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

by Bernd

in Mercedes S-Class

Mercedes 250S

The Mercedes 250S, SE W108 series was a welcome change for the Fintails. The previous cars had followed the philosophy that one design would meet the needs of people from taxi drivers to CEOs. Of course, the taxi driver did not complain, but the CEO did. The new W108 was no longer to be confused with its four-cylinder cousins.

The 250 and later the 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 was impressive, it was the handling, the interior space and above all the quality of the cars that made them a popular choice among the wealthy. Even if you drive one of these cars today, you will still be impressed by its timeless design. 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 interior

When Friedrich Geiger and Paul Bracq, who both worked in the Wilfert design department, started working on the successor to the W111 in 1961, they knew that the fintails had to go. The designers under Karl Wilfert had already considered them 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, the future head of Mercedes design, once said in an interview: “The fintails should never have gone into production.

The beautiful W111 Coupé had shown how the W111 Sedan could have looked, now it was up to the W108 to follow this design for the new S-Class generation. With its high grille and vertical headlights, the series represents an era when every boy and girl could point out that this was a Mercedes. If it had been up to Paul Bracq, the cars would have had a different front end, one that looked like the W116 with horizontal headlights. But he could not convince his superiors and the marketing/sales team, so the cars still had the traditional Mercedes front when they were introduced to the public in August 1965.

The final design of the W108 evolved in three steps. The first approach still had the higher body of the W111 Sedan, but already with the roof of the coupé. 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 on the trunk. The aim had been to keep the overall dimensions of the W111, but to improve the interior space. In the end, the car was 60 mm (2.36 in) lower and 15 mm (0.59 in) wider, but looked bigger from the outside 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 strips to the left and right of the grille had disappeared. If it were not for the redesigned rubber-protected bumpers, the cars would look exactly like the earlier W111 Coupé from the front. The rear also looked similar, but different taillights with amber lenses and the absence of the small fins made it look more modern.

Mercedes 250S, rhd,

Convex side windows and smaller, more outward pillars increased the interior width by 90 mm (3.54 inches) at the front and 70 mm (2.76 inches) at the rear. The larger single armrest in front was replaced by two thinner, separate armrests. They were not standard, but had to be ordered at extra cost. They were longer on cars with column shifts. A seat cushion could also be ordered to accommodate a third person in front. For the first time the height of the driver’s seat could be adjusted with a lever on the left side of the seat.

With a floor-mounted shift, the armrests were shorter

The instrument layout was again more traditional, with two large round gauges for speed and various secondary functions, and a small one that housed the clock. A small, elegant chrome strip ran along the upper half of the dashboard. It separated the “working area” with control knobs for heating and lighting from the lower area which housed the radio, ignition and two small chrome air vents carried over from the W111. If no radio was ordered, the space was covered with a wooden part that also carried a smaller version of the trunk lid badge. This badge must have been liked, because on some restored cars with radios it was moved to the glove compartment lid.

All four doors had grab handles and the two front doors had large open pockets. To protect the outside of the seats from premature wear, 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 introduction of a new model. It was rather a revision of the previous strategy to have one 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 enlarging the bore by two mm (0.079 in) and lengthening the stroke by six mm (0.24 in). Larger valves and intake ports were other changes, and the crankshaft was mounted on seven instead of four bearings. A six-plunger fuel injection pump replaced the previous two-plunger version on the 250SE’s cast-iron block M129 engine. It was the same as that used in the 230SL and 300SE. In addition, the compression ratio was increased from 1:8.7 to 1:9.3, allowing the power output to increase from 120 hp at 4,800 rpm to 150 hp at 5,500 rpm (all horsepower ratings are DIN, not SAE).

The M108 engine of the Mercedes 250S had its compression increased from 1:8.7 to 1:9.0 and was equipped with the same Zenith twin carburetor as the 230S and the last version of the 220S. Power was increased from 110 bhp at 5,000 rpm to 130 bhp at 5,400 rpm. Although the torque of both engines increased slightly, like their predecessors they had to be revved if the driver wanted to see performance. All Mercedes engines of the time were designed that way.

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

Mercedes 250SE engine

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 that of the 220b series, the gear ratios had been adapted to better suit the characteristics of the updated engines. The cars could again be equipped with a four-speed automatic transmission, which became increasingly popular with European buyers. In the end, some 44 percent of all 250 models produced were ordered with it. It was a Daimler-Benz design with a hydraulic clutch instead of the usual torque converter.

An expensive five-speed manual transmission was also available, initially only for the 300SE, but very few customers opted for it. But more people appreciated the stylish and easy to shift floor-mounted shifter that was standard on all cars. It had only been an option on the W111 models.

In those days neck rolls could be ordered individually for each seat

The suspension was a carry-over from the previous model, with double wishbones, coil springs and torsion bar stabilizer at the front and the already somewhat outdated single pivot swing axle at the rear. However, the rear axle had been reinforced and a new hydro-pneumatic spring mounted above the rear axle replaced the previous system. Whereas the old system had to be adjusted manually, the hydro-pneumatic spring automatically leveled the car while driving. Daimler-Benz advertised this clever new feature in 1966 as follows: “You could load a few cement blocks and stuff the back seat with fat men and the rear of the 250 would not stagger. The reason: a fiendishly clever new engineering triumph, the hydro-pneumatic compensation spring”.

When no radio was ordered, a wooden plate with the car’s (smaller) sign covered the opening

The cars were designed for fast and comfortable driving, and the press was full of praise for the handling characteristics, even under adverse conditions. Car and Driver said of the Mercedes 250S in 1966, “It is one of man’s most perfect mechanical examples.

And Road&Track wrote: “This chassis offers a combination of ride comfort and stability that sets the standard for comparison“. Having promoted foreign imports since its founding in 1947, Road&Track liked the concept of the new 250 series, but also knew it was very different from anything the Big Three had to offer, so it continued: “It appeals to the intellect, not the libido.”

The Daimler-Benz ad again played on the cars’ longevity and classic, compact lines, explaining 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 facelifts.(…) Their latest achievement is the Mercedes 250S sedan, recently introduced as a rather unorthodox competitor in the “luxury” price range. Unorthodox because it refuses to pander to snobs and status-seekers. (…) It tucks into garages, weaves through traffic and handles with almost ridiculous ease.”

In the luxury car class, size was still an important issue in the 1960s, so while emphasizing its “compact” overall dimensions for a luxury car, the advertising pointed out that the story was different 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 made 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.”

The top speed of the Mercedes 250S was 180 km/h (112 mph) for the manual car. The British magazine Autocar even reached 187 km/h (116 mph), while Road&Track in the USA stopped an automatic Mercedes 250S at 176 km/h (109 mph). The Mercedes 250SE was about 10 km/h faster. Both cars suffered from high fuel consumption, which was noted by several journalists at a time when an energy crisis was still years away. When driven fast, it was not uncommon for the 250S to use between 16 and 20 l/100km (14.7 and 11.7 mpg). The 250SE averaged just one liter less.

It is rare to see in Europe a W108 with (apparently factory-installed) air condition, like this 1967 model that was ordered in Italy

At its introduction, the Mercedes 250S without extras such as power steering, automatic transmission, radio, etc. cost 15,300.- DM ($3,825), making the car 1,550.- DM ($388) more expensive than the 220S. The 250SE cost 16.850,- DM ($4.213) without extras. In the USA, the 250S cost $5,750 and the 250SE $6,380, but had more standard extras. A Cadillac De Ville could be bought for $5,430 in 1965, while a Chrysler New Yorker cost about $5,700. Another import, the Jaguar Mk10, could be yours for around $7,000. In the UK though, a Jaguar Mk10 was considerably cheaper than the Mercedes. The 250S cost in the UK £2,710, while the 250SE started at £2,995.

The competition came standard with automatic transmission (the Jaguar could also be purchased with a manual transmission), power steering and, in the case of the American cars, the usual electrical goodies. None of this was standard on the 250 series, but it is safe to assume that most North American Mercedes dealers ordered their cars with a minimum of equipment such as power steering and automatic transmission. Starting in 1968, the North American versions offered more standard features than their European counterparts.

Mercedes 250SE, Red interior

MB-Tex was popular in some markets, as it usually outlasted the car

Initially, the 250-series suffered from occasional piston seizure and excessive oil consumption at high rpm. These problems were later solved with improved piston seals and reduced piston clearance, but the high fuel consumption and somewhat noisy operation at higher speeds remained. Although customer confidence in Daimler-Benz products had not suffered and sales remained healthy, management knew it was time for a change. That change came in 1968 in the form of the 280S and 280SE.

If you want to read more about the development and history of the W108 and W109 six-cylinder series, you can read it all in my book and e-book. It also includes a buyer’s guide, explains the chassis number and data card, and offers many new color pictures, including photos of the suspension. The link takes you to the US Amazon site, but depending on where you live, your local Amazon site will carry the book under the same title.

A German version of this book you can find here.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Brianbob February 13, 2024 at 2:10 pm

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Miguel Angel Zaragoza Aponte. August 9, 2018 at 11:28 am

Hello, I have a 280S 1970, with 80,000.00 Km., You will have value idea of ??this vehicle, thanks !!!

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Roland November 17, 2017 at 7:17 pm

Hi everyone;

I am a “youngster” (well … in my thirties); and have been searching the Internet for months, in order to find these re-designed Mercedes without the fintails … I find quite a lot of them; at correct prices, but they usually feature the larger, and black plastic air outlets. Thus; I would like to know if a specialist in restoration (preferably a Mercedes garage/dealer) can modify the dashboard, in order to put the small chrome air outlets (I’ve been able to find some many times as spare parts on the Internet); or is that work too hard to achieve. Thanks again if anybody can help !

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JEROME October 23, 2015 at 5:32 pm

Hi,
I’m looking for the values for setting the injection for my Pagode 250 sl. Can you help me ?
Thanks

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Bernd October 24, 2015 at 10:02 am

Hi Jerome, thanks for contacting me. Unfortunately I am not a technician, so I do not know how to set the values for your nice car. There is a great website that caters to everything pagoda SL. Here is the link:
http://www.sl113.org/wiki/Main/HomePage

Good luck with your project and greetings from Germany

Bernd

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john June 26, 2015 at 1:19 am

Hi, I read a lot of things I didnt know. Very nice work. I am restoring my father’s 250S 1966 and I am missing all the interior wood trim. I have not been able to find trim of the dashboard since mine is with the chrome air inlets. Do you jave any links that could assist me finding these? Thank you

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Bernd June 30, 2015 at 9:53 am

Hi John, thanks for liking my article and my appologies for coming back to you a bit late. Wood trim for older Mercedes cars is a big problem, as it’s hardly available. One possible source could be a Mercedes classic forum or did you try ebay? I didn’t try the UK site, but a quick search for “wood trim W108 mercedes” on ebay.com came up with several trim items. Just an idea. All the best, Bernd

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Peter May 11, 2013 at 10:18 pm

Hi Bernd,

the blue 250S on your homepage (2.nd Photo), thats my car! I see it on the floor cover and the bushes.
Where have you found the Photo?
For more infos, Photos : http://www.250s.pelicom.org, Benutzername: 250s, Passwort: 250s
This car is for sale.

kind regards from Germany

Peter Linnartz

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Bernd May 12, 2013 at 11:09 am

Hi Peter,
thanks for the info. I have just sent you an email regarding this photo.

Ciao,
Bernd

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Kal Patel January 24, 2013 at 11:44 pm

Hello Bernd. I have just read the hardcopy of Volume 2 The 1960’s and it is a fantastic book. I purchased this book because I myself have purchased a 1972 280se 4.5. I want to ask you what the exterior color of the cars on pages 145 and 147 are. If possible could you provide the Mercedes Benz three digit color code.

thank you,
Kal

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Bernd January 25, 2013 at 1:01 pm

Hi Kal and many thanks for your comment. I am happy that you like one of my books and congrats to your beautiful 4.5. The color codes of the cars in question are as follows:
The 6.3 on page 145 is in medium blue metallic, code 396 (you can see the same color again on the 3.5 on the top of page 155).
The 1968 6.3 on top of page 147 is in silver metallic, code 180 and
the 1970 6.3 on the bottom of that page is in (non-metallic) dark green, code 268.

I hope that this info has helped. Btw, if you have some time and could leave a small comment about my book on amazon, I would really appreciate that. I helps a small-scale author to gain a bit or recognition in the highly competitive amazon market.

Thanks and have a nice weekend,
Bernd

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Kal January 25, 2013 at 2:22 pm

Thanks Bernd, I really appreciate it. I am thinking of repainting mine the blue 396 color. This color really brings out the chrome trim. Its original color is #462 a metallic beige color. I will leave a comment on Amazon about Volume 2.

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Bernd January 25, 2013 at 2:44 pm

You are more than welcome Kal. A friend of mine once had a 280S in blue 396 and I always thought that it brings out the virtues of the w108 quite well, especially as you already said, considering the chrome.

Btw, there is another color that I would consider equally up to the task: 172 anthracit grey metallic . But that’s just my personal opinion. Your 396 is an excellent choice 🙂

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Bernd January 26, 2013 at 1:05 pm

Thanks Kal for your comment on amazon. It’s very much appreciated!

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http://www./ December 25, 2016 at 6:53 am

How could any of this be better stated? It couldn’t.

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valda spink September 12, 2012 at 11:16 am

I only have one comment to make. Oh, what a glorious motor-car !

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Bernd September 7, 2012 at 12:49 pm

Thanks John. I am happy that you like it, Bernd

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John Mardian September 7, 2012 at 2:25 am

Great car. Keep up the good work.John

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