1953 Mercedes-Benz 300S. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
By the end of the Second World War, the automobile plants of Germany’s Daimler‑Benz (now Mercedes-Benz) were so badly damaged by bombing that in 1945 the board of directors despairingly concluded that the company had “ceased to exist.”
But in spite of this pessimism, workers soon began returning to the factories near Stuttgart, and removing rubble, and restoring machinery. The plants repaired American army trucks, and were soon re-conditioning prewar Mercedes‑Benz 170V models.
In 1946, the company was given permission by the Allies to resume building new 170Vs and 170Ds (diesel). By the end of 1947 almost 1,000 had been produced, many configured as light trucks. They were prewar designs, but work was under way on new models.
The result was the 1951 Mercedes‑Benz 220 2.2 litre and the 300 3.0‑litre sedans, both with six cylinder engines. The 220 was a mid‑market car, while the 300 was a large, body‑on‑frame design that immediately established itself in the top class of European luxury cars. It was introduced at the Frankfurt auto show in April 1951, and was the biggest, fastest German car built. It became such a favourite of German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer that it was dubbed the “Adenauerwagen.”
While the 300 was large by European standards, its 4,877 mm (192 in.) overall length and 3,048 mm (120 in.) wheelbase were fairly modest compared with American cars. For example, the 1951 Cadillac 61, Cadillac’s smallest model, was 5,385 mm (212 in.) long, and had a 3,099 mm (122 in.) wheelbase. The 300 was about the size of a Chevrolet.
The 300, however, had some technical features that were more advanced than those in American cars. It had four‑wheel independent, coil spring suspension, with swing axles at the rear, and was fitted with an auxiliary, electrically operated torsion bar system that raised the rear of the car to keep it level under all load conditions.
The 300’s 3.0-litre (182.2 cu in.) inline six-cylinder engine had a chain‑driven, single overhead camshaft and twin carburetors. It developed 115 horsepower, considerably less than the 160 of Cadillac’s 5.4-litre (331 cu. in.) V8, although its specific output of 0.63 horsepower per cubic inch was higher than the Cadillac’s 0.48. Power went to the rear wheels through a four‑speed, all‑synchromesh, column‑shifted manual transmission.
With only 115 horsepower to move 1,792 kg (3,950 lb), the 300’s performance was modest. Road & Track (4/53) recorded a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 16.1 seconds, and a top speed of 158 km/h (98.5 mph). The 300’s rival from Jaguar, the Mark VII sedan, had a twin overhead cam 3.4-litre (210 cu in.), 160 horsepower six, and weighed the same as the 300. It would scoot to 96 (60) in 12.6 seconds, and reach 167 km/h (104 mph) (R & T 10/52). And the Jaguar, at just over $4,000, was almost $3,000 cheaper.
While the 300 sedan had been under development, D‑B had also been working on a sportier and more glamorous version, the 300S. It was introduced at the Paris auto show in October 1951, six months after the 300. It came as a coupe, convertible or roadster, with accommodation in its front seat for two, or occasionally three passengers. There was also a small emergency rear seat.
The 300S was 356 mm (14 in.) shorter than the 300, and was mounted on a shorter 2,911 mm (114.6 in.) wheelbase for crisper handling. Weight was reduced by some 204 kg (450 lb). The 300’s engine was upgraded for the 300S with three carburetors, higher compression, and other modifications, bringing horsepower to 150. These contributed to raising top speed to 177 km/h (110 mph), and reducing the zero to 96 (60) time to under 15 seconds.
Inside, the 300S was truly sumptuous, with leather seats, cut‑pile wool carpets trimmed in leather, and rosewood or burled walnut adornments. Fitted leather luggage was also available for the lucky couple wishing to whiz down to Nice for a long week‑end, or zip over to Las Vegas for a flutter at the tables. The body was beautifully finished in lacquer, and labouriously sanded and polished by hand.
The 300S received mechanical upgrades along the way. In 1954, the brakes were improved by fitting finned aluminum drums with vacuum assist. Then for 1955 it received fuel injection, which raised horsepower to 175. This brought top speed to 185 km/h (115 mph), and lowered the zero to 96 (60) to 13 seconds. Also introduced were dry sump lubrication and D‑B’s clever low‑pivot swing axle rear suspension that required only one universal joint rather than two.
The 300S was a superb luxury car for touring in the grand manner. At over $12,000 it was also the most expensive car sold in North America. Over its seven year run, from 1952 to ’58, only 760 were built, compared with over 11,000 of the more sedate 300 sedans. This gave it an exclusivity that set its owner apart as someone of wealth and taste, and such celebrities as actors Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and crooner Bing Crosby bought 300Ss.
Although overshadowed by the arrival of the magnificent 1954 Mercedes‑Benz 300SL gullwing coupe, the 300S was a true gentleman of distinction that retained its pride of place in the Mercedes line-up. It is now a rare and expensive collectible.