In 1951, no less than two passenger cars marked Mercedes-Benz’s successful return to the automotive industry’s international, post-war stage. Seventy years ago, the 300 (W 186) and 220 (W 187) models marked a genuinely fresh start. At the International Motor Show (IAA) in Frankfurt/Main, between 19th and 29th April 1951, what was Daimler-Benz AG at the time showcased both innovations and thus impressively marked its return with two new, top-notch automotive developments. Up to this point, the company had been producing pre-war-era vehicles, some featuring minor updates – e.g. the 170 S (W 136), launched in 1949.
The design stage of both vehicles started in 1948 and completing it took considerable effort. Since the end of the war in 1945, the company had laid down groundwork to relaunch plants and production systems. Pivotal executives were also able to once again carry out their activities following denazification, for instance CEO Dr Wilhelm Haspel, Member of the Board of Management Responsible for Development Prof. Dr.-Ing. h.c. Fritz Nallinger and Head of Passenger Car Development Rudolf Uhlenhaut. However, this period of time was far from being a bright era: new production machinery, materials from steel sheets to drawing paper and pencils as well as supplies were still scarce. In winter staff members usually kept warm in their poorly heated offices and production halls by wearing woollen clothing and working hard.
Return to the luxury segment with a six-cylinder model
The Mercedes-Benz 220 (W 187) made an important mark: it brought the brand back to centre stage with a six-cylinder model and successfully reclaimed a top position that pre-dated the war from other manufacturers. Performance and prestige are two important characteristics in this context. Also exciting is the fact that success came with a vehicle that was still based on pre-war designs, e.g. its floor assembly and the body concept. Mercedes-Benz was well aware that only a completely new design would fully meet the expectations of demanding customers in terms of spaciousness. This era would start as early as 1954 with the “Ponton” 220 (W 180) model – three years after the premiere of the 220.
In 1951, Mercedes-Benz reached the performance target with a completely new engine. It was internally designated as M 180 and was developed from 1948 under the management of Wolf-Dieter Bensinger, Head of Engine Design. Generating 59 kW (80 hp) from a displacement of 2.2 litres, providing an output of 26 kW (36 hp) per litre and delivering a usable engine speed range up to 6,000 rpm characterised the unit: key data like these were new territory for the brand. Bensinger’s concept worked perfectly and culminated in superior performance in the 220. The engine’s elasticity enabled effortless cruising over long distances. It also delivered respectable driving performance, such as a top speed of 140 km/h and acceleration from 0 to 100 km/h in 21 seconds – corresponding roughly to the performance of the legendary pre-war 540 K, albeit without having activated the compressor.
Comprehensive range of body types
The brand underlined the high demands of the Mercedes-Benz 220 (W 187) – also in terms of prestige – with a comprehensive range of body types. It was not just available as a saloon (16,066 units until May 1954, starting from 11,925 German marks), but also as Cabriolet A (1,278 units until August 1955, 18,860 German marks), Cabriolet B (997 units until May 1953, 15,160 German marks) and a coupé (85 units between December 1953 and July 1955, 20,850 German marks). 41 open-top touring cars were also produced as police patrol cars in addition to 47 chassis for special-purpose bodies.
The specialist press was thrilled. Here is a representative quote from “Automobil Revue” magazine, published in the Swiss capital Bern, in Issue 5/1952:
“This family car is inconspicuous and discreet from the outside with an individual character concealed by its similarity to the familiar 170 S. It turns the admiration it initially sparks in onlookers into a permanent fascination as you get to know it more. Its roadholding qualities seem to adapt to the driver’s requirements; it will give its all only to those who demand it. The vehicle will cruise with cruisers, speed off with racers, but will only reveal itself to connoisseurs. It delivers all this without demanding exertion or excessive concentration from the person at the wheel. Even when travelling at great speed, sensitive occupants and those in need of special care will feel comfortable.”
Top-level prestige: Mercedes-Benz 300 (W 186)
If the 220 was already a particularly classy vehicle – where does that put the Mercedes-Benz 300 (W 186)? Quite simply: with its presentation at the 1951 IAA, the brand once again offered a prestigious vehicle for effective appearances. And it was immediately accepted as exactly that: heads of state, business leaders and entertainment tycoons ordered their very own 300. Quite naturally it also became the official vehicle of Germany’s Federal President and Federal Chancellor. This was the case for one and a half decades for Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.
He used a range of Mercedes-Benz 300s during his time in office. This brought about the vehicle’s nickname “Adenauer Mercedes”, a term that is common to this day. The Chancellor was aware of the significance and impact of making an appearance in keeping with his standing. Consequently, he took along his Mercedes-Benz 300 on the chartered train to Moscow for the official state visit in 1955 so as to be appropriately ferried around the Soviet capital.
Today, one of Adenauer’s prestigious saloons and a Pullman car of the chartered train are amongst the impressive exhibits at the Federal Republic of Germany’s Haus der Geschichte (House of History) in Bonn. Visitors can experience the Federal Republic’s first Chancellor’s last official Mercedes-Benz 300 at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in the Collection Room 4: Gallery of Celebrities.
The W 186 took over the concept of the X-oval tube frame and the basic dimensions of the Mercedes-Benz 230 (W 153) chassis with a wheelbase of 3,050 millimetres, dating back to 1939. The tube dimensions were reinforced as a result of the higher vehicle weight. It was evident early on that the expected gross vehicle weight would require an engine output of at least 74 kW (100 hp). Based on the available production systems, the 2.6-litre M 159 engine generating 44 kW (60 hp), which had been fully developed before the war, was intended as the foundation and it thus required a performance boost of almost 67 per cent. Bensinger, Head of Engine Design, undertook radical measures to get the engine to the desired level. It was initially designated as M 182.
However, it became clear that the 74 kW (100 hp) from 2.8 litres of displacement were not enough for the vehicle’s weight. Only additional modifications, such as enhancing the displacement to 3 litres and using an overhead camshaft, produced the results the developers needed, giving them 85 kW (115 hp). The unit was now designated as M 186.
New body and ample vehicle interior
Compared with the 230 model, the engine was moved considerably further forwards and it was now installed over the front axle, providing vehicle occupants with significantly more space. The decision to develop a new body from scratch without using pre-war components was not easy because it meant things like new and costly pressing tools. Hermann Ahrens was tasked with what was a special job for him: developing the body. His main activities exclusively centred around truck and bus/coach bodies. Ahrens had plenty of experience, after all many of the brand’s pre-war passenger car bodies including the top-of-the-range models were based on his designs.
The prestigious Mercedes-Benz 300 was produced in its original design for around three years (4,563 saloons, 19,900 German marks; 455 Cabriolet Ds, 23,700 German marks; 2 chassis). In spring 1954, the overhauled 300 (internally designated as “b”) succeeded this with features which included a more powerful engine (92 kW/125 PS) and reinforced brakes (1,639 saloons, 22,000 German marks; 136 Cabriolet Ds, 24,700 German marks; 10 chassis).
In spring 1955, the 300 (internally designated as “c”; 1,367 saloons, starting from 22,000 German marks; 51 Cabriolet Ds, 26,200 German marks; 3 chassis) was launched and its production lasted until June 1956. It featured a single-link swing axle and a standard three-speed Borg Warner automatic transmission. Federal German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer requested a special version of this Mercedes-Benz 300 generation with a wheelbase extended by 100 millimetres and a divider screen. This made the rear footwell 140 millimetres larger – the variant became part of the range.
As the presentation of the new, prestigious Mercedes-Benz 600 (W 100) was delayed, the 300 underwent one last, comprehensive overhaul. In 1957 the last development stage of the Mercedes-Benz 300 (internally known as the “d”) was launched with an individual model series designation: W 189. It featured elements including a petrol injection system and significantly more output at 118 kW (160 hp) as well as major body modifications with a more lightweight design.
In 1960, the Sindelfingen-based special bodybuilding department created three special long-wheelbase versions: two Landaulet variants and one limousine. All three vehicles were ten centimetres higher than the normal saloons and identifiable by their higher window panes. One Landaulet was gifted to the Vatican for Pope John XXIII. Today, the car is part of the Mercedes-Benz Classic collection. The second Landaulet and the limousine were provided to the Federal German government for state visits. This last version of the Mercedes-Benz 300 was also a success: until spring 1962, 3,073 saloons (starting from 27,000 German marks), 65 Cabriolet D (35,500 German marks) and one chassis of the W 189 were produced.