If you could ask Jack Brabham
The Mercedes 220SEb fintail saloon.
Daimler Benz makes its dramatic overture to the 1960s. A radical styling departure from the previous Mercedes saloon range, with more than a nodding gesture towards the brash American automotive styling of the time. Walking around the 220 you appreciate the elegant balance of line, its angularity subtly softened by the use of curved glass fore and aft. The rear wing panel goes from convex to concave in one delightful swoop, merging into those beautiful restrained fins. Then of course there's that wonderfully frontal treatment: vertical radiator and huge 'Lichteinheiten' single unit lamps. And those big twin chrome bumpers. The 220 was the first vehicle with this characteristic front end, and with such imposing elegance, it set the trend for the entire Mercedes range for the next 10 years.
You get in, and just the sound of a door shutting tells you enough: this is a car built like a bank vault. The inside is vast for a 2.2 litre saloon. You lounge on a wide, firm recliner, behind the giant ivory Mercedes steering wheel and matching column gearchange. You glance at the unconventional vertical speedo, adventurous for a Benz.
The car I drive is the SE model: top of the 220 range, best performance thanks to the Bosch mechanical fuel injection. This particular model has the manual gearbox version, and no power steering. The straight six rumbles into life. As I engage first with a light clunk of the column change, dip the smooth clutch, the beast pulls away with a wonderful burble reminiscent of a V8. Acceleration through the gears is leisurely. Try accelerating in top gear above fifty miles an hour and that injection really kicks in, the resulting torque pretty impressive for the time. In 1959, this kind of performance and surefootedness from a production saloon must have been impressive. It was certainly enough to impress Jack Brabham, who borrowed one to drive the 1000 miles from Le Touquet to Montecarlo, and then wrote about it for the News Chronicle in 1960. The ride is very soft and supple: that large American car feel again, but the Merc is so responsive and light on the move, and grips so well, you want to push it to the limit. Remember this is the car that came first, second and third in 1960 Monte Carlo, and since those heady days, Mercedes has never achieved such success in rallying.
Out on the open road, admiring glances are constant. I open her up and whisk past the stream of repmobiles trickling around the M25. We cruise at the legal limit behind a new Jaguar that gracefully lets us past. I look in the mirror to see the aggressive grille of the Jag staring at the narrow-eyed tail lights of the back of our Merc, and muse on how technically refined cars have become, yet how stylistically unadventurous. We floor it and surge away.
This car had it all: all independent suspension, crumple zones, vast interior space and comfort, fuel injection, and the power equivalent to an average 3 litre car of the time, even though it was 2.2l. It was the clarion call of West Germany's full economic recovery.
Some would call its design fussy. I disagree, the shape is beautifully balanced, and it saddens me to think that for the next thirty year after its demise, Daimler-Benz would produce, post 1979 at any rate, some of the plainest looking saloons on the planet. This car occupies a unique part in Mercedes history, a perfect combination of American brashness and Teutonic restraint.