp surfaces, though not so vigorously as that of the SL; an LSD might be an asset. Those alloy wheels upon which the test car’s Michelins were mounted are an extra, by the way. Yet another £450.
In detail this Mercedes 450SE had imperfections as if to prove that even the legendary Mercedes engineers and designers are not infallible. However, once that splendid engine was started, always so reliably and instantly, there was no doubting the supremacy of the three-pointed star at the end of the bonnet; first and foremost this is a driver’s car—the luxury aspect seems almost secondary—a car for driving long distances with the minimum of fuss, secure in the thought of that legendary reliability and longevity. For this one most certainly has to pay. In “basic” trim the 450SE costs £10,176. Adding extras such as air-conditioning can bring this up to £12,107, before you think of adding a radio. It is at this point that you begin to think, “If I bought the faster, quieter, better-appointed Daimler Vanden Plat 5.3, the top of the XJ range, for £9,699, inclusive of everything that is extra on the Mercedes, I could buy an RS2000 for fun and be backing Britain.” And I wonder whether the Daimler would be delivered with an unused, flat spare tyre, complete with twisted tube, as this test car was from Stuttgart via Brentford.—C.R.