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Mercs I Would Consider: The W123 Coupe

July 18, 2013 by Matt

Mercedes Benz W123 Coupe Black

Class. This car has it.

Arguably more than any other Merc, possibly more than any other car, no vehicle bestows on its driver such an aura of sensible, refined taste as the 1976-1985 W123 coupe.

The W123 coupe is not a car of extremes. It’s well-built, but not so well-built as to be priced into the stratosphere. It’s graceful, but not flashy or ostentatious. It’s classic-looking, but not tinny or fragile in appearance. And neither is it very slow or very quick, but exhibits perfectly adequate performance, at least in gasoline-powered 280CE guise.

Mercedes Benz W123 Coupe Blue

The coupe version of the W123 sedan featured in the last installment of this series, it shares all the sedan’s fine attributes—the satisfying bank-vault thunk of the doors, the interior materials spec’d to outlast a nuclear war, etc—and adds just the right dose of flair with the teardrop proportions and pillar-less side windows foreshadowing the later W126 coupe‘s treatment.

Mercedes Benz W123 Coupe Green

The mental image I have of the W123 coupe driver is a discerning individual, someone who appreciates timeless objects but has an eye for design as well. They’re the kind of person who organizes every decorative element in their house just so, arranging it all (with an effortlessness, natch) so that nary a line or shape is out of place. And yet there’s an earthiness to the car that implies the owner is approachable, relatable, not some head-in-the-clouds ivory-tower elitist, inscrutable designer or aloof hipster. It’s unassumingly charismatic. If every personality type represents a discrete bubble, the W123 coupe exists at the point of convergence of the greatest number of them. And naturally, I want one.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting Mercedes models worthy of enthusiast consideration. Read the other installments here:

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Mercs I Would Consider: The W123 280E

December 28, 2012 by Matt

Mercedes Benz MB Merc W123 280E Euro Green

So, to make an ever-so-slight detour from the theme of this series, the Mercedes W123 280E isn’t really “worthy of enthusiast consideration” if the enthusiast in question highly prioritizes performance. Its target market is the discerning enthusiast, someone who knows performance is only part of a car’s appeal and values qualities like substance and craftsmanship.

Mercedes Benz MB Merc W123 280E Green

I have a personal connection with the 280E: It was my parents’ first car that I really related to. Sure, before the Merc came along, we lived in the US and my brothers and I were shuttled around in “The Big Blue Whale,” a massive Chevy Caprice station wagon typical of the era. Don’t remember much of that one except its girth, the fact that it had rear-facing seats in the “way back” and the fact that my parents were…less than thrilled with its reliability. But then we moved to France in the mid-’80s and needed a family car. Fortunately, our landlord was looking to unload his, so he cut my parents a very good deal on a late-model 280E, dark green, with exactly the same trim and wheels you see in the image at top.

Mercedes Benz MB Merc W123 280E Engine Motor DOHC I6 Straight 6 M110

A few memories stand out. In the ’80s, something like 90% of all European cars were equipped with manual transmissions, and our 280E had an automatic. It was a point of distinction I was very proud of at my young age. I remember the way the door handles felt to pull to open, and the legendary bank-vault thunk of the doors closing. My dad liked the Merc, and when I asked why it was debadged (as is typical of many European cars), he told me it was because the car came with the most powerful engine Mercedes put in that bodystyle, and without the badges would-be theives would mistake it for a lesser-engined model and move on. Sneaky, clever, exciting. The most significant memory, though, was of the sound of the engine as my dad wound it out, accelerating away from a toll station on the Autoroute up into the Alps, heading to church in Monaco on a Sunday morning. The 185-hp, 2.8l straight-6 engine sounded absolutely fantastic, and the surge of power was noteworthy, especially in a fully-laden car accelerating uphill.

Mercedes Benz MB Merc W123 280E Interior Inside Cockpit Console Dash Dashboard

Above all, it was a quality item, built to last forever. Yes, the tape player would overheat and eat cassettes a few hours into a long car ride, and yes, the exhaust system did come apart just after the downpipe and scare my mom half to death in midtown Nice, necessitating a quick search for the nearest muffler shop, but overall, our 280E was a beautifully-made piece of superior German engineering. I wouldn’t object in the slightest to the idea of owning another.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting Mercedes models worthy of enthusiast consideration. Read the other installments here:

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Interesting Engines:
The Mercedes-Ilmor 500I

December 26, 2012 by Matt

Mercedes Ilmor 500I IndyCar Indy 500 1994 Penske PC-23 Engine Motor Pushrod

How far would you go to win one race?

Would you design an engine completely from scratch with the knowledge that it would almost certainly be banned by the next race, expending hundreds of thousands of dollars in development and production costs just to score that lone victory?

Mercedes and Ilmor would—and did. Their 500I 3.4l turbocharged, methanol-fueled V8 was a clean-sheet design constructed with a sole purpose: To exploit a loophole in the 1994 IndyCar rulebook and thus win that year’s Indianapolis 500. It could be argued that the nature of the race in question—the prestige of winning the Indy 500 being up there with the Monaco GP or Le Mans—made the resources committed to the project slightly more worth the investment. Still, the scale and audacity of the endeavor shocked the racing world.

Mercedes Ilmor 500I IndyCar Indy 500 1994 Penske PC-23 Engine Motor Pushrod

Some background: The IndyCar technical regulations for the 1994 season allowed pushrod engines to run higher turbocharger boost pressures, as well as additional displacement, over their multi-valve counterparts as part of a kind of equivalency formula. IndyCar reasoned that some constructors would simply use non-optimized off-the-shelf production-based pushrod engine designs as a less-expensive starting point, and gave teams who chose to do so a leg up on their more affluent competition by allowing them the benefit of a few extra cubic inches and pounds of boost.

Mercedes Ilmor 500I IndyCar Indy 500 1994 Penske PC-23 Engine Motor Pushrod

Prior to the 1991 season, engine manufacturers had indeed been limited, by the rulebook, to production-based engine blocks. After 1991, however, that requirement had been dropped, a development that went largely unnoticed—except by engine maker Ilmor. They figured that a clean-sheet, carefully-designed pushrod engine could take advantage of the regulatory loophole to overcome its inherent design disadvantages compared to a multi-valve engine, and thus trounce the competition for at least one race before the powers-that-be cracked down on the rulebook’s oversight. Ilmor placed their bets on the 1994 Indy 500, and before long Mercedes came on board to help finance and lend technical assistance to the top-secret project.

It worked. Mated to Penske’s all-conquering PC-23 chassis, the 500I’s extra 650cc and 2.5 psi of boost (as allowed by the regs) netted it an extra 150-200 horsepower compared to its multi-valve rivals, and Al Unser Jr won the race going away. Some sources quote a remarkable figure of over 1,000 hp over the duration of the 500-mile race. And naturally, caught with their pants down, as it were, the regulators banned the engine almost as soon as the checkered flag waved at Indy. Still—it’s to Ilmor’s and Mercedes’ credit that they had the creativity to consider an “inferior” engine design in light of the racing series’ rules, and the commitment to follow through with it, with spectacular results.

For a more in-depth look at the engine and the racing politics that surrounded it, check out this 8W article.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series examining unique and significant powerplants. Read the other installments here:

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The Mercedes-Ilmor 500I

Technical Curiosities:
Mercedes’ Monoblade Wiper

November 28, 2012 by Matt

Mercedes Benz Merc MB Monoblade Mono Single Windshield Windscreen Wiper

I’ve been captivated by this thing ever since I was a kid. Is there any more fun car activity on a dreary, drippy Tuesday afternoon ride home from school than trying to find a mid-’80s Mercedes E-Class or 190E just to catch a glimpse of the wiper in action? There is? Well… I enjoyed it.

Attempting to achieve a cross between the coverage of two blades and the economy and aerodynamic advantages of a single blade, Mercedes’ Monoblade (also known as “eccentric clean sweep”) certainly wasn’t the first single wiper system on the market. Cars as varied as entry-level Fiat econoboxes, sporty VW Sciroccos and high-end Jaguar luxury sedans preceded it with their solitary blades. What made the German automaker’s wiper system unique was the hub mechanism used to increase the wiper’s coverage of the windshield beyond a simple arc.

Mercedes Benz Merc MB Monoblade Mono Single Windshield Windscreen Wiper Diagram Schematic Drawing Coverage Pattern

As illustrated above in the “single arm (controlled)” drawing, the Monoblade’s substantial coverage was achieved by designing it to extend outward toward the corners of the windshield in the course of its travel across the glass. A cam-type device in the hub moved the arm away from the pivot twice, retracting it in between so the wiper would not overextend the top of the windshield. It all sounds ungainly, but to watch it in action is to witness a quasi-mesmerizing symphony of mechanical fluidity. Call it odd, but I’m transfixed whenever I see a Monoblade going through its paces on a rainy day. I nearly have to wrench my attention away from the spectacle in order to focus on the task of driving my car.

Mercedes Benz Merc MB Monoblade Mono Single Windshield Windscreen Wiper

Introduced on the pioneering W201 190E model series and also fitted to the W124 and W210 E-Class generations as well as the W202 C-Class, the Monoblade’s primary advantage was aerodynamic, as it noticeably cut wind resistance at high (read: Autobahn) speeds. Even though it seemed more simple, with one linkage instead of two, as in a traditional wiper system, the Monoblade was actually more expensive to produce and repair, owing to the number of specialized parts. Additional disadvantages included the difficulty for owners in finding the required long replacement blades and a slight, but decidedly non-luxurious rocking motion introduced to the car when the big wiper was operating in high-speed mode.

Watch the clip below to see the wiper in action, and be on the lookout for an older C- or E-Class next time it rains. You’ll get a treat.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series spotlighting obscure automotive engineering solutions. Read the other installments here:

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Mercedes’ Monoblade Wiper

Mercs I Would Consider:
The W126 560 SEC

October 15, 2012 by Matt

Mercedes Benz W126 560SEC Coupe Beige Brown

The 1981-1991 Mercedes SEC is a bruiser. It’s an ostentatious statement of taste and worth, and it would be unbearably vulgar if it weren’t actually such a great car.

Built on the legendary W126 S-Class platform, the SEC encompasses the 380, 500 and 560 SEC, fitted with V8s of 3.8l, 5.0l and 5.6l displacement, respectively. The W126 has the distinction of being one of the last Merc model ranges built with a “money no object” mindset, with paint and interior material quality to outlast a nuclear winter and overengineering everywhere. Simply closing a W126’s door is one of the great simple pleasures of the automotive world; the bank vault *thunk* is almost worth the price of admission alone.

Mercedes Benz W126 560SEC Coupe Beige Brown Side Profile Windows

Take all the W126’s estimable attributes, including its torquey, insistent engine and absolutely unflappable ride and drape the excellent chassis in sheetmetal dripping with grace and taste, and you have the SEC. Let’s not kid ourselves: It really is all about the styling; there’s absolutely no reason to opt for the coupe over the W126 sedan except for that teardrop profile, thrusting grille and those pillarless side windows. It’s not gaudy, but it has presence in spades, and it certainly makes a statement wherever its driver chooses to pull up. If I had a nit to pick stylistically, it’s with the door handle surrounds—not that I think they’re ugly, just that I’m puzzled by their size. It’s a quirk unique the SEC; the sedan’s handle surrounds are conventional. Perhaps the designers felt the long flanks needed additional detailing to keep from being too boring? Who knows.

Mercedes Benz W126 560SEC Coupe Beige Brown Rear Back Taillights

The SEC is no nimble corner-carver, and makes no pretenses of being one. Amazingly, in spite of the fact that it appears to have roughly the same mass as a medium-size asteroid, the SEC is actually fairly light compared with a modern “huge coupe” equivalent, tipping the scales at around 3,550 lbs. Fitted with the later 272-hp, 317 lb·ft 5.6l V8, the 560 SEC hustles from 0-60 mph in the low 7-second range; not quick, but perfectly adequate for its target market.

Mercedes Benz W126 560SEC Coupe Interior Inside Cockpit Console Dash Dashboard

It doesn’t win me over with its speed or road manners, as unremarkably solid as those are; no, it exudes the classic W126 quality coupled with the fact that there’s arguably no post-1980 Mercedes that makes driving or arriving such an event. The SEC is big, stately and dated, but it’s special, and that combination of attributes exerts a strong pull.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting Mercedes models worthy of enthusiast consideration. Read the other installments here:

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The W126 560 SEC

Mercs I Would Consider: The C111

September 12, 2012 by Matt

Mercedes C111 Orange

Okay, so being an experimental car, I can’t really consider this one from the standpoint of a possible purchase. But it’s still one of my favorite Mercedes.

Appearing in at least three distinct incarnations starting in 1969, the first two C111 evolutionary steps represented testbeds for Mercedes’ Wankel, or rotary, engine program, and the last housed the automaker’s latest high-performance diesel engine efforts. More than an engine platform, though, the C111 was an outlet of sorts for Mercedes’ engineers. The automaker’s racing program had been shuttered in the aftermath of the 1955 Le Mans disaster, and its development team was hungry to apply themselves to something more exciting than standard-issue production sedans. As it was produced, then, the C111 was trimmed and finished to a degree unheard of for an average technology demonstrator. No spartan development mule, all three generations sported a tractable engine, decked out interior, a refined chassis and even air conditioning. Indeed, as the late Paul Frère reports in this Road & Track feature article:

The C111-II is so elegant and businesslike that, with modern technology under its skin and wider tires, it would be the hit of any motor show today. No wonder that at the time, the factory received many blank checks from potential customers [eager] to acquire a replica.

Mercedes C111 Orange Wankel Rotary Engine

Despite the luxurious trimmings, all three incarnations of the C111 were very quick. The initial 3-rotor Wankel-powered C111-I’s engine pumped out a characteristically smooth 280 hp, and the II’s 4-rotor engine raised that power figure to an even 350. That was a lot of power for the late ’60s and early ’70s, and it allowed the car to reach 60 mph from a standstill in under 5 seconds, as good as any contemporary muscle car from our neck of the woods. Even the later, diesel-powered C111-III, while not quite as fast as its predecessors, set several speed + economy + endurance records.

The bodywork was steadily refined throughout the car’s evolution, and has a distinctly Teutonic, functional feel to it, kind of what a German GT40 Mark 3 might have looked like. That said, I think it looks fantastic, and as Frère alluded to in the above quote, the C111 has a kind of timeless appeal. Completely free from any Mercedes styling cues—gullwing doors excepted—the car sort of stands alone in the automaker’s history as one of the few times they really gave their engineers and stylists free rein to consolidate their expertise and innovative leanings into one car.

Mercedes C111 Wankel Rotary Engine Motor 4-Rotor

Why wasn’t it produced? As much freedom as Mercedes gave their development team with the C111 project, they were clear to point out that the car was a technology demonstrator, and had no chance of progressing beyond that stage. Also, as refined as it was, the engine technology was the C111’s real raison d’être, and when Mercedes started hitting hurdles with their Wankel engine program, instead of persevering like Mazda did, eventually overcoming most of the technical and production challenges, the German automaker decided to pull the plug and direct its resources elsewhere.

Mercedes C111 Interior Inside Cockpit Console Dash Dashboard Gauges Instruments

It’s a shame. I see the C111 as a sort of a proto-BMW M1, which was itself a kind of pre-Acura NSX: An archetype of a truly user-friendly supercar. It had some rough edges, to be sure (Frère spotlights an outdated steering system and tricky handling at the limit, among other things), but overall the C111 made a considerable effort to “meet the driver halfway,” as it were, instead of being the hot, cramped, sweaty, evil-handling supercar its Italian contemporaries were. Between its refinement, looks and technological bravery, I have a great deal of admiration for it.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting Mercedes models worthy of enthusiast consideration. Read the other installments here:

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Car Designs Inspired by Formula 1

July 17, 2012 by Matt

Ferrari Enzo Ferrari Red

Huge, un-fendered wheels. A long, thin nose. Wings at both ends. A single-seat cockpit backed by a prominent intake snorkel. Bulbous side pods.

On paper, the ingredients of a typical Formula 1 racer don’t exactly sound like a recipe for aesthetic success. That said, the sport has always been an extremely high-profile showcase for an automaker’s technical prowess (or lack thereof), so it’s understandable some would attempt to cash in, as it were, on their team’s on-track achievements by incorporating F1 car styling details in their road cars.

Enzo Ferrari. With the 2002-2004 Enzo Ferrari (shown at top), the Modena automaker was perhaps the first to do so overtly. The design cues are obvious, from the side pod-suggesting rear fenders to the anteater-ish nose and prominent front-end aerodynamics. The car was conceived as its manufacturer’s F1 team was in the midst of an unrivaled success streak, notching five driver’s World Championships in as many years from 2000 to 2005, so it’s understandable they would seek to showcase their domination. Whether the car actually works aesthetically is another story, but it’s at least noteworthy.

Mercedes SLR McLaren Silver

Mercedes SLR McLaren. This one’s a bit more of a mishmash of influences. Still, the F1 connection is strong with the 2003-2008 SLR McLaren, as evidenced by the long, thin nose motif running down the hood and the quasi-winged valence. To all that, Mercedes added touches of their classic 300SL Gullwing racer along with then-current Merc themes like the double ovoid headlights. If the car’s styling looks ambiguous, there’s probably a reason it was replaced in short order by the much more single-minded SLS AMG in 2010.

Caparo T1 Orange

Caparo T1. No ambiguity here. The high-strung, 2008-present T1 is an unabashed homage to Formula 1 shapes and engineering. A 1,000-lb car with a 575-hp, 3.5l V8 nestled amidships, its power-to-weight ratio approaches that of an F1 racer as well. If the design gets points, they’ll undoubtedly come from the pre-teenage boy crowd, who spend their study hours drawing such shapes on their notebook paper. Stunning in the purity of its interpretation of an F1 look, but of questionable utility in the “real world.”

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Mercs I Would Consider: The W124 500E

April 3, 2012 by Matt

Mercedes Benz 500E E500 W124 Hammer AMG Black Gray Grey Gunmetal

Mercedes’ first true executive cruise missile to be factory-sanctioned (as opposed to built by aftermarket tuner AMG), the 500E established the template for all future fast Mercs.

Developed in conjunction with Porsche for a ’91 model year debut, the 500E (or E500 as it was renamed during its last year of production in ’94) is a true Autobahn siege weapon. The 32-valve M119 V8 was bumped out to 5.0l, delivering 322 hp and 354 lb-ft of torque, hustling the 3,800-lb sedan to 60 mph in well under 6 seconds. Everything else about the car was upgraded as well, from the reinforced 4-speed auto transmission to the suspension and brakes, both appropriated from Merc’s top-of-the-line SL roadster. Steamroller wheels and tires were crammed beneath flared fenders and the ride height was marginally lowered, completing the package.

Mercedes Benz 500E E500 W124 Hammer AMG Engine Motor M119 V8

Those who’ve driven the 500E say the raw numbers only tell part of the story. On paper, its archrivals the Audi S4 and BMW M5 may be able to keep up, but the Merc has more than a liter of displacement on both of them, and the M119’s midrange torque is torrential and unrelenting, in contrast to the S4 and M5’s more peaky powerplants. Couple the wide, flat torque curve with Mercedes’ signature billet-like body structure and you have the automotive definition of an iron fist in a velvet glove.

Mercedes Benz 500E E500 W124 Hammer AMG Interior Inside Cockpit Console Dash Dashboard

In a way, the 500E is sort of the Buick Grand National of the German luxury automaker set; like the Grand Nash, it follows its country’s native “performance rules” to a tee: Understated styling, fine-tuned for Autobahn operations, yet also providing functional and luxurious accommodations for four businessmen. Its looks are based on a harmless family sedan’s, but have been injected with an extra dose of aggression. And like the Buick from the Dark Side, knowledge of its true capabilities is reserved for a subset of the car enthusiast scene in general. The 500E isn’t quite a complete sleeper in the sense that its fender flares and other tweaks certainly display an intimidating stance, but as with the GN, it perfectly walks the tightrope between showing too much and not enough, and for that, it earns my admiration and desire.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting Mercedes models worthy of enthusiast consideration. Read the other installments here:

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Mercs I Would Consider: The W202 C36 AMG

February 11, 2012 by Matt

Mercedes-Benz Merc MB W202 C36 AMG Silver Gray Grey

Any casual Spannerhead reader knows I’m a dedicated BMW and Audi fan. I may raise concerns over those two automakers’ (particular BMW’s) directions of late, but given the choice of an offering of one of the German “Big Three,” I’ll almost always opt for a BMW or Audi over the Mercedes-Benz equivalent.

There are a number of reasons for this: BMWs, for their part, are generally more enthusiast-oriented and almost universally available with manual transmission, whereas Mercedes’ cars typically aim more for the comfort side of the high-end German executive car spectrum. Also, the slushbox is practically an institution for M-B; range-topping sports GTs such as the SLR McLaren or SLS AMG that would normally be fitted with a manuals receive automatics in conformity with the automaker’s orthodoxy.

As far as Audi is concerned, they have design cred in spades; their rivals from Stuttgart tend to err on the conservative, stodgy side when drawing up their cars’ lines. And Audi has always appealed versus BMW and Merc as the underdog, the outsider, the German automaker with the market cornered on uniqueness, if nothing else. That non-conformist cachet is something I really dig.

So, Mercs are conventional, frumpy, boring, cushy and always equipped with an autotragic when it really counts. Are any really worthy of enthusiast consideration? In a word, yes.

Mercedes-Benz Merc MB W202 C36 AMG Interior Inside Cockpit Dashboard Dash Console

Take the car featured in this post: The ’95-’97 W202 (internal model code) C36 AMG. Hard on the heels of the legendary 500E, in response to the Bavarian salvo that was the E36 M3, Mercedes took their small sedan, the C-Class, and turned it over to in-house performance division AMG. The stock M104 DOHC, 24-valve inline 6 was bored out from 2.8 to 3.6 liters and blessed with number of external and internal fortifications that boosted output to a healthy 276 hp in Euro guise (268 here until ’97). AMG lowered the car, uprated the suspension and brakes and fitted an appropriately aggressive and functional body kit paired with gorgeous 17″ Monoblock wheels.

Mercedes-Benz Merc MB W202 C36 AMG Engine Motor M104

The resulting performance—0-60 in 6.4 seconds and an electronically-limited top speed of 155 mph—only tells part of the story. Again, much like its older brother the 500E, the persona of the C36 is a bit out of step with the typical enthusiast craving for a light and nimble corner carver. Instead of a direct point-by-point rebuttal of the E36 M3, Mercedes offered a vision of performance in keeping with their ethos: A iron fist wrapped in a velvet glove, an executive express of the highest order. It is an Autobahn dominator, a CEO cruise missile, but in a slightly smaller, slightly less exclusive form than the pricey, Porsche-developed 500E. As mentioned, it was never built to attack an autocross course, but the commendably low weight of 3400 lbs certainly helps handling, and to me, gives the C36 a more well-rounded feel than the larger, E-Class-derived siege weapon.

Motor Trend understood where Mercedes was coming from in developing the C36, and awarded it first place in a four-way comparo against some very worthy European hardware of the day. They wrote, “For the money, the C36 is the best performance sedan in America.” Accolades don’t get much higher than that, and truthfully, I don’t know if I’d go that far. As a Mercedes, though, it’s one of a select few I’d give thought to owning.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting Mercedes models worthy of enthusiast consideration. Read the other installments here:

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