Mercedes 250S, SE W108: Mercedes elegance at its best

by Bernd

in Mercedes S-Class

Mercedes 250S W108

The Mercedes 250S, SE W108 series was a welcome change to the fintails. The earlier cars had followed the philosophy that one design caters in variations to the needs of people from the taxi driver to the chief executive. Naturally the taxi driver did not complain, but the CEO did. The new W108 was not to be confused anymore with its four-cylinder cousins.

The 250 and the later introduced 280 series proved to be very popular cars not only in Germany but also in all major export markets. It was not only the design that impressed, it was the handling, the interior space and above all the quality of the cars that made them a popular choice among the well-heeled. Even if one drives such a car today, the timeless design still does not fail to impress. They have aged gracefully and although they do not have the more desirable V8 engines, they command relatively high prices for a mass produced sedan, when in good condition.

Mercedes 250S W108

When Friedrich Geiger and Paul Bracq, who both worked in the Wilfert design department, started to work on the W111 successor in 1961, they knew that the fintails had to go. The designers under Karl Wilfert regarded them already as a design flaw in early 1959 and wanted to change them, but it was too late, as the production tools had already been ordered. As Bruno Sacco, future head of Mercedes design, once said in an interview: the fintails should have never made it into series production. The beautiful W111 coupe had shown how the W111 sedan could have looked like, now it was for the W108 to follow that design for the new S-class generation. With its high radiator grille and the vertical headlights the series represent an era, where every boy and girl could point out that this is a Mercedes. If it would have been for Paul Bracq, the cars would have had a different front, one that looked like the W116 with horizontally positioned headlights. But he could not convince his superiors and the marketing/sales team, so the cars still showed the traditional Mercedes front, when they were introduced to the public in August 1965.

Mercedes 250S W108

The final design of the W108 evolved in three steps. Its first approach still had the higher body of the W111 sedan but already with the roof of the coupe. Later in 1962 the rear glass area had evolved into something closer to the 600 and in 1963 the final form with a lower and wider body and larger glass area was presented. All studies still carried the 220SE badge at the trunk. The goal had been to keep the overall dimensions of the W111 but improve interior space. At the end the car was 60 mm (2.36 in) lower and 15 mm (o.59 in) wider, but looked from the outside bigger than its predecessor. While the headlights were identical on both old and new cars, the grille was slightly lower and wider and the two small chrome stripes to the left and right of the grille had disappeared. If it were not for the rubber protected redesigned bumpers, the cars would look from the front exactly like the earlier W111 coupe. The rear portion looked similar too, but different taillights with amber turn glasses and the lack of the small fintails made it look more modern.

Due to convex side windows and smaller more outside positioned pillars, the interior width grew by 90 mm (3.54 in) in the front and 70 mm (2.76 in) in the rear. The larger single armrest in front was replaced by two thinner separate ones. They did not come as standard, but had to be ordered at additional costs. They were longer on cars with column-mounted shifts. Also a seat cushion could be ordered again to offer space for a third person up front. For the first time, the driver’s seat could be adjusted in height with a lever at the seat’s left side.

Mercedes 250S W108

Mercedes 250S W108

The instrument layout was again more traditional with two large round instruments for speed and various control functions and a small one that housed the clock. A small elegant looking chrome strip ran along the upper half of the dashboard. It separated the “working area” with control knobs for heating and lights from the lower area which housed the radio, ignition and the two small chromed air vents, which were a carry-over from the W111. If a radio was not ordered the space was covered with a wooden part that also carried a smaller version of the trunk lid’s badge. This badge must have been liked, because on a couple of restored cars equipped with radios, it was moved to the glove box cover.

Mercedes 250SE W108

All four doors were equipped with handholds and the two front doors had large open pockets. In order to protect the outer sides of the seats from premature wear and tear, they had vinyl covered edges.

In the mid 1960s sales of the W111 were still healthy, so it was not a lack of customers that prompted the launch of a new model. It was more a revision of the previous strategy to have one car body for all car classes.

Technically the new cars were based on the W111. The old engines were enlarged to 2.5 l (152.6 cu in) by increasing the bore by two mm (0.079 in) and lengthening the stroke by six mm (0.24 in). Larger valves and induction passages were other changes and the crankshaft was mounted on seven instead of previously four bearings. A six-plunger injection pump replaced the previous two-plunger version on the cast-iron block M129 engine of the 250SE. It was the same one that was used in the 230SL and 300SE. In addition, compression was increased from 1:8.7 to 1:9.3 so that power output could increase from 120 hp at 4.800 rpm to 150 hp at 5.500 rpm (all horsepower refers to DIN not SAE hp). The M108 engine of the Mercedes 250S had its compression increased from 1:8.7 to 1:9.0 and it was equipped with the same Zenith twin-carburetor as the 230S and the last version of the 220S. Its power output was raised from 110 hp at 5.000 rpm to 130 hp at 5.400 rpm. Although torque of both engines increased slightly, like their predecessors they needed to be revved if the driver wanted to see performance. All Mercedes engines of that time were designed that way.

Mercedes 250SE W108

The Mercedes 250S carburetor engine delivered 130 hp at 5,400 rpm

Mercedes 250SE W108

The Mercedes 250SE engine with its modern six-plunger injection pump offered 150 hp at 5,500 rpm

Although the transmission was basically the same as on the 220b series, the gear ratio had been adapted to better suit the characteristics of the updated engines. The cars could be equipped again with a four-speed automatic transmission, which found more and more acceptance among European buyers. In the end some 44 percent of all 250 models produced were ordered with it. It was a Daimler-Benz in-house design with a hydraulic clutch instead of the normally used torque converter. Also an expensive five-speed manual transmission could be ordered, initially only for the 300SE, but very few customers opted for it. But more people appreciated the fashionable and easy to shift floor mounted gearshift, which came on all cars as standard equipment. It had been an option only on the W111 models.

Mercedes 250S W108

A rarely ordered option were the neck rolls for the rear seats on this well maintained Mercedes 250S

The suspension was a carry-over from the predecessor, with double wishbones, coil springs and torsion bar stabilizer at the front and the already slightly outdated single pivot swing axle at the rear. But the rear axle had been reinforced and a new hydro-pneumatic compensating spring located above the rear axle replaced the previous system. While the old one needed to be adjusted manually, the hydro-pneumatic spring adjusted the car’s level automatically, when the car was in motion. In the US, Daimler-Benz promoted this smart new feature in 1966 as follows: ”You could load a few cement blocks and stuff the rear seat with fat men and the 250’s stern would not stag. The reason: a diabolically clever new engineering triumph, the Hydro-Pneumatic compensating spring.”

Mercedes 250S W108

The cars were designed for fast and comfortable motoring and the press was full of praise about the handling characteristics even under adverse conditions. Car and Driver found in 1966 about the Mercedes 250S: “It is one of man’s most perfect mechanical examples”. And Road&Track wrote: “This suspension offers a combination of riding comfort and stability that is the standard for comparison”. Having promoted foreign imports since its inception in 1947, Road&Track liked the concept of the new 250 series, but it also knew that it was vastly different to everything the Big Three had to offer, so it wrote: “It appeals to the intellect, not the libido”. Daimler-Benz advertisement played again with the longevity and classic, compact lines of the cars and explained under the headline The Mercedes 250S: why it’s more likely to end up in a museum than a junkyard: “Mercedes-Benz engineers are too busy building efficient machines to bother with frills and annual face-lifts.(…) Their latest achievement is the Mercedes 250S sedan, recently introduced as a rather unorthodox competitor in the “luxury” price class. Unorthodox, because it refuses to pander to snobs and status-seekers. (…) It tucks into garages, weaves through traffic and handles with almost laughable ease.” In the luxury car class, size was still an important issue in the sixties, so while highlighting its “compact” overall dimensions for a luxury car, advertisement pointed out that the story was a different one, once inside the car:

“You enjoy a shade more headroom than in a Lincoln Continental and a shade more shoulder room than in an Oldsmobile Toronado”.

Mercedes 250SE W108

This 1966 car still has the small chrome air outlets. Starting 1967, they were enlarged and out of black plastic

In the UK, size comparisons did not matter so much, so advertisement highlighted the safety aspects of the 250S: “You get more safety features than with any other car on the road. There are 26 in the 250 series, including impact absorbing front and rear body sections, a twin-circuit disk brake system and ample padding of all protruding parts.”

Top speed for the Mercedes 250S was 180 km/h (112 mph) for the manual car. The British magazine  Autocar even achieved 187 km/h (116 mph), while Road&Track in the US stopped an automatic Mercedes 250S at 176 km/h (109 mph). The Mercedes 250SE was some 10 km/h faster. Both cars suffered from high fuel consumption, which was noted by several journalists even at a time where an energy crisis was still years away. Driven fast it was not unusual for the 250S to use between 16 and 20 l/100km (14.7 and 11.7 mpg). The 250SE used just one liter less on average.

At its introduction, the Mercedes 250S cost without extras such as power steering, automatic transmission, radio, etc 15,300.- DM ($3,825.- ), which made the car 1,550.- DM ($388.- ) more expensive than the 220S. The 250SE cost 16,850.- DM ($4,213.- ) without extras. In the US, the 250S cost $5,750.-  and the 250SE $6,380.-. A Cadillac De Ville could be bought in 1965 for $5,430.- , while a Chrysler New Yorker cost some $5,700.- . Another import, the Jaguar Mk 10, could be yours for around $7,000.- . All of them came standard with automatic transmission, power steering and in case of the American cars, the usual other electrical goodies. None of that was available on the 250 series as standard equipment, but it can be safely assumed that most North American Mercedes dealers ordered their cars with a minimum of equipment, such as power steering and automatic transmission. Starting from 1968, the North American versions offered mores standard specs than their European counterparts.

Mercedes 250S W108

In the beginning the 250 series suffered from occasional piston seizures and excessively high oil consumption when driven fast. These problems had been rectified later with improved piston seals and reduced piston clearance, but the high fuel consumption and somewhat noisy appearance at higher speeds remained. Although customers’ confidence in Daimler-Benz products did not suffer from this and sales remained healthy, management knew it was time for change. That change was introduced in 1968 in form of the 280S and 280SE.

If you want to read the whole story of the W108 and how it was to drive those cars back in the 1970s, all of it can be read in my e-book about the W108 and W109 series. It comes with over 50 unique color pictures, most of them have never been published in a book before. A two volume printed version about all cars Daimler-Benz produced in the 1960s will appear on amazon around October of this year.

Mercedes 250S W108

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