Buyers Guide - 1953-1960 W180 220S/W128 220SE

Richard Simonds, Gary Anderson, Pat Matthews
















The W180/W128 Family, 1953-1960

A brief buyers guide to the 220S and 220SE sedans, coupes, and cabriolets

The Collectible Sweet Spot in the Ponton Series

By Richard Simonds, Gary Anderson, and Pat Mathews
Pictures by Gary Anderson

There is a sweet spot in every series of collectible cars, where the year-by-year improvement in the model line reached its peak, but the manufacturer hadn't yet overloaded the car with unnecessary features or styling touches. For the collector, this sweet spot is where affordable models can still be found, but true aspirational versions share parts and technology.

For the Pontons - the bread-and-butter revenue generators of Mercedes-Benz products in the 1950s and 1960s - this sweet spot is within the 220S and 220SE range, sold from 1956 to 1961. This range is bracketed by the 220S sedan, a perfect entry point for the neophyte classic car hobbyist, and the 220SE cabriolet, still attainable but rare and attractive enough to compete for best-of-show trophies at most multi-marque concours d'elegance events.


Automotive historians often date the modern age of automotive design and construction from the introduction of unit-body construction and integrated fenders that replaced body-on-frame construction and separate fenders. For Mercedes-Benz, this milestone was passed in September 1953, with introduction of the 180 (W120) sedan, the first Ponton (so named because the design features of slight bulges to define the fenders looked like the bouyant pontoons of floating bridges and boats).

The Ponton lineup rapidly evolved in the 1950s, with improved engines, improved suspension, then with the restyled 220S sedan, followed soon after by the sleek coupe and cabriolet versions. The zenith was reached in the 1959 model year with the three 220SE models (see this issue, pp. 34-39). These models are the best of all worlds for the collector; they are fast enough to keep up with modern traffic so they can be driven today, but still have the character and simple mechanical design of the 1950s.

Take the 220S, or the more powerful 220SE, in its affordable sedan version, or desirable but expensive coupe and cabiolet, and you'll have a car that can be shown with pride and enjoyed with enthusiasm.

Reasons to buy a W180/W128

  • Engineering and build quality are excellent, with the coupes and cabriolets built to an even higher standard than the sedans.
  • The unit-body construction provides a measure of safety that is higher than contemporary cars of the era.
  • The styling - especially with the coupes and cabriolets - is both classic and modern. The 220s are at home in just about any setting.
  • Because of different body panels and insulation, the coupes and cabriolets are quieter on the road than the sedans.
  • Mechanical parts are readily available, particularly because sedans can serve as "donor cars" (see this issue, p. 112) for restorations of the more expensive coupes and cabriolets. Parts are also readily available from The Classic Center in Irvine, California, and from after-market suppliers that advertise in The Star.
  • The cars are modern enough to be fun to drive on today's roads. They have enough acceleration to maintain a fair pace in traffic, they will definitely drive at highway speeds (albeit with higher revs), and their four-wheel drum brakes do a credible job of stopping. The sedans offer a better balanced driving experience. It is possible to change the differential gears from the 4.10:1 to 3.69:1 if you do a lot of highway driving and want a quieter, lowering revving engine.


Reasons not to buy a W180/W128

  • Sedans often suffer from neglect - they just become "old cars." With sedans becoming desirable in their own right as potential restoration projects, the buyer must be careful to differentiate between a restorable sedan and one that is only useful for parts.
  • The risk of rust is always present in vehicles of this vintage, and rusted body parts are expensive to replace.
  • Body trim is difficult to find and replace - especially in the coupes and cabriolets. The cabriolet with the two-tone paint has a small piece of chrome around the front edge of the front wheel wells that is virtually impossible to find.
  • The chrome-plated grille is expensive to repair and/or re-plate.
  • The Hydrak "Automatic Transmission" is expensive to repair (although once it is restored and set up properly can work well for many years).
  • Count on needing an engine rebuild every 100,000-120,000 miles - especially the cylinder heads and valves/valve guides.
  • The 13-inch tires are difficult to find and will likely require using one of the specialty classic tire manufacturers for expensive replacements. An option is to go to 14-inch tires and use a contemporary radial tire.


  1. Chassis - Rust is the most likely culprit, found in the usual spots: fenders, door sills, door rocker panels, floor plans, battery trays and the body panel underneath them, and front-frame rails.
  2. Engine - Cylinder heads can be pitted or corroded if proper coolant has not been used and replaced on schedule. Valve guides are good for up to 120,000 miles. Timing chains, sprockets, and hydraulic tensioners need to be checked for wear. Valve clearances must be checked regularly. Cars that have not been driven regularly should be checked for engine oil sludge and plugged oil passages. Motor mounts often sag, and water pumps are standard items to check. The 1960 coupe and cabriolet have the newer rocker arms from the 220SEb (Finback sedan) and make a much quieter, smoother engine.
  3. Front Suspension - Check lubrication points to be sure that the grease has not hardened into the consistency of concrete, leading to rusted bushings and broken suspension components. The flex joint in the steering column can disintegrate and will cause lots of "play" in the steering.
  4. Differential - Check low-pivot axle for compensator spring condition. Check for gear lash adjustment and noise upon acceleration or at certain speeds. Check for axle bearings that "moan" on off-throttle or when turning. The long support arms from the rear suspension have a tendency to rust where they attach to the unit-body.
  5. Interior - Check woodwork on coupes and cabriolets as it is extensive and because of its special designs quite expensive to replace; cabriolets even have wood on the top. Support of seat cushions and springs is a mandatory checkpoint. Check condition of the fabric or leather seat surfaces. Check the rubber floor mats in sedans and carpeting throughout in coupes and cabriolets.
  6. Gearbox and Clutch - Check for shift linkages (worn bushings). Check for synchromesh in all forward gears and for gear or bearing noise. Hydrak Clutch/hydraulic coupler and electromechanical shifting requires special attention for smooth operation. Note: The Hydrak transmissions often were removed because owners did not understand how to operate them and burned out the clutches. If the driver only touches the shift lever when shifting gears, the system works quite well. However, some drivers keep their hand on the shift lever and end up damaging the system. If you find a vehicle with the Hydrak system, it is a worthwhile rarity to enjoy; just be sure it works, or that you can find a competent mechanic to set it up properly and maintain its adjustments.
  7. Fuel System (carburetors/fuel injection) - Check the Solex carburetors in the 220S models for leaking bodies, maladjusted linkages, correct-size metering valves, and worn needle valves in the float chambers. Most carburetors need a thorough cleaning and rebuild to run well, and they are still more finicky and need more attention than fuel-injected engines. Fuel-injection systems are generally quite robust, but may need to be rebuilt if they have not been driven for a long time and have varnish and sludge in the system; check the electric fuel pump for proper pressure and fuel flow volume; check fuel injection nozzles in the manifold for matching pressures and spray patterns; The 220SE was the first vehicle to use "manifold injection" instead of direct injection into the cylinders so they were ahead of their time in 1958.
  8. Power Steering - Check your biceps, because the power steering in these cars was produced by "Arm-strong." Check for steering box adjustment and wear and check tie-rod ends for worn bushings.
  9. Brakes - Check for out-of-round brake drums and brake linings on the shoes to be sure that they are not "down to the rivets" or beyond the safe level on the bonded linings. Check brake fluid condition and, if dirty, plan to rebuild the master cylinder and wheel cylinders and replace all brake hoses (a major safety consideration).
  10. History - Collect as much of the car's history as you can. The 220SE cabriolet was as expensive as a Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz in the late 1950s, so some of these cars have an ownership history that can makes them more valuable. Other than that, get the best detail you can on vehicle maintenance, especially sedans.

The usual adage is to buy the best you can, because the costs of restoration almost invariably exceed the marketplace value of the car.    

One Owner's Viewpoint

By Pat Matthews, San Francisco Bay Area Section

The sedan that appears on with this article is my 1959 220SE sedan, an award winner at several regional concours events. I also own a 1960 220SE coupe and a 1960 220SE cabriolet. The coupe and cabriolet are built to a much higher standard than the sedan, but there are many reasons to own the sedan. 

Beyond the obvious details, such as the use of the extra wood and chrome (the chrome trim on a sedan is anodized aluminum, whereas the trim on the coupe and cabriolet is brass), the interior compartment is completely sealed off from the engine and trunk compartments by metal in the coupe and cabriolet, while the sedan uses cardboard behind the dash to seal off the firewall and the backseat is used to seal the trunk from the interior. As a result, the coupe and cabriolet are quieter to drive.

However, I find the 220SE sedan to be a better-balanced driving car. It is lighter than either of the other two body styles and feels more nimble.

I changed the rear axle ratio of my 220SE sedan from 4.10 to 3.69, and that has made a big difference for highway cruising. You should also be aware that the 1960 coupe and cabriolet have the updated rocker arms (the same as the 1960 Finback sedan), which makes for a noticeably smoother-running, quieter, and higher-horsepower engine than the earlier cars.

A note on the fuel-injection cars:  In my humble opinion, they are far superior to the carbureted cars. in addition to higher horsepower, they have a much greater flexibility due to the higher torque output. Though getting the fuel injection set up correctly is quickly becoming a lost art, once it is right, it will stay that way for a long time and is extremely reliable.

By contrast, the carburetor cars tend to be finicky due to the complexity of the Solex carbs. Getting them rebuilt correctly is also a dying art and not inexpensive. Among the coupes and cabriolets, production seems to have been split evenly between fuel-injected and carbureted cars. The sedan, however, was only offered with fuel injection in 1959 and was made in very limited numbers compared to the carbureted version.

Overall, all the Ponton 220S and SE cars are very enjoyable to drive.  One of my tests for a good older driving car is, does it feel safe to drive on modern highways or is it marginal? I use acceleration (Can I be up to speed at the end of the on ramp?) and braking (Do I need to keep a really big distance between my car and the car ahead of me?) to determine whether I feel safe in the car. In relation to both criteria, these cars are very acceptable and a joy to drive.

Ponton Series Chassis Numbers

Vehicle numbering during this period can be confusing, because Mercedes-Benz used similar numbers to designate both chassis types and model types.  The models grouped under the collective term "Pontons" and their chassis numbers follow. 

  • The W120 series includes the 180 4-cylinder gasoline- and diesel-engine sedans produced 1953-1962. 
  • The W121 series includes the 190 4-cylinder gasoline- and diesel-engine sedans from 1956-1961, and the gasoline-engine roadsters (190SLs) produced 1955-1963. 
  • The W180 series includes the 220a 6-cylinder, gasoline engine sedans and the 220S 6-cylinder gasoline engine sedan, coupes, and cabriolets produced 1956-1959.
  • The W128 series includes 220SE 6-cylinder, fuel-injected, gasoline engine sedans, coupes, and cabriolets produced 1958-1960.
  • The 220SE series continued up to 1965 with the new W111 series coupes and cabriolets (220SEb) produced 1959-1965 and the 220b and 220S (Fintail sedans) produced 1959-1965.


Sept. 1953First Ponton, 180 (W120) sedan, introduced; first unit-body car produced by Mercedes-Benz.
Mar. 1954180D introduced, with diesel engine in 180 body. 220a (W180) introduced with old 220 engine and body styling similar to W120.
Jan. 1956"Single-point swing axle" fitted to 180 and 180D to improve handling. Eventually fitted to all 220s.
May 1956190 Ponton (W121) introduced, essentially 180 body style with detuned engine from 190SL.
Sept. 1956220S (W180) introduced, with added chrome strip on front fender to distinguish from 220a. Additional horsepower offered true 100mph capability.
Oct. 1956220S coupe introduced.
Dec. 1956220S cabriolet introduced.
Sept. 1957220S increased to 106hp. Hydrak clutch by Fichtel and Sachs added as option.
Sept. 1958220SE (W128) sedan introduced, with fuel-injected engine. 190D introduced with OM621 diesel engine.
Sept. 1958220SE (W128) sedan introduced, with fuel-injected engine.
Oct. 1958220SE (W128) coupe and cabriolet introduced.
Aug. 1959220SE (W128) Ponton sedan production ends, to be replaced by 220SE (W111) series.
Oct. 1959220S Ponton production (all body styles) ends.
Oct. 1960220SE coupe and cabriolet production ends. Some of these units sold as "1961" models.


By the Numbers

 220S (W180 II)220SE (W128)
Production Years1956-19591958-1960
Units Produced
(Sedans/Coupes & Cabrios)
55,279 / 3,4291,974 / 1,942
Chassis Prefix180II128
Engine PrefixM180 IIIM127
Wheelbase (inches)
(Sedans/ Coupes & Cabrios)
111.0 / 106.3111.0 / 106.3
Weight (pounds)
2970 /3102 /32193,014 / 3,146 / 3,234
Bore & Stroke (inches)3.15 x 2.873.15 x 2.87
Displacement (cu in)133.9133.9
Compression Ratio7.6:18.7:1 (Prem fuel)
   (After Aug 1957)8.7:1 (Prem. fuel) 
HP (SAE) @ rpm112 @ 4,800134 @ 5,000
   (After August 1957)124 @ 5,200 
Torque (ft-lb) @ rpm119 @ 3,500152 @ 4,100
   (After August 1957)127 @ 3,500 
Fuel System2-Solex CarburetorsBosch 2-plunger fuel-injection into manifold
(Hydrak Clutch option with electromechanical column shift actuation after August 1957)
4 speed column shift4 speed column shift
Final drive ratio4.10:14.10:1
RPM @ 62 mph3,3203,320
Tires6.70 x 13 Sport6.70 x 13 Sport
0-100 kph (62 mph)17 seconds15 seconds
Max, Speed (mph)99.599.5
Fuel Economy17.4 mpg18 mpg
(coupe and cabrio)16.8 mpg17.4 mpg

For More Information

The Mercedes-Benz since 1945, Volume 1. Taylor, James. Motor Racing Publications, Ltd., Croydon, England. Reprinted 1991. ISBN 0-900549-95-5.

Mercedes-Benz Illustrated Buyers Guide, Second Edition. Barrett, Frank. MBI Publishing Co., Osceola, WI. 1998. ISBN 0-7603-0451-3.

Mercedes-Benz Production Models Book 1946-1990. Nitske, W. Robert. MBI Publishing Co., Osceola, WI. 1990. ISBN 0-87938-190-6.

The International Ponton Owners Group: