Monday April 23, 2018
Some of the greatest cars in the history of motoring wear their distinction lightly. You might, for example, have the very good fortune to encounter what looks like a W108 series Mercedes-Benz 300SEL, with every inch of its coachwork exuding discreet good taste. But then you notice the vertical quad headlamps, how the wheels seem slightly larger and – taking a quick glance at the dashboard – the tachometer. But then the badge on the boot says it all, for this is the 300 SEL 6.3 and therefore has no need of extraneous decorations or gimmicks of any form.
When the W108/W109 series made their debut in September 1965 the flagship 300SEL was regarded by many as the ultimate in transport for the managing director or senior lawyer. There were those elegant restrained lines courtesy of Paul Bracq, a sophisticated technical specification that included independent self-levelling air suspension and, above all, that air of refinement. As for local rivals, the BMW E3 still lay three years in the future while the Opel Diplomat A was smart but perhaps a little too pseudo-American in appeal.
All that was possibly lacking was performance from the 3-Litre straight six engine that would exploit the SEL’s abilities to the utmost; one German motoring writer went so far as to suggest that Daimler-Benz made cars that were great but unexciting which were suited to business motorists, farmers and the elderly. However, Daimler-Benz was already considering a V8 engine option for the 300 while the company engineer Erich Waxenberger was working on a rather interesting project of his own. In 1966 he fitted the 600’s 6.3-litre V8 unit into the W109’s bay to create the ultimate in Q-cars. That is the famous story at any rate, although several observers have also noted that as the limousine was selling in limited numbers, the company was already seeking other uses for its power plant.
Despite initial worries that the sales of a W109 supercar would be very limited, production commenced at the end of 1967 and the 6.3 made its debut at the Geneva Motor Show in the following year. On 27th June 1968 at the Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey the legendary Rudolf Uhlenhaut demonstrated the M-B’s quite incredible performance to the US motoring press. In plain figures the 6.3 offered a 100% increase in torque and a 70% increase in power output over the standard model. Here was a five seater-saloon weighing over 3,900lbs capable of 137 mph and with acceleration that was superior to the Ferrari 330 GTC. As Road & Track magazine put it, ‘So what makes it so great? Simply that whatever it is asked to do, it does better than almost any other car’ and 'It isn't any one particular thing but a whole combination of outstanding characteristics that make it add up to something extra special‘. Tom McCahill in Mechanix Illustrated went even further, writing that it was the ‘World’s best car’.
Naturally, such a machine was not going to be cheap. ‘An automobile
for the discriminating driver accustomed to the finest’ claimed the US-spec brochure – i.e. the 6.3 was for drivers with access to lots and lots of DMs, £s or dollars. There was also the glorious line that ‘Fashionable styling will always attract some prospective buyers but we only change our designs when the new model represents a significant step forward in technical achievement’. The inference is clear – anyone who craved flamboyance and Las Vegas style flamboyance should go out and buy a Cadillac, Imperial or Lincoln immediately. By contrast, the Mercedes-Benz appealed to royalty, business magnates, off-duty Formula One racing drivers and anyone who recognised the integrity of its design. Steve McQueen was one high profile owner and Jay Leno is a latter day enthusiast. The 6.3’s specification included vacuum-powered central locking, electric windows, a and four-speed automatic transmission while the extras’ list encompassed air conditioning, an electric sunroof, fitted luggage and alloy wheels..
Production ended in September 1972 after just 6,526 units but the impact of one of the greatest of all Mercedes-Benz cars cannot be measured in mere numbers. The detail of the 6.3 that most appeals to me is a seemingly minor one - the "Nomenclature Delete” option. Some owners favoured this on the grounds of extra discretion but many had the boot-lid removed in order to startle Porsche 911 drivers who though that they had spied a standard 300SEL in their rear view mirror…