Mercedes-Benz in Britain
Developments at Brentford and some comments on the 250SE from Stuttgart
Everyone should drive a Mercedes-Benz at least once a year, in order to appreciate just how mediocre by comparison many other cars are. Apparently Mercedes-Benz in Great Britain know this, for scarcely a twelvemonth goes by without them offering me a car to try. This year it was a 250SE, which I had the pleasure of using for the Easter vacation.
I do not propose to describe this latest Mercedes saloon in detail, because broadly it has close similarity to previous models, of which I have written at length in these columns. The body styling has been improved in a subtle but satisfactory manner, of course, and if this has made the boot slightly smaller I was not conscious of it when we packed in an enormous load of holiday clobber. The boot of a Mercedes-Benz is about the most capacious stowage-space of which any motor car can boast, ideal, for instance, for moving house, so it is not surprising to find that the low-pivot swing axle i.r.s. now has a new hydro-pneumatic compensator to prevent the rear of the car from sagging under heavy loads; this is, in fact, a simple form of self-levelling device.
Disc brakes all round with twin hydraulic circuits are but part of the many built-in safety factors on which the Daimler-Benz engineers are so very keen. (The test car had no seat-belts.) The new models use 14 in. instead of 13 in. wheels and the body dimensions are slightly larger than previously, the length having been increased by 25 mm., width by 15 mm., but height has been reduced by 60 mm., or nearly 2 1/2 in. Curved side windows and a better interior layout have increased shoulder space by 90 mm. in the front and by 70 mm. in the back of the body, and by lowering the floor in front of the back seat by 20 mm. extra leg-room for the occupants of the rear compartment has been obtained. The lower body lines have improved the already excellent visibility, the screen area alone having increased by 17% compared to that of the 220S. There is now a hint of the great Mercedes-Benz 600 about the broad radiator grille, which lifts with the bonnet – I recall a friend saying that a Mercedes-Benz seems in sympathy with Wagnerian music as it pursues its purposeful way at high speed along an autobahn.
Inside the 250SE there are changes for the better which are immediately apparent. For example, the rim of the steering wheel is no longer an effeminate white and the old vertical ribbon-speedometer has given place to a normal circular-dial 140-mph. Vdo instrument. The needle of the oil-pressure gauge still goes to its stop no matter what the lubricant temperature, but no longer (and I was sorry about this) does it lie in line with the normal reading of the water thermometer, as on earlier models, in which a quick glance was sufficient to tell if correct heat was being maintained in the top and bottom of the power-unit. However, this is a small penalty to pay for the improved speedometer although the needle now hides the first digit of the odometer at times. The oil and water readings, by the way, are normally 45 lb./sq. in. and 175 deg. F.
Everything about this Mercedes-Benz is sensibly planned and it is a car possessing impeccable manners. The driver's seat can he adjusted for height as well as for fore-and-aft positioning, depending on which lever is used, a very acceptable manual variant of the automatic seat adjustment of the 600. Big grab-handles on doors and roof, a simple lever action to open or shut the front 1/4-lights or set them in two intermediate positions, a light, to show the kerb, which comes on when the driver opens his door, good stowage pockets, a parcels-tray between the front seats, and single-cluster headlamps and/or fog lamps selected by means of one neat little button, are typical but much appreciated Mercedes details. I would also praise the r.h. stalk-lever which enables the driver to control the speed of the 2-speed overlapping wipers, the turn-indicators, or dip the lamps without removing his hands from the steering wheel. There is a foot-operated screenwasher. The firm but comfortable, easily-reclinable front seats and recessed interior door handles of the M-B are well known and its restrained wood decor, not used at all for the facia, and ventilated plastic upholstery, which looks like leather, are in keeping with the times.
The heater is not only fully effective but has the most logical controls once you have mastered them; pinching the four horizontal levers together, broadly, shuts off heat. The quiet 3-speed fan demists a steamed-up screen quicker than I have ever seen it done before and there is venting below the back window. All this is supplemented by separate fresh-air vents, fully controllable for flow and direction, at each end of the facia. At present these look a hit frail, being made to fold up on impact, but in future they will he silvered to resemble those used by Ford for their "Aeroflow."
The padded steering-wheel centre and neatly cutaway horn-ring are retained and the new cars have a great deal of rubber buffering on their substantial wrap-round bumpers, while the test car had Firestone Phoenix tyres with a rib running round the side wall to protect the wheel nave-plate from contact with a kerb, these tyres having been developed specially for Mercedes-Benz. However, as the most enthusiastic repetition can be boring, I will just say that on points of detail I found the 250SE entirely acceptable. Just let me add one item. The kickable cubbyhole appeared to be unopenable without using its key, as it has no grip This puzzled us, because, we thought. German logic and Uhlenhaut's thoroughness would not permit such an inconvenient arrangement. The solution was simple – you use the beading of the facia trim as a handle, as you do to pull out the ashtray; neat and effective, and the epitome of logic!
This big Mercedes-Benz 250SE is about the easiest car to drive I have encountered and I had no qualms about letting a 21-year-old girl (a daughter!) take it over in London traffic and launch herself into the Oxford Street G.P. without having driven it previously. The power steering is excellent, the automatic gearbox functions splendidly. I had a car with what they call the "sports gear gate," the box controlled by a little central lever protruding from a notched nylon gate as on the 230SL. and giving hold in 2nd and 3rd with 70 m.p.h. available in the latter. The 250SE has been called a car with poor torque, so that top-gear acceleration is not good. But push this neat lever into third and there is all the pick-up any owner of a big, luxury saloon should ever need. I cannot think a single sale will be lost on this score, but perhaps the very unobtrusive way in which the 250SE gathers speed, the measure of its performance, if a stopwatch isn't employed, being appreciated only by the manner in which lesser cars disappear behind it, is to blame for any words of criticism on this score. The previously-mentioned good visibility, from a driving seat that can be set as high as one wishes, helps enormously (there is a door-level exterior mirror also, this being required by law in Germany), and the brakes, which now have a control valve to obviate rear-wheel locking, give enormous confidence. They are almost too eager to arrest this heavy car, so that the procedure is to back them off after the initial application, the Mercedes coming to a final halt with that firm retardation and final curtsy which reminds me of a Rolls-Royce. Typical of Stuttgart – the handbrake has its own drum, which takes care of parking without involving the discs.
The Mercedes-Benz 250SE has the new 7-bearing 2 1/2-litre engine with six-plunger fuel-injection pump, whereas a two-plunger pump was used on the 220SE. This six-cylinder engine runs up to a safe 6,300 r.p.m. and gives 170 b.h.p. (S.A.E.) at 5,600 r.p.m., providing a top speed of 118 m.p.h. It was an absolutely reliable starter and gave me an overall consumption of 19.5 m.p.g. of four-star petrol. In 1,300 miles I added no oil to engine or gearbox but after about 800 miles a rattle developed under the car and was traced to loose bolts allowing the prop.-shaft to run out of line, which the Brentford depot cured in half-an-hour. The big fuel tank gave an absolute and commendable range of 378 miles, a discreet warning light remaining on when 67 miles' worth of petrol is all that was left.
Altogether I regard this 250SE as one of the World's finest cars. There may be a handful of fortunate people who regard the motoring ultimate as something emanating from Crewe, Modena or Sant Agata. But to many discerning folk, a Mercedes-Benz represents the ultimate reward for a life of hard toil and conscientious endeavour. But the 250SE, splendid all-rounder that it is, perhaps the best-engineered car in the World, is but a modest model in the range Stuttgart produces. Here it costs just under £3,000 but its price in Europe is rather an eye-opener, making it difficult to see how you can sell, say, Jaguars to Germans any more than Ruhr coals to Newcastle.
Whether Britain enters the E.C.M. or not, Mercedes-Benz (Great Britain) Ltd., of the Thomas Tilling Group, are expanding fast. I have referred at other times to their tasefully-decorated premises beside the Great West Road at Brentford, now rather overshadowed by the M4 overpass. The spares warehouse, formerly in what were the Auto-Union showrooms on the opposite side of the road, has been moved to Slough and the old building is now occupied by an IBM1440 computer in its air-conditioned room, and the staff to whom this machine, rented for £20,000 a year, administers. This, the first computer to he installed by a car importer in this country, maintains supplies of spares at the right level, handles distributors' orders, and simplifies invoicing. The stock check has now become a daily instead of a weekly procedure, in spite of some 35,000 part numbers covering millions of parts, representing £1 1/4-million of spare-parts business a year. To keep a sense of proportion this computer has been taught some party pieces such as playing of Bach-type music and the reproduction on its printer of the warning message on the door to the computer room. This reads–
"ACHTUNG ALLES LOOKENPEEPERS"
"Das computermachine is nicht fur gofingergepoken and mittengrabben. Ist easy schnappen der springenwerk, blowenfusen und poppencorken mit spitzensparken. Ist nicht fur gewerken bei das dummkopfen. Das rubber-necken sightseeren keepen hans in das pockets – relaxen und watch das blinkenlights!"
Much of this spares business stems from accident repairs and in the repair shop at Brentford it is possible to see not only how Mercedes-Benz body construction saves lives but how crashed cars that are seemingly write-offs can be repaired. In the 7-storey main building at Brentford there is a staff canteen, the steam-cleaning plant for removing the protective coat from imported cars, a new baking oven in the paint shop, and office extensions, all pointing to the rapid expansion consequent on the big demand for Mercedes-Benz products in this country. At the time of my visit, unpleasant only because I was returning the 250SE, a Unimog that had satisfactorily completed a stint as a railway engine on the Bass brewery private railway line and a 175-b.h.p. 5-speed super-sumptuous (integral construction) Mercedes-Benz Type 0302 high-speed coach with two-speed axle were amongst the interesting items to be seen at the London headquarters of Mercedes-Benz in Britain. At Brentford a complete range of demonstration models is maintained, which less-well-stocked dealers can borrow, these including variants of basic types, with automatic as well as manual gearboxes, power and manual steering, and two 600s, the last-named representing some £20,000 or more of tied-up capital, although the limousine 600 is useful for meeting V.I.P.s from Stuttgart at London Airport! It is interesting that more and more customers are ordering their Mercedes-Benz with automatic transmission and power steering – 62% in the case of 250S models and 82.5% of 250SE cars, a total Of 76%. Last year Mercedes-Benz 230SLs were sold here, representing 3/4-million-worth, and of these sports models 80% were ordered with power steering and the automatic gearbox. Time marches on! – W. B.