The final piece of the puzzle in Mercedes-Benz’s total revitalization of their lineup design-wise was the W114/W115 series of sedans and coupes. The ‘New Generation’ finalized the form of Mercedes’ new styling direction led by M-B designer Paul Bracq for the Sixties and well into the Seventies. This transformation of M-B’s look from slightly rounded Fifties full-fenderedness to sleek, smooth Sixties modernism began with the finless 220SEb coupe and cabriolet in The Year of Our Lord, 1961.
And it made sense to start with those models. The 220SE coupe and cabriolet were the top of the line. As many manufacturers have proved over the years, it is always better to introduce a new look on your top-of-the-line car. If you do it back-asswards, you will probably hear many a customer remarking loudly how the new Belchfire Eight Super looks suspiciously similar to the half-as-expensive Hiccup Custom Four.
And so it was that the W114 and W115 were the final recipients of the look that started on the 220SEb, sporting 230SL and uber-fancy 600 earlier in the decade. However, despite the presence and popularity of the diesel 220D and 240D models (taxi luxury for Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight money!) you could get a very nice version of this car, if you ponied up for the 250 (later on, the 280), which featured real leather, real wood, and a straight six gasoline engine.
But first, a bit of historical context. When the W111 fintail was introduced in 1959, replacing the venerable Ponton, the sedan versions sported some very un-Mercedeslike fins on the back. The coupe and cabriolet, however, had more modern, smoother styling, replacing the fins with a finless squared-off rear deck that would be used as a template for the W108 ‘Super’ that would replace the top-of-the-line W111 in 1965.
While the flossy 250S, 280S and 300SEs now wore the subtle, elegant lines of the W108 chassis (my favorite Mercedes-Benz sedan, bar none), the lower end gas and diesel fintails continued all the way through 1968. While some may consider these cars somewhat bland (I prefer the term ‘restrained’), they are one of my favorite Mercedes-Benz sedans.
These understated yet elegant cars, with their bulletproof drivetrain and remarkable quality lured many Imperial, Cadillac and Lincoln owners into Mercedes dealerships in the late 1960s and early 1970s, despite their relatively smaller size and heftier price tag relative to Detroit Highland Park and Dearborn-built luxury cars. Of course, back then you didn’t have to get the most expensive Mercedes-Benz to experience their quality and quiet competence.
The New Generation class, or W114/W115, finally appeared in 1968, dispatching the final finned W110s once and for all. W114s had a variety of six-cylinder gasoline engines, while the W115 used four-cylinder diesels, five-cylinder diesels or four-cylinder gas engines. Diesel models initially included the 200D and 220D. The 220D was the fancier version of the diesel and had more standard features, though no one was going to mistake it for a 280SE 6.9. No leather, no genuine wood trim or air suspension. The 2197 cc OHC engine used Bosch 4-plunger fuel injection and a 5-main bearing crankshaft. Of course, they were very efficient, but for those with a lead foot, acceleration was definitely lacking. And in 1969, a hardtop coupe was added to the assortment of four-door sedans.
New safety features included a collapsible steering column, padded instrument panel, breakaway rear view mirror and locking seat backs, all standard. The 13″ wheels of the outgoing fintails were replaced with 14-inch units. Wheelbases increased by two inches to 108.3, while the track narrowed slightly. Dual-circuit four-wheel disc brakes (as introduced at about the same time on the Volvo 140) were an important new standard feature. And the rear swing axles, a Mercedes feature for years, were finally replaced with an all-new semi-trailing arm rear suspension.
While bank presidents and the idle rich were buying leather and wood-trimmed 300SEL 6.3s and 280SE 4.5s, European engineers, office managers and shopkeepers were perfectly content with a 230 or 220D with M-B Tex vinyl and matte plastic trim. These cars were also highly desirable for taxi service. 200D’s were common taxicabs in Germany in the late Sixties and Seventies, due to their quality components and long-lived drivetrains. But if you liked the look but wanted more power and more style, you could always check out the pillarless W114 280C coupe.
The 280C coupe first appeared in early 1972, and featured a DOHC six-cylinder engine with Solex dual compound downdraft carburetion. In Europe it produced 160 hp at 5500 rpm. U.S. models, with various and sundry emissions equipment, had 120 horses at 4800 rpm. These cars were not cheap in the U.S., either, especially the hardtop coupe. East coast pricing for the 280C in September 1972 was $9,518. By 1975 it was up to $14,639.
To put that in perspective, a 1975 Chevrolet Caprice Classic convertible was $5,113.
A 1975 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, with its long wheelbase and rear footrests and sumptuous interior, was also less expensive than the Mercedes, at $10,414. So basically, you could have gotten a Caprice convertible AND a Fleetwood Brougham for about a grand more than the Mercedes alone.
A Mercedes which, while carefully built with fine handling and quality components, was about the same size and shape as a 1975 Dodge Dart Swinger-which cost $3410 in Special Edition trim-and with V8 power to boot. Of course, all three of these Detroit cars had substantial differences from the M-B, and I don’t have to mention the quality and reliability issues with American iron in the Seventies.
My point is, you really had to want the Mercedes to pony up that kind of money. 1975 280C production amounted to 2,133 in 1975. But those who bought them were very satisfied with them, I’m sure!
And while 120 hp may not sound like a whole lot in 2018, it was a road rocket compared to the visually similar 220D and 240D sedans. In the mid-’70s, the 240D produced 67 horsepower. Ye gods! And keep in mind a high school kid driving a clapped out ’66 Chevelle with traction bars would absolutely stomp a 240D. Don’t pick one of these if you’re going to rob a bank! This was not a hot rod, and never meant to be one. Its function was comfort, good space and ergonomics, fuel economy and reliable service. And in that capacity, it more than delivered. But it must have hurt when a 240D owner got passed on the expressway by a Vega or Pinto or Plymouth Arrow. How embarrassing!
Changes to the W114/W115 were relatively minor between 1968 and 1976. Primary changes were simply due to advancing safety standards, and the equipment said standards required.
In 1972, the long-familiar two-spoke Mercedes steering wheel with gigantic chrome horn ring, was finally replaced with a smaller diameter, padded four-spoke ‘safety’ version.
Top of the heap was the 280 Series, which had a more luxurious interior and certainly more oomph under the hood than its diesel-powered stable mates. Its predecessor had been the 250. The original 250C coupe, which came out in ’68, used the 280 engine, interestingly enough.
A 1970 250C would have set you back $6,625 on the East Coast. Again, for comparison’s sake, a 1970 Mercury Marquis Brougham four-door hardtop was $4219.
And of course, you could get it in a coupe version, which was not available on the 200/220/240 Series models. A pillarless coupe was something on the way out by 1975-76 for many manufacturers, but Mercedes still had one. And in fact, retained at least one pillarless coupe from then all the way to the present day.
I spotted this coupe at the 2017 Des Moines Concours d’Elegance. held every year downtown, with hundreds of beautiful cars, from prewar Packards and Lincoln Continentals to Sixties Studebakers and Seventies Mazda Rotary-engined pickup trucks. I hadn’t seen one of these in a long time, and it appeared to be in showroom condition. As it was missing show identification and was adjacent to the local luxury car dealer’s display of new cars, I suspect it was from the dealership’s collection and not an actual show vehicle. It looked terrific!
The W108 and these W114/W115s led the way in Mercedes’ new look for the 1960s and beyond. In modified form, the styling would last all the way to the final W126 S-Classes in 1991. While the simple lines may have been somewhat bland when new when compared to the S-Class and SLs and 600, they proved to be just as timeless as those flossier M-Bs. And just as collectible today.
This post is dedicated to a friend of mine in Chicagoland, Jon V. We lost him far too soon, but I’m a better man for knowing him. He was a MAJOR Mercedes-Benz nut, was a certified technician for them and worked at various dealerships in the past. He owned both a ’76 450SL and 300TD wagon. I will miss him. Godspeed Jon, wherever you are.