Buyers Guide - 1959-1968 W111/W112 Finback Sedans

20Finback%201_0_0.jpgTime often changes perspective on style.









W112 Finbacks
Comfortable, Practical and Affordable
A Buyers Guide to the 1959-1968 220, 300, and 230 Sedans

Article by Gary Anderson and Richard Simonds
Contributions from Pat Matthews and Mathieu Cama
Photography by Richard Simonds
Time often changes perspective on style. The range of sedans with small but distinctive tail fins built on the W111/W112 chassis during the 1960s is a case in point. When they were introduced, they seemed a pale and dated imitation of  the befinned American cars that preceded them, and their nicknames – finback, fintail, and heckflosse – were more derisive than descriptive. Now they are beginning to be recognized by collectors for their underlying quality and appreciated for the distinctiveness of those small styling touches.

The all-new W111 chassis, presented to the world in August 1959 in the 220b, was emblematic of two basic attitudes that explain how Daimler-Benz has survived and prospered for so many years: an inherent respect for safety, and a desire to get as many different uses as possible out of every single component. (Note that the “b” was added to distinguish the W111-based 220b from the previous W180-based 220 ponton models)

Mercedes-Benz engineers had been working with unit-body chassis since the introduction of the first Pontons in 1954, and under the direction of Béla Barényi, instituted crash-testing as a standard part of chassis development long before other companies and certainly well before government mandates.

The result of this work was the W111, the world’s first chassis with designed-in crumple zones that would absorb energy from a collision before the impact could intrude on the passenger compartment. In addition, the W111 was capable of experiencing a roll-over without collapsing the top of the car. As soon as the company began to promote these features, other companies were quick to follow, so the benefits can not be over-stated.

The introduction and model evolution illustrated Mercedes-Benz marketing efficiencies as well. Not only was the W111 introduced with two different trim levels, it also took advantage of the already developed M180 engine, though now with two carburetors, and then offering the M127, essentially the same engine, but with fuel injection. By combining these packages, the company could offer a basic trim, basic engine model; a luxury trim, basic engine; and a luxury trim, high-performance engine.

In addition to the crumple-zone chassis, Barényi equipped the interior with a padded dashboard with flexible and partially recessed instruments, and a steering wheel with a padded center. Further distinguishing the interior was the unique vertical instrument cluster in front of the driver, with a center speedometer that was read like a thermometer and displayed different colors as speed increased.

The 220Sb and 220SEb could be distinguished from the basic 220b model by additional chrome trim on the exterior, including neat chrome trim on the tailfins, and by bigger taillights and rear quarter bumpers.

The styling team under Paul Bracq had by 1961 developed another body style that could be built on the same chassis in two forms, a coupe and a cabriolet, and use the same engines.

With the addition of the 300SE in 1962, the 3-liter M189 engine and its very respectable 185 SAE horsepower was also offered on the finbacks as well as the coupes and cabriolets. Though in appearance and technical details similar to the 220SEb, the new transmission, power steering – the first on a Mercedes – and air suspension merited a new chassis designation, as the W112.

So with one basic chassis, two engines, and three body styles, the company could offer a range of six models spanning the entire market from a cheap taxi cab to an expensive cabriolet.

At the Geneva Motor Show in 1963, the model range was broadened further with the introduction of the 300SE, a long-wheelbase version of the air-suspension W112 chassis that could form the basis for a luxury limousine, temporarily but effectively filling the gap vacated by the end of 300 Adenauer production – not to be filled until the introduction of the 600 Grossers in 1964.

The 220 and 300 range was produced through August 1965, essentially being replaced by the W108/W109 chassis series.  However, with continuing demand for the coupes and cabriolets, one finback model, the 230S, was continued. Externally it was almost identical to the 220S, but bore size and compression in the engine were increased to produce 10 more horsepower. Production of the 230S, the last finback, was discontinued in January 1968.

In their day, especially with the introduction of the luxurious coupes and cabriolets, the styling of the finbacks was viewed as somewhat anachronistic, and certainly not on the cutting edge of design. However, with today’s eye, we can see them for what they really are: interesting and distinctive bodies on one of Mercedes-Benz’s best chassis.

The 300SE had distinctive trim and identification on the C-pillar


Reasons to Buy a Finback

  • The finbacks are among the best values in the classic sedan line-up, offering opportunity for appreciation in value, while having the intrinsic utility of the much pricier W111/W112 coupes and cabriolets.
  • Long derided for their “Nash Rambler” looks, the finbacks are still quite affordable, and a good starting point for a classic enthusiast.
  • Sharing mechanical features with the more desirable coupes and cabriolets, and now becoming popular in their own right, these cars are quite reliable and aren’t difficult to maintain.
  • Interior seating space and the large trunk make these cars practical for enthusiasts with families or lots of friends.
  • The ride is comfortable with good power. With dual-circuit disk brakes (four-wheel disks on the 300SEs), these cars are pleasant and reasonably safe to drive.
  • The airy greenhouse and spacious interior provide excellent visibility and a limousine-like travel experience.


Reasons Not to Buy a Finback

  • When a model line seems to be undervalued, it can mean the cost of restoration will dramatically exceed the car’s potential resale value. In contrast to more valuable models, the advice to be patient and buy the very best condition available can not be overemphasized.
  • Rust can be an issue; if it exists, the size and complexity of the body makes restoration financially impractical. Check for bondo and poor accident repair. Cars that haven’t been cared for during their lifetimes – carelessly stored outside, for example – should be shunned.
  • Air suspension on the W112 was a delightful feature, but if it goes bad, replacement parts are expensive.
  • Because of the rarity of the W112s (fewer than 8,000 were produced, including the coupes and cabrios) parts for them can also be difficult and expensive to obtain. The unique distributor cap, by itself, costs $1,300.
  • The carbureted models can be more problematical than the fuel-injection models due to poor maintenance and inept mechanics. Rebuild kits and services are available, but experience counts.


The finbacks had a distinctive instrument cluster with a vertical speedometer.


  • Structural rust in these models may be terminal, and body work will be expensive. Check frame rails, B-pillar base, frame box members ahead of the rear axle, rockers and jacking points, inner fender wells and lower quarter panel behind rear wheel arches. Any significant rust is probably going to be a complete show-stopper.
  • Existence and condition of knobs, chrome, and emblems is important – many are now unobtainable.
  • On W112 cars, check the operation of the air suspension system carefully. These are time-consuming to repair, and because of the cost of the replacement parts, repairs can be very expensive.
  • Front suspensions require regular maintenance and lubrication. A neglected front suspension can cost enough to refurbish to put the whole restoration under water.
  • Condition of wood interior trim, chrome moldings and surrounds is important. Good pieces can be refinished at a price, but replacement parts will be very expensive.
  • Check the engine for start-up and smooth running. The mechanical fuel injection system is reliable and straightforward to rebuild; carburetors are a little more challenging. Troubleshooting and repairing either system requires a mechanic with experience on these systems.


Air suspension system on the 300SE


When the new W111 chassis was introduced, suspension and brakes were largely carried over from preceding models, however, the wheel suspension had been changed. The sub-frame concept, introduced with the ponton models, was retained, but now consisted of a simple transversal bar with elastic links to the frame floor at two points. At the rear, the tried-and-true single-joint cross-shaft axle was fitted with a compensating spring, located horizontally above the pivot in order to ensure even distribution of axle load. Shock absorbers were located as near to the wheels as possible, resulting not only in more effective damping of vibration, but also allowing better access.

The 5-main bearing crankshaft on the M127 2.2-liter iron engine is not as strong as the later 7-main crank. Watch for low oil pressure. Poor cooling system maintenance can cause damage to the alloy cylinder head, which will be expensive to rectify.  

The luxurious W112 300SE was introduced in the second year of W111 production. It has the M189 3-liter SOHC all-alloy, 6-cylinder, 7-main bearing engine. Carburetion used the principle of intermittent inlet manifold injection, using a Bosch injection pump. In January 1964, the  two-plunger injection pump was replaced by a six-plunger injection pump. Compression was also increased, increasing horsepower from 175 to 185 (SAE). This engine and its transmission share few parts with other Mercedes-Benz drive trains. When in good condition, it offers exceptional performance, but parts are very expensive, and the water pump, ignition and valve adjustments are arcane.

Air suspension on the 300SE gave it a smoother ride without sacrificing handling. However, this suspension was susceptible to leaking around the seals, a problem that is difficult to correct completely, but if the system was properly maintained, with the alcohol reservoir filled periodically, it may still be fine.
The W112 was the first M-B model to be fitted with a dual-circuit brake system and disk brakes, front and rear. However, the early Dunlop-Girling disk brakes can be unreliable and should be replaced with the later, more reliable ATE system.
During W111 production, brakes were modified twice. In April, 1962, the 220Sb and 220SEb range got disk brakes on the front wheels. Later, the 220b also was fitted with front disk brakes, and power brakes, which had been optional at extra cost, was fitted as standard. At the same time, the 220s were also fitted with the dual-circuit brake system as fitted to the W112s.
In 1965, the 230S was introduced. The 230S was largely identical to the 220Sb, but the engine was modified with a wider bore, increasing capacity by 100 cc. Combined with increased compression, the 2.3 liter engine had 10 more horsepower than the earlier 2.2 liter version. The self-leveling hydraulic camber compensator on the rear axle was also new. The only other change was the model badge on the boot lid.
The 300SE and 300SEL are clearly the most desirable of the finbacks, but unless they are already in excellent condition, they aren’t generally practical to restore. Parts such as the distributor caps can be unbelievably expensive to replace.
With less chrome than the SE models, no air suspension and much higher production figures, the 220S and 230S cars are more practical to own. They are joys to drive and, though not inexpensive to own and operate, their costs are at least not stratospheric.
The bottom line is that if you find a finback for sale in excellent condition at a reasonable price, buy it. On the other hand, think very carefully before attempting a restoration.

AUGUST 1959First W111 finback sedans introduced for model year 1960 in three models – 220b, 220Sb, and 220SEb.
APRIL 1961Optional 4-speed automatic first offered on 220SEb.
AUGUST 1961W112 300SE introduced, with air suspension.
JANUARY 1962Hydrak hydraulic automatic clutch discontinued.
AUGUST 19624-speed automatic optional on 220b and 220Sb.
MARCH 1963

Long wheelbase version of 300SE presented.

Both 300SE models available with 4-speed manual.

JANUARY 1964Horsepower on 300SE increased from 185 to 195 hp.
JULY-AUGUST 1965Production of 220b, 220Sb, 220SEb and  300SE ends.
AUGUST 1965230S introduced with 135 hp (SAE) and self-leveling rear suspension.
JANUARY 1968Production of 230S ends.



Notes on Value Estimates: Low value  is a safe driver but with visible flaws.
Medium value  is a car that is well-maintained or partially restored and could be in a local car show.
High value  is a car that is in top concours condition – as nice as a new car straight from the factory.

1959-1968 W111/W112 220, 300, 230 FINBACK SEDANS

MODEL RANGEW111.010W111.012W111.014W112.014W111.010
YEARS PRODUCED1959-19651959-19651959-19651961-19651965-1968
TOTAL PRODUCED69,691161,11966,0865,20241,027











Horsepower@rpm105 hp @ 5,000124 hp @ 5,200134 hp @ 5,000185 hp @ 5,200135 hp @ 5,600
Torque@rpm133 lb-ft @ 3,000139 lb-ft @ 3,700152 lb-ft @ 4,10205 lb-ft @ 4,000145 lb-ft @ 4,200

4-speed manual

4-speed auto (opt)

4-speed manual

4-speed auto (opt)

4-speed manual*

4-speed auto (opt)

4-speed auto

4-speed man (opt)*

4-speed manual

4-speed auto (opt)

WHEELBASE108.3 in108.3 in108.3 in108.3 in108.3 in
LENGTH192.2 in192.2 in192.2 in192 in187 in
REAR AXLE RATIO4.10:13.92:1 or 3.69:13.92:13.92:13.92:1
BRAKES (F/R)Drum/drumDisk/drumDisk/drumDisk/diskDisk/drum
TIRE/WHEEL inches7.25x137.50x137.50x137.50x137.25x13
ZERO TO 60 MPH14 seconds14 seconds12 seconds12 seconds15 seconds
FUEL EFFICIENCY15-17 mpg15-17 mpg17-23 mpg15-18 mpg14-16 mpg

*Five-speed overdrive manual transmission could be special-ordered on 220SE and 300SE.


We Bought One
Our 1965 300SE - a Personal Story
by Oswald Drews, SFBA Section

Our 300SE was manufactured on July 14, 1965, and was one of the last 300SE Mercedes-Benz sedans in the series manufactured from 1961 to 1965.  We purchased the car from Premier Imports, Ltd in San Carlos, California, under the terms of the “Tourist Purchase Order for European Delivery.” Well-outfitted, our dark blue (DB332) 300SE sedan was ordered with automatic transmission, power steering, sliding sunroof, Cognac leather interior (Code 216), Becker Grand Prix AM/LW/FM radio, power antenna, front armrest, front seat fill-in cushion, under-carriage protection, two-tone horns, floor mats, luggage compartment pads, rear reading lights, and safety door locks. The bottom-line price was $7,109.36 (About the same price as a Cadillac Fleetwood sedan).  We placed our order on January 16, 1965, made our final payment on June 24, 1965, and took delivery shortly after the production date in mid-July.  We enjoyed driving in Germany (where I was born) and Daimler-Benz shipped our car home for arrival in November.

The car faced the ravages of five small children and two German Shepherd dogs.  It took a beating! With our family grown up and out of the house, we decided to give it a new paint job and replace the interior with M-B leather, both matching the original codes.  With 46 years of travel and 115,702 original miles, we have also attended to the air suspension and other components that needed to be fixed or replaced.  Most of the work over the years has been done by an independent shop near our home, since after-sales service was not yet a strong point for “foreign agents” selling Mercedes-Benz vehicles in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.
In 2010, we entered our finback in “Legends of the Autobahn: West Coast Summer Concours” in Carmel Valley and won a trophy for third in class. Our lovely Mercedes-Benz is not perfect, but has been a longtime, loyal companion on innumerable family trips and now, in semi-retirement, mostly on club drives.

My mother-in-law ordered and picked up a 1965 220SE on the same trip. It was similarly outfitted, with a sticker price of $5,339 reflecting the smaller engine and less expensive trim. We enjoyed both of our fintail sedans for many years until her 220SE was rear-ended and totaled. Daimler-Benz began crash-testing their cars when developing the W111 sedans in 1958, well ahead of any government mandates to do so. It was due to the safety construction of the 1965 220SE sedan that no one was injured in the crash that totaled her beloved car.
Summing up our experience, we have owned many kinds of cars over the years (both domestic and imported) and through all our experience, the one car we have kept is our magnificent 1965 300SE sedan.