Capsule Review: Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

Monkey see, monkey do. After Sajeev’s outstanding 300SL review I felt compelled to write on the vintage Benzo tip, yo. This car isn’t restored to anything like the condition of Mr. Mehta’s tester, but then again, I’d have felt bad going two-off during public-road driving in a half-million-dollar car…

My pal “The Berg” is a twenty-something Mercedes-Benz repairman whose resume includes stints at Merrill Lynch and some kind of career as a Division 1-A tennis player. He rebuilt my 190E 2.3-16 for the 2005 One Lap of America and is forever coming up with odd vehicles, many of which (Bentley T1, six-cylinder Jag XJR) you will see in future Capsule Reviews. A while ago, he arrived at my house with a pair of hi-po sedans — this and a C43 AMG. I’ve never quite sure why he buys them or how he sells them, but some things are better off left unexamined.

The story of the 300SEL 6.3 is too long and varied to fit in a Capsule Review, but it was effectively the first German super-sedan and set the template that persists to the modern day. The legend of the 6.3 “big-body Benz” is so powerful that the current 6.2-liter S-class is called the S63. What a surprise, then, to find out that this big Benz isn’t really all that big. It’s approximately the same size and weight as an Acura TL with all-wheel-drive and develops less rated horsepower than the beak-mobile. Torque is a different story, of course, and this is a car that operates on torque.

I didn’t believe Berg when he said the car was a four-speed automatic, but it really does have that “extra” forward gear. Unfortunately, even with a mechanical overhaul the driveline isn’t nearly as good as a GM three-speed from the same era. Shifts are both harsh and long in coming. The “kickdown” is particularly offensive; plan a good three seconds ahead if you really think you’ll need that lower gear.

Most of the time you won’t, however. The 6.3 V8 shoves the car along with an insouciant grace, nearly silent beneath the long bonnet and easily propelling the S-Klasse to back-road velocities for which the chassis is completely unprepared. The brakes were excellent for the era but they are terrifying in the modern day, with power assistance that seems completely arbitrary and stopping distances that vary from corner to corner. There’s a short test loop near my house with a marked 35mph corner. Most modern performance cars are completely happy at 65-75mph through it, but the 6.3 punished my 55-mph entry with a four-foot-wide exit onto the grass. I was able to stay on the power and swing the bus-sized wheel around, but for a moment I was not completely certain we’d stay upright.

It’s hard to feel where the tires begin to lose their grip – there’s just so much dignity built into the steering. Also the air suspension on this particular car was prone to letting the body slump a bit in protest when the slow-speed cornering loads became offensively high. Still, the 6.3 retains its forged-from-a-single-piece feel on the move, even through faster turns. In place of electronic stability control, the big Benz substitutes extremely stable and slow steering and suspension geometry. It’s clearly tuned for a 140mph run on the autobahn.

The performance discrepancy enjoyed by the contemporaneous 300SEL 6.3 owner would have been almost Veyron-esque. The average family sedan in Germany today is easily capable of 120-130mph, but the average family sedan in Germany forty years ago would have strained to reach 80. Even the Porsche 911 of the day wouldn’t break 130 in most variants. I’m not certain the big Benz had any actual competition. The Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow was larger, better-appointed, and more comfortable, but it wouldn’t have been able to touch the Benz when the ‘bahn straightened out.

I noted earlier that this is an Acura-sized car, but if you’re expecting the cramped, crappy interior of a TL, forget it. This car comes from an era of no tumblehome and doors that are closer to five inches thick than the solid 8-10 inches seen in modern cars. Interior space is much closer to what you would find in a modern S-Class. The controls are all thin, chrome-plated, but surprisingly solid. There’s no COMAND to distract the driver. The wood is thick enough to “thunk” when it’s tapped, and it’s simply grained. If you happen to own a Maybach, this interior will depress you; it’s clearly more expensive to source and assemble than yours was.

I cannot help but think that the feckless W210 E-Class W220 S-Class never would have been foisted onto an unsuspecting world if the engineers who designed them had been forced to drive one of these old 300SELs around once a week. This is what a Mercedes-Benz should be. The tagline “Engineered like no other car in the world” was probably always a lie, but it never approached truth more closely than it did upon this automobile’s release.

When one thinks of the bond traders, professional athletes, and house-whores who drive the S-Class in our modern era, it’s easy to understand why Mercedes-Benz doesn’t want to make the effort. The 300SEL was too good for those people. It deserves to be driven by a former Wehrmacht officer biltzing down the left lane to Bonn, a briefcase full of aggressive business plans and obscure technical details by his side, a steely determination evident in the set of his jaw and the confident flick of his high beams. Although I inquired to the Berg about the potential cost of keeping the 6.3 in my driveway, I know the truth: I don’t deserve this car, either.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

More by Jack Baruth

Join the conversation
2 of 43 comments
  • Lou_BC Ironic, the Honda Ridgeline, a truck that every truck guy loves to hate is in 6th place.
  • 28-Cars-Later I keep forgetting I own it, but the space look on the ext cab reminds me of my 'Yota pickup of the same model year. I'm pretty sure there is some vintage of Hilux which features the same looking ext cab window (maybe '88?) its a shame these things are mostly gone and when available are $1,000,000,000 [INSERT CURRENT CURRENCY].
  • Sayahh Imagine if Ford had Toyota design and build a Mustang engine. It will last over 300k miles! (Skip turbo and make it naturally aspirated.) Maybe Yamaha will help tune it...
  • Sobhuza Trooper Isuzu's crime was to build some damn good trucks.Shame on them.
  • El scotto Listen, unless you were Lord Headly-Stempmoor or such when you got off the off the boat, boot in Canada, you got the short end of the stick. People got on the boat, these days a plane, to escape famine, becoming cannon fodder in yet another stupid war, or the government thought it was A-OK to let soldiers kill you. Juneteenth is just a way to right one of the more bad ideas in the American experiment. Instead we have commenters who were buying tater chips and diet soda at Wal-Mart and got all butt-hurt because they heard someone who wasn't speaking English. I'm going to go fix a couple of frankfurters with salsa and guacamole and wash them down with a lager or three