Octane contributor Giles Chapman picks the five best cars ever built by Mercedes-Benz.
Though the bean-counters made it difficult for Mercedes-Benz to live up to its reputation in the late 1990s and early 2000s, greatness has generally come pretty easily to the marque – which should perhaps be no surprise, given that it was founded by the very chaps who came up with the idea of the petrol-burning ‘automobile’. Still, some of its creations clearly stand head and shoulders above the rest; here are our five favourites.
Mercedes-Benz arrived as a world-leading manufacturer in 1926 when Benz and Daimler merged operations. Almost immediately, it stunned enthusiasts with its S-type model, at whose heart was a superb engine – an all-aluminium, overhead-camshaft, 7.1-litre straight-six with a supercharger to deliver an extra burst of power when needed… and a mechanical bellow like nothing else. The car’s ultimate sporting incarnation was as the SSK, for Super Sport Kurz (Short). With its compact chassis and 200bhp, it was a fearsome 120mph powerhouse and dominated sports-racing events in the hands of Rudolf Caracciola until Alfa Romeo and Bugatti eventually devised nimbler, lighter rivals.
The Mercedes W25 of 1935 won nine of the ten grands prix it entered, and was progressively developed with no regard for expense, as the victory-obsessed German government was footing the bill. The car’s ultimate incarnation came in 1937 when it transformed into the W125 under the expert eyes of engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut and team manager Alfred Neubauer. A longer chassis with a De Dion rear axle hugely improved roadholding. Meanwhile, the supercharged eight-cylinder engine gave 640bhp at 5800rpm – a number that today still ranks among the highest quoted outputs of any top-line single-seater. The cars won, with panache, 54% of the races they entered, and a streamlined version driven by Caracciola reached 268.8mph on a public road, an antisocial speed record it still holds.
Here is the first true ‘supercar’, a high-tech, 150mph road machine built expressly for performance-orientated driving. The prototypes were pure competition machines, and in 1952 these 300SLs won the two most gruelling endurance races of the day, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Carrera Panamericana. The complex, aluminium-clad tubular spaceframe chassis had unusually high sides, and Mercedes overcame cockpit access problems with spectacular ‘gullwing’ doors hinged at the centre of the roof. Mercedes’ US importer pressed for a production version, and in 1954 the German factory duly obliged with 215bhp, a world-first Bosch fuel injection system, and, of course, those gullwing doors.
When Stuttgart designers elected to out-do Rolls-Royce in the luxury car stakes in 1963, the result was truly spectacular. At least in its four-door guise, the 600 was one limo you’d tussle with your chauffeur to drive. Despite its substantial 5500lb bulk, it felt quite sporty thanks to a 250bhp 6.3-litre, fuel-injected V8 engine, with a tautness supplied by superb air-cushion suspension, and reassurance from massive disc brakes. Seat adjustment, power steering and even the door and boot locks were all connected to a central hydraulic system. For royalty, tycoons and dictators, there was a long-wheelbase model with four or six doors, plus a laudaulet for any millionaire owner unworried about sniper assassination attempts.
Mercedes' saloons were always fastidiously built, comfy, robust, and occasionally fast. Fun, though, they generally weren’t, and BMW’s 3 Series became the definitive compact sports saloon. Mercedes-Benz produced a legitimate rival in 1983, though, when it revealed the 190. Its classic proportions contained a subtle wedge profile that hinted at its aerodynamic finesse, and it was a stable and fine-handling car thanks to its patented five-link independent rear suspension. The 190 had a carburettor 2.0-litre engine, the 190E added fuel injection, and the 190D was a notably quiet diesel. In 1984 came the rapid 190E 2.3-16, with a 16-valve Cosworth cylinder head. The 190 and its variants were always relatively pricey, but discerning buyers were not deterred, and almost 1.9 million were sold.
Words: Giles Chapman
Words: Giles Chapman