The 2019 Insurance Classic Motor Show : Sixty Years of the Mercedes-Benz Fintail The 2019 Insurance Classic Motor Show : Sixty Years of the Mercedes-Benz Fintail
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Sixty Years of the Mercedes-Benz Fintail

A Mercedes-Benz “Fintail” (“Heckflosse” in Germany) is a car that exudes gravitas and menace in equal measure.

In the 1960s and 1970s, you could see them lurking in the background of many a Cold War drama – and indeed there was enough space for five or even six enemy agents, preferably all clad in trench coats.


Just think of Funeral in Berlin, featuring Michael Caine as Harry Palmer, beset by 190D, 200D and 220S Fintails or the Binz-bodied 190D Ambulance in The Ipcress File.

The Quiller Memorandum and The Mackintosh Man also featured the MB

And naturally such fine vehicles populated ITC-land.

It seemed to be an unwritten rule of television that the heroes of The Protectors, The Saint, The Baron, The Champions and The Persuaders! would all encounter a menacing Fintail at least once a series. Just as anyone in a white Jaguar 2.4 Mk. 1 and/or a red Renault Dauphine would eventually plummet from a cliff.

More importantly, when the original 220 debuted at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 1959, it was acclaimed as one of Daimler-Benz’s finest products.

The W111 was devised as the eventual replacement for the six-cylinder “Pontons”, and work commenced in 1956.

DB’s Chief Engineer Fritz Nallinger wanted the latest Mercedes-Benz saloon to have a unitary body that blended low-key dignity with Italianate overtones. It also had to offer greater space than the existing /219/220.

The tailfins caused some muttering at Sindelfingen – and eventually with some traditional-minded MB customers - but they were regarded as a key element for success in the US export markets.

A further major element of the W111 was the employment of Béla Barényi’s famed “safety cell”; the cabin was also carefully planned to minimise injury during an accident.

The W111 was powered by a more powerful version of the 2.2-litre SOHC  engine and a steering column lever controlled the four-speed transmission; the not universally-loved Hydrak automatic clutch set-up continued to be an extra.

Sixty years ago, one talking-point was the sheer scale of the new 220, and another was the   300SL-type independent rear suspension with a low-pivot divided axle.

Then there was the dramatic appearance of the ‘New Six Cylinder Model - A Class Of Its Own’, down to the Lichteinheit headlamps and that vertical speedometer.

The MB was available as a 220, a 220S and a 220SE, the last-named featuring a Bosch fuel-injection, The “S” models were recognisable by their extra brightwork, the exactor vents on their C-pillars and came with reclining front seat and servo-assisted brakes. 

Of course, your neighbours would undoubtedly be impressed by specifying the optional ivory-coloured steering wheel (a Fintail always seemed complete without one), Becker Mexico radio and – for that jet-set touch – six suitcases that were tailored for the -B’s boot.

Seat belts fore and aft were also offered, and these were extremely unusual accessories for the period.

Road & Track tested a 220S and although they compared the fins to ‘those on a 1957 Chevy and the 1960 Rambler’ they thought the MB was an ‘elegant machine in a field of endeavour where there is very little elegance left’.

Such a car was for top Madison Avenue types just as most Britons could only dream of owning such a vehicle; for while you could gaze in wonder at Stand 126 at the 1959 Earls Court Motor Show, import duties ensured that even an entry-level 220 cost £2,249 – nearly a £1,000 more than a Wolseley 6/99  - while the 220S was  £2,490 and the 220SE, £2,724.

In short, there was little point in calling Mercedes-Benz GB’s West End showrooms (HYDe Park 3351) unless you had an understanding bank manager, and it was easier to purchase a 1/9d cinema ticket to watch the 220 of Walter Schock and Rolf Moll winning the  Monte Carlo Rally in the following year.

In 1961, the saloons were augmented by the 220SE Coupes and Cabriolet.

While a four-speed automatic transmission was finally available; this was an essential option for the North American export market.

By August of that year, the flagship was now the 3-litre W112 300SE, the first MB with air suspension, a dual-circuit brake system and all-round discs.

And for fleet buyers and anyone with a less understanding bank manager, the 190 “Ponton” was succeeded by the W110 four-cylinder “Fintail” with a shorter bonnet and wheelbase, single headlamps and front indicators mounted ahead of the windshield.

The diesel-powered version greatly outsold its petrol-powered stablemate, not least because it would become one of the world’s most recognisable taxis.

Two years later, all Fintails had hydraulic dual-circuit brakes and servo-assisted front discs as standard while the 300SE was available in even more exclusive long-wheelbase form.

When the W108 S-Class made its bow in 1965, they replaced the 300 and the 220 while the 190 became the larger-engine 200, augmented by the six-cylinder 230.

For those drivers who wanted to show any BMW “Neue Klasse” 2000 owner a thing or two, there was the 230S with a slightly longer body, twin Zenith carburettors and a floor gear change as a no-cost option.

Production ceased in January 1968 when the “New Generation” W114/W115 succeeded the last of the W110s.

The run of 622,453 cars represented an evolution in mass-motoring, for each conveyed the idea that true quality lay in the assumption that a customer had the right to demand a vehicle of integrity.

Whether your MB was a taxi, an ambulance, a family car, the MD’s chauffeur-driven transport – or even a vital part of any KGB fleet in a British spy drama – the Fintail always epitomised true automotive quality.



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