By on May 19, 2009

Here’s a genuine milestone car. This Mercedes W108 began the lineage of modern S Series cars, which took its maker to the pinnacle of the global luxury sedan market. In the US, it single handedly broke the backs of Cadillac and Lincoln. A youthful ride in one left me permanently altered. And it all started with this somewhat modest but exquisite 250S. A couple of more milestones: this is the first Curbside Classic car owned by a TTAC reader, and it marks my two-hundredth car deemed interesting enough to photograph. Oh, and this is CC number thirteen. Many milestones indeed.

Before we begin our paean to one of my all-time favorite cars, let’s make sure our Mercedes-speak is on the same page. The W108 series refers to the “junior” S Class cars, all of which began with the numbers 250 or 280 (with one minor exception), even the later V8 powered ones. They came in both short (108″) and long (112″) wheelbase versions, but didn’t have the air suspension and higher exterior and interior trim levels of the “senior” W109. Those all began with the 300 SEL designation, regardless of engine. We’ll pay the W109 its own due CC respects, when I find a nice one. Sadly, isn’t too likely to be a 6.3. But then, Eugene is full of surprises.

A little MB genealogy: Yes, the S (for schnell or super) designation had been used before by Mercedes, back to the legendary SK and SSK models in the twenties. But prior to the W108/W109, the S designation was applied to distinguish the higher trim/horsepower versions of the basic MB sedan. But in 1965, Mercedes began a two sedan platform strategy, which would allow the new S Class to be more clearly differentiated from the lowly “taxi-class” W 110 cars.

Although, under that handsome new finless skin, they weren’t all that different. Same 108″ wheelbase, as well as Mercedes’ unique single-jointed, low-pivot, camber-change minimizing rear swing-axle suspension. It would be the last appearance of that classically complicated Germanic solution: vee vill make swing axles work vell!

W108s are one of the most timelessly beautiful cars ever. It’s never looked “dated”, like its finned predecessor. Every line, the tasteful blending of the classic radiator grille with the modern proportions overall, the airy greenhouse, and the elegant tail end, all speak to a mature and deft designer’s hand. That would be Paul Bracq’s, who also penned some of MB’s other most enduring designs: the “pagoda” 230/250/280SL; the W112 Coupe/Cabriolet, and the paradigm-shifting 600. No less than most of the truly desirable Benzes of the post-war era.

This 1966 250S is TTAC reader Martin’s pride and joy, a very original and rust-free ex-L.A. car. It marks the low end of the W108 S series. But there’s nothing low-rent about the superb craftsmanship and materials everywhere you look. This is a car that really inspires pride of ownership, along with the knowledge that it still has a long useful life ahead of it.

When we think S Class today, it conjures up images of large, heavy, powerful, and very expensive. None of these apply to this positively delicate and graceful car. It’s about the size of a current Camry, weighs less than one (3240 lb.), has 128 horsepower, and cost the equivalent of $37K. The definition of luxury has changed in forty years.

But the W108 redefined the luxury car market forever in the US. Although it cost more than a Cadillac, despite its modest size and power, discriminating American luxury car buyers embraced the S class with their open check books. Cadillac made the fateful decision to go down market in the late sixties, just when this car hit the market. By the early seventies, 280SEL 4.5s and the like were ubiquitous in the doctors’ reserved parking spaces at the hospital.

I was sold after my first ride. My father’s cousin in Kansas was the typical Detroit canary. He drove a Fleetwood in the early sixties, then a 1965 Chrysler. When we visited him in 1970, he had just traded in the Newport on a shiny new 280SE. He took me for a brisk ride around the Kansas City freeways, on a balmy evening, with the sun roof open. Pure magic. And quite the contrast from our Coronet wagon.

Admittedly, in the late seventies, a drive in a 250S like this one dented the adolescent magic a bit for me. There were four of us in it, and we were navigating the foothills and mountains around San Bernardino. 128 horses, even Stuttgart-bred ones, can only do so much, especially with an automatic and the A/C on. Ah, the pain of growing up—having to face limitations, even with the legendary Mercedes.

Well, Mercedes had a solution, several, actually. The 3.5 V8 came along in 1970, and the 230hp 4.5 a year later. And of course, the legendary W109 300SEL 6.3 had been available since 1968. With 250 horsepower, and a price more than double of the 250S, it was the ultimate (flying) milestone.

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33 Comments on “Curbside Classics: 1966 Mercedes-Benz 250 S...”


  • avatar
    twotone

    Very nice! Here’s my 1972 280 SEL 4.5

    Twotone

    [img]http://i104.photobucket.com/albums/m180/two2tone/MVC-001F.jpg[/img]

  • avatar

    I’ve got a 1972 250C W114 coupe. They have a remarkable ability to glide over broken pavement and potholes, letting out an audible crash, but not transferring any jolts to the passengers. And it can turn corners without falling onto it’s door handles, which is what is really amazing for something that feels like it should be a wallowy road crusher.

    Power is useless, with a claimed 155hp (M110 2.8L twin-carb) and an auto box, the kickdown switch is just a button that makes the engine get louder – as Jeremy Clarkson noted. But it has real road presence and classic style, it was one of the last to use the 1960s styling cues before they went all squarey in 1973. Now if only I can get rid of those godawful Zenith carbs.

  • avatar
    Vordhosbn

    Great article. It describes exactly why I love these cars.

    Mine is a 1971 280S. I’ve often wished that I bought a V8 model but at the same time I think that a V8 robs this car of some of its modesty. A nice 250SE or 280SE would be my pick.

    Although I can’t argue that the extra power of the V8 would be helpful in the hills!

  • avatar
    shiney2

    Love them!! I have a ’69 280S, ’69 280se, and ’71 300sel 3.5 that are drivers (and ’66 250s & 71 280sel parts cars). My favorite to drive is the ’69 280se, the FI makes a huge difference in the 6 cylinder cars and it is downright fast below 85mph or so. When it kicks down the change in speed is very noticeable. I also like the simplicity and lighter front end feel that comes with the in-line 6.

    What makes these so attractive to me is the incredible quality of the body construction combined with a beautiful vintage wood dash, in a car that is easy and practical to drive everyday. Everywhere I go it feels like I am in a stylish late 1960s European art film.

    And don’t forget the excellent brakes! – thats one of the biggest weaknesses in most 40 year old cars in modern traffic, but a 108/109 strength.

  • avatar
    bjcpdx

    I, too, remember being permanently altered (great choice of words, Paul) by these cars. If you never experienced them, you just can’t understand.

    Although our family never owned one, I had the opportunity to drive two of them and ride in several more, culminating in a fast nighttime ride between San Jose and Salinas, California in a 300SEL 6.3. Now that is a trip I’ll never forget!

  • avatar

    “Those where the times, my friend, we’ll thought they’ll never end..”
    The money spent on a S-class Mercedes then was well-spent. You DID feel the difference.
    Great, that you mentioned Paul Bracq. He really did good work, whatever he did.

  • avatar
    shiney2

    Hey twotone! Your 280sel 4.5 is really sweet!!

    I have always wanted a 4.5 lwb steel spring car, but never see nice ones when I am buying.

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    Is it me, or does this car appear a little bit “google-eyed” (kinda like Marty Feldman) due to the un-equally-mounted amber lights adjacent to the grille??

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Robert.Walker: Is it me, or does this car appear a little bit “google-eyed” (kinda like Marty Feldman) due to the un-equally-mounted amber lights adjacent to the grille??

    Good noticing. And you’re right. My guess is that this may have been a European-spec car originally, which had its directional signal lights integrated into the headlight cluster. It’s hard to imagine MB doing this at the factory.

  • avatar
    educatordan

    Nice review! Sighhhhhhhhhhhhh……..(Frowning at bank account as I try to save up for a fairly unmolested late 60s to mid 80s Mercedes, really want a diesel though.)

  • avatar

    Great write-up Paul.

    My seventy-four year old father has a 3.5 V8 W108 coupe that he absolutely loves. He & my mom tootle about the country in it… sort of their equivalent of an RV I guess. GM really did lose the plot compared to Mercedes-Benz of that era. I can recall every “rich man” (Doctors, dentists, etc) in my little town switching from Caddys to W108s and R107 Benzes all through the 70s. None of them ever switched back.

    –chuck

  • avatar
    Slow_Joe_Crow

    My parents had one of these when I was a kid, bought used in 69 to replace a 64 Valiant. On the plus side it started them on a path of Euro car buying, and when it was good it was very good. It was fast and smooth and had a big back seat, with a wide center armrest that acted as a demilitarized zone between squabbling children. On the minus side, either there were a few bugs in the design, or we had a lemon because one of the four power windows was always out of order and there were some engine issues, culminating in a thrown rod while my mom was driving my sister to nursery school. We sold it to the shop and replaced it with a Volvo 164. Consequently we never had another Mercedes, although a great uncle drove a 280 for years and my aunt, uncle and cousins went through a string of assorted M-Bs before returning to BMWs.
    As a footnote, I had my first car accident in this car when I was 4 years old and moved the shifter on the automatic out of Park and rolled it into a wall.

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    There was one of those in my neighborhood as a child. We had a neighbor who did some tinkering with bicycle repairs in his sparetime. Attached to the house was a rather big and well equipped shop, who the previous owner had built. When they bought the house, the new owner apparantly took over both house and shop at the same time. Though he was always very bizzy, when our cycles broke, we went to him, and he fixed them. I always thought he did it for free, but I was too small to understand that he probably sent a bill to my parents now and then, in some discrete way.

    Anyway, his parents had one of those. It must have been a W109, as it was a 300 SEL 3.5. It was silver metallic, it had a sunroof, and it had the optional “american” quad round headlights. I usually prefer the european headlights, as that makes the cars look more integrated and sinister looking, though on that model and the coupe/convertible, they actually look okey.

    At the time, the 3.5 was the absolute top-of-the-line in Sweden. The 4.5 never made it into the W108/W109, at least not in Sweden. It had to wait for the W116. But I always knew when that silver Mercedes was in the neighborhood, as the parents had a habit of parking the car on the street, at the curbside, outside their sons house, when everybody else, even visitors parked in the yards. The street was actually rather trafficked, and went through the entire area, so I always though their habit a little odd. Anyway, it was a nice car, and he always stopped and talked to me when I got near to glance at the car.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    One of my favorite W108 commercials…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3rv2-DYgzcY

    Definitely worth the watch.

  • avatar
    shiney2

    Robert.Walter :
    May 19th, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    Is it me, or does this car appear a little bit “google-eyed” (kinda like Marty Feldman) due to the un-equally-mounted amber lights adjacent to the grille??
    ——————————————————–
    good call. the factory would never have allowed that. Paul’s idea that it was a conversion car is good. Another possibility is that the LH side has a replacement fender drilled incorrectly for the light. A lot of the replacement body panels you see for these are inferior to the originals, thinner and more prone to rust.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    @Steve Lang; nice spot, but that was a W115. And the end ruined it for me: C-Class – meh.

  • avatar
    Zeitgeist

    I had a 1972 W108 280SE in the nineties. It had a very airy interior and a remarkably good visiblity. The shop which takes care of my 1994 W124 E280T is still full of these cars.
    I second the non-original amber lights and the W114/115 in the spot.

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    You are absolutely right that Cadillac never recovered from these. In 1974, I talked my dad into walking onto the MB dealer lot after hours. He had a 72 Conti Mark IV but I had images of a nice MB in the drive. I still recall that the garden variety W108s stickered in the 12-14K range when it was hard to get a Lincoln over 10. Dad just couldn’t see it and kept the Conti for another 2 years.

    I recently saw a 68 with a for sale sign in a parking lot. Nice car, not much money. I thought about it too long, and it was gone when I got back. Too bad.

    This car IS Mercedes in my mind. Not high performance and not flashy, but built with top quality materials and will last for the rest of your life if you take care of it. The anti-Cadillac of that era.

  • avatar

    I don’t know that I’d call it timeless, but it is certainly an elegant and graceful car. I like that it weighs less than the current camry (or about the same as my ’99 Accord).

  • avatar
    stevelovescars

    I fell in love with these after a drive in a ’71 280SE 3.5 Coupe… IMHO one of the best rooflines in big car. The huge sunroof, the surprisingly modern driving experience, and the smell of the old Roser leather hooked me.

    A friend has a 280SE 3.5 Cabriolet which is a fantastic ride but way out of reach financially. The marketplace for these reflects their goodness with prices around $150k for nice ones not uncommon.

    He and I were discussing which other Mercedes would be comparable to these in terms of workmanship and engineering. Besides his 280SE, his daily driver was a ’95 E320 wagon (W124 chassis). This was the last year of the 124s and he swore by it.

    I looked found and ended up buying a 1994 A124 (E320 Cabriolet) in nice shape with low miles which has been a joy to drive for the past year. Anyway, roundabout story, but this whole newfound appreciation for Mercedes was started by that first ride in the 280SE. Though, to be fair I can’t say I’m all that fascinated by their newer offerings.

  • avatar
    ajla

    I’ve got to say, I think if I was back in 1966 and I had the choice of a W108 sedan or a 2-door domestic land barge- I would go with the land barge. This looks more boring to me than anything else. IMO, the cabriolet body style is much better looking.

    But then again I’m not much into automotive subtly, so Mercedes probably wouldn’t be trying to get me with the sedan anyway.

  • avatar
    cRacK hEaD aLLeY

    Congratulation to Martin, beautiful car.

  • avatar
    fincar1

    My own old Mercedes sedan was a 1960 220S; the earlier fin body, which nevertheless had a lot in common with this car – especially the interior shot, as mine had the red interior also. That was the car that my mechanic called a Bosch.

    I test-drove a 67 or so 250S 4-speed sedan that a Mercedes specialist had for sale; I liked it well enough but my 75 Chevy Monza V8 4-speed was still pretty new and would easily drive away from the 250S.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    I ve allways loved these MBs. Unfortunately, they are very scarce in MA due to tin worm.
    My 88 528es are have nearly the same weight to power specs, 3200 lbs, 128 HP

  • avatar
    redseca2

    My beloved car from about 1984 to 1997 was a 1963 W112 220 SEb Coupe; white with a blue interior. Someone had added the perfect pin stripes and this was the first car I had owned where white sidewalls were appropriate. A straight six with the wonderfully complex all mechanical fuel injection motivated it and you worked through the gears on the column automatic transmission shifter.

    I was a young draftsman in an architectural firm when this car was delivered as some sort of resolution for un-paid architectural services. The previous owner had died, had actually been murdered by a gay male hustler in this car, and there was still fingerprint dust residue on the interior surfaces when it arrived.

    I obviously had to have this car, it would be perfect for the San Francisco lifestyle I was trying to create for myself, a car with history.

    I didn’t have a car at the time and so this seemed as if this was all god’s plan. My boss preferred red italian cars so before the day was out, my paychecks for the foreseeable future would be $100.00 lighter and the pink slip was in my pocket.

    I christened the car Kundry, after the witch in Wagner’s opera Parsifal that tries to seduce the young hero.

  • avatar
    MagMax

    In the spring of 1968, while I was doing my graduate studies in Edmonton, Alta., my parents decided to retire. My dad wanted to buy a really nice car for his retirement and asked me to drive down from Edmonton to have a look at this Mercedes they had in the showroom. It was a 250SE Sedan, the last of the run, with many of the 280SE interior modifications but the smaller FI engine. Among unusual features for its day were a heated rear window, an electric sunroof, limited-slip rear axle, self-levelling rear suspension, and all wheel disc brakes. He bought it and the following week I again drove 400 miles each way to be there when the car was picked up and then, to my total surprise, he asked me to take it back to school with me since he didn’t want to subject it to the local gravelled roads. So I left him my Volvo and drove back to Edmonton in this amazing car. I remember having the sunroof open part of the way and just revelling in the combination of ride and handling and rock solid feeling unlike any car I’d been in previously. I took good care of it for several months, used it for a road trip down to San Francisco in May, after which I brought it back to my dad and trundled home in my Volvo. What a comedown. My parents moved to Victoria, BC shortly afterward.

    I was in love with that car and remember waxing the wood surrounds around thw side windows and carefully cleaning it by hand every week. When you opened the glove compartment door you opened a solid plank of wood! The quality was unbelievable; there was nothing like it in the domestic line-up. A year later my parents suggested that maybe I’d like to have it. I couldn’t believe my ears. This particular one didn’t have power steering and my dad found it a pain to park in the narrow streets of his new home town. So I made arrangements with the dealer by phone to trade my Volvo to the dealer; I paid for a new 250 M-B with power steering for my dad; and I got his SE in turn. I drove across the mountains to Victoria when the new car was in stock and we made the three-way switch. I don’t think I’ve ever had a car since then that I loved so much. It did everything superbly well except make its tires last. I wish I had it now.

  • avatar
    jmo

    I think your inflation calculations may be a bit off. $14,000 in 1970 is equal to $76,802.

    http://www.westegg.com/inflation/

    But, I could be wrong. What was the sticker on the 1966?

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    jmo: The 1967 250S US list price was $5,747 = $37,731. Maybe you’re thinking of the 300 SEL 6.3 @$14k?

  • avatar
    jmo

    Paul,

    Interesting – check out 1967 Cadillac prices:

    http://www.eldorado-seville.com/67cadillac/1967models/1967models.html

    The most popular model Cadillac the Hardtop Sedan Deville was $5,625 almost exactly the same.

    Would be intersting to do a comparison between the two.

  • avatar
    chinny4290

    Steven Lang: The car used in that film was the W114 which is technically the E-Class in today’s terms.

    To the writer:
    I have a 1975 W116 280S which succeeded the W108/109 and is famous for the 450SEL 6.9. The diagonal swing axle was actually last used on the W116 on non-hydropneumatic self leveling suspension models so it was used on 280, 300, 350 and some 450 models. It was modified with control arms for zero offset and camber change but the general diagonal swing design remained.

    Also S is supposed to be for Sonder or “Special” class.

    To Everyone:

    If you like this please read my full review on my 280S! I’m a journalism student aiming to be an auto journalist for the rest of my life. Feedback = AWESOME!

    http://finaldrivepublications.blogspot.com/2009/02/full-review-1975-mercedes-benz-280s-by.html

  • avatar
    Flash777

    shiney2 you say you have a 250se parts car… would you happen to have a sunroof lid? I am about to buy one but a tree branch fell on the one I am about to buy. Its not a bad dent it just knew how to hit the hardest part to find. If so could you please email me at kevinbullock_2@yahoo.com

  • avatar

    Has anyone here ever heard of the 450SEL 6.9? Considered the successor to the 300SEL 6.3, the 6.9, as the car was officially billed, was sold only in the years 1978 and 1979 (they used the then-current W126 chassis like all the 1973-80 “S” class Benzes) and, the entire production had been reserved before the cars were even made. Just under 1,000 of these were ever sold in the U.S.
     
    ~Benjamin “Ben” Edge (ClassicTVMan1981)

  • avatar

    “Has anyone here ever heard of the 450SEL 6.9?”
    Sure. They were expensive to buy, they are expensive to buy. And they were and are expensive to maintain. A German Quattroporte. Very fast and reliable.
    Follow the links to current samples of well-maintained cars offered n Europe:
    1) http://suchen.mobile.de/fahrzeuge/showDetails.html?id=141533755&__lp=6&scopeId=C&makeModelVariant1.makeId=17200&makeModelVariant1.modelId=143&minPowerAsArray=147&minPowerAsArray=KW&maxFirstRegistrationDate=1990-12-31&transmissions=AUTOMATIC_GEAR&damageUnrepaired=ALSO_DAMAGE_UNREPAIRED&export=ALSO_EXPORT&lang=en&pageNumber=6
    2) Here a US version: http://suchen.mobile.de/fahrzeuge/showDetails.html?id=139261173&__lp=6&scopeId=C&makeModelVariant1.makeId=17200&makeModelVariant1.modelId=143&minPowerAsArray=147&minPowerAsArray=KW&maxFirstRegistrationDate=1990-12-31&transmissions=AUTOMATIC_GEAR&damageUnrepaired=ALSO_DAMAGE_UNREPAIRED&export=ALSO_EXPORT&lang=en&pageNumber=6
    3) Here a beauty: http://suchen.mobile.de/fahrzeuge/showDetails.html?id=141722937&__lp=6&scopeId=C&makeModelVariant1.makeId=17200&makeModelVariant1.modelId=143&minPowerAsArray=147&minPowerAsArray=KW&maxFirstRegistrationDate=1990-12-31&transmissions=AUTOMATIC_GEAR&damageUnrepaired=ALSO_DAMAGE_UNREPAIRED&export=ALSO_EXPORT&lang=en&pageNumber=6
    IMHO, you can forget “bargains” with this type of car.  Watch it, be careful. Good Luck.
    Here, a Wikipedia link referring to the (ugly) US version: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercedes-Benz_450SEL_6.9
     


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