Go ahead and laugh. I did, when I first ran across this Mercedes 220S with genuine wire wheels. Yes, it’s a major cultural faux pax, if one understands the German approach to such things; it’s the equivalent to putting full wheel covers on an XK-E. But taken in the bigger context, this well-loved 1965 220S is highly symbolic of Americans’ love affair with the three pointed star that began to really bloom about then. And like most affairs of the heart, rational thinking wasn’t necessarily a predominant part of it.
It’s not that the W111 wasn’t a superbly advanced car when it appeared in 1959. With the first crumple zones ever on a production car, disc brakes, all-independent suspension, OHC engines, fuel injection, and superb high-speed handling, it was undoubtedly the “best or most advanced sedan in the world” at the time, as well as the safest. But in typical German thinking (of the time), it was designed with German conditions foremost, if not exclusively. Ironically, the only obvious concessions to contemporary American trends were the controversial fins on the tail.
Officially in Mercedes-speak, they weren’t “Flossen” (fins) at all, but “Peilstege” (marker bars) to facilitate parking. Right. Mercedes Chief Designer Karl Wilfert eventually conceded that they were “In Rufweit der Mode” (within shouting distance of fashion). It was a somewhat controversial concession to Mode, and one that wouldn’t ever be repeated, at least not until more recent years. In any case, the fins presumably weren’t a conscious affectation to appeal to American buyers per se, which in 1959 was still a very small number.
And for obvious reasons: the 220S/SE was a compact car falling between the 1960 Falcon and 1962 Fairlane in length. The 2.2 L six put out all of 110 hp, but it took some 6,000 rpm to achieve that, along with considerable engine noise. This was a buzzy, nervous little motor, notoriously lacking in low-speed torque, and much more suited to a hot-blooded sports car than a staid sedan. The available four-speed automatic made sure you knew exactly every time it shifted, which was almost perpetually, in its struggle to cope with its none-too svelte load. The Mercedes’ structural integrity came with a hefty price, literally.
During the fifties and sixties, despite the favorable (to the US) fixed dollar-to-mark exchange rate, Mercedes were already pricey. In those decades, a mid-level 220S/SE ran about the same as a Cadillac, at a time when Cadillac still enjoyed its prestige. Obviously, the Caddy overwhelmed the Mercedes with its size, three times the horsepower, drive-train refinement, comfort, etc. For typical American drivers and their conditions, the Caddy was a logically a better choice.
Mercedes sedans back then appealed largely to those Americans that appreciated, and could afford the subtler refinements, quality, and dynamic qualities it provided: engineers, driving enthusiasts, and German ex-pats (who were also usually both). Yes, the very expensive coupes, convertibles and SL had a strong following among the truly wealthy and celebrities. But the sedans had not yet made serious inroads into the established premium sedan market.
Ironically enough, that happened exactly when Mercedes prices took a huge jump in response to the dollar’s falling value after the fixed exchange rates were abolished in 1971. In 1970, a 280S cost $6,273. By 1975, the 280S was priced at $15,057, two and a half times higher, and double the price of a Caddy. It must have been a tonic, because Mercedes sales increased strongly throughout the seventies. This increase was well above the drop in the dollar’s value; Mercedes saw an opportunity, and seized it by the pocketbook.
What exactly did they see? Several developments: between 1963 and 1988, the top federal tax marginal tax rate dropped from 91% to 28%. Those years correspond to the biggest years of Mercedes’ growth. And the ever-fickle affluent were ready too adopt a new automotive prestige symbol. It had been Packard before the war, Cadillac for the first two decades after, and now it was Mercedes’ turn. Needless to say, the general cheapening of Cadillac, especially after 1971, perfectly played into Mercedes’ hands, and the rapidly rising prices of a Benz added only added to its prestige value. Luxury goods makers of all kinds have been employing the formula for decades: higher price=more exclusivity and prestige, even if it is a 45hp diesel sedan.
Many of those folks might well have been better served in a big Detroit luxo-barge; I remember lots of complaining about the stiff-legged ride of a Mercedes around town. Of course; they were tuned for high speeds on the Autobahn, but only a small percentage of Americans would be able to appreciate that, especially during the double nickle era. The Germans wouldn’t compromise on their suspension tuning, unlike the Japanese, which sent the Lexus LS400 this way with a corresponding pillow-soft ride. Americans loved it for that, among other things.
And until the more expensive S-Class models finally got V8 engines, complaints about the overworked little sixes were very legitimate, especially when smog controls began to rapidly take their top end bite away. I was in a 250S once in the foothills of CA, and with four aboard and the A/C on, it could hardly get out of its own way. It was a bit pathetic, for an expensive luxury car, especially compared to the effortlessness of Detroit’s big-engined cars, like a 340 hp Chrysler New Yorker, which cost about 20% less.
In 1965, cars like this New Yorker offered an interesting alternative, probably the best direct competition to the Mercedes at the time. Which car would you have bought?
The Flossen Mercedes arrived in my last year in Austria, and as a seven year old, I remember vividly what a huge impression it made. It was a sensation and media event at the time, and we all kept our eyes alert for the first one on our roads. Austria was a lot poorer than Germany then, but in the summer of 1960, the annual invasion of German tourists included our first sightings. The to-do was understandable: the new W111 symbolized that Germany and Mercedes could now stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best big cars in the world, including the then still-vaunted American ones.
A neighbor in Iowa City had one just like this black sedan; he was a successful surgeon. They were quite rare then in that part of the world, and it provided a glaring contrast to our stripper ’62 Fairlane. I was deeply smitten by the Benz, and loved gazing into its complex engine room full of alloy and sculpture. Obviously, the price disparity was mostly lost on me, although I had to admit our Fairlane’s little V8 went about its business in a much more relaxed manner. The 220SE engine’s raspy soprano scales may have sounded just right on a winding Alpine road, but seemed mighty high strung for the endless straight roads of Iowa. Context really does make a difference.
These cars could be picked up cheap in the seventies, if one was willing to take on the responsibility. I almost did, but then I suddenly remembered having been picked up in one driven by some kids in the Rockies a couple of years earlier. Right near the top of Trail Ridge Road, at about 11,000 feet elevation, and hours from any qualified help, it suddenly crapped out. I remember staring into the familiar engine compartment with them, and thinking this visual delight might be a bit more complicated and expensive to fix than average. What a few year’s difference makes. And I felt bad leaving them there, as I put out my thumb and went on my merry way. The lure of the Benz didn’t only hit upper-income Americans.
Now that I think about it, wire wheels on a Benz aren’t all that strange, if one ever spent time anywhere near Beverly Hills or the cultural equivalent, the nexus of Mercedes worship. I’m remembering seeing them on numerous R107 SLs, and quietly throwing up inside every time. It may well be why I harbor such deeply-rooted negative vibes about that particular car. But then, since America is the cultural melting pot, why not? They paid good money for their pleasure.