Epitome of Elegance – The 220SE Family

Richard Simonds
Bob Eichhorn
Parked next to one another in the Kemp Automobile Museum collection in St. Louis, the effect of these three 220SEs – a sedan, a coupe, and a cabriolet – is magical.

Parked next to one another in a row of the Kemp Automobile Museum collection in St. Louis, the effect on the observer of these three 220SEs – a sedan, a coupe, and a cabriolet – can be described in one word: magical.  All in similar shades of red, they capture the eye with their elegant styling and pleasing proportions.

The 220SEs, and their predecessor 220S siblings, identical except for their engines, represent a leap forward for Mercedes-Benz and have a personality evidenced by their desirability in today’s marketplace. They represent the culmination of engineering and design of the Ponton cars at the end of the 1950s. (“Ponton” is German for “pontoon,” and these cars were so named because their rounded fenders look a little like pontoons used for river crossings.)

Well-known automotive journalist Dennis Adler chose the 220S and 220SE as two of the more important Mercedes-Benz models to include in his 2008 book, “Mercedes-Benz.” He observed, “The 220SE (Cabriolet) was a more affordable but no less luxurious alternative to the handcrafted 300Sc Cabriolet, which was produced concurrently with the 220S and 220SE.”Mercedes-Benz got back in business after World War II with the 170s, derived directly from prewar models first designed in 1936. While the 300SL Gullwings and roadsters and the 300Sc cabriolet touring cars gained international recognition for Mercedes-Benz, the Ponton model series, with its integrated front and rear fenders, introduced in 1953, provided the profits that allowed the company to regain its position as a major player in the automotive world. The evolution of this design series is traced in more detail in the Buyers Guide on pages 56-59 of this issue, but it’s sufficient to note here that the Ponton styling reached its zenith with the 220S sedans, cabriolets, and coupes (chassis W180) introduced in 1956. The performance of the model was improved with the introduction of a fuel-injected engine in 1958, and the 200SE (chassis W128) lineup pictured here was born. The sedans would be produced in 1958 and 1959, and the coupes and cabriolets would continue in production until 1961.

220SE Basics

The unit body of the 220S and 220SE series vehicles owes much to a bold decision Daimler-Benz management made in the early 1950s. Mercedes-Benz had used an X-shaped, tubular steel frame that was very solid and strong, with limited chassis flexing (for its time). That chassis, however, was quite heavy, so management explored alternative means to increase structural integrity and reduce weight and manufacturing costs. Based on their research, the engineering staff concluded that a car could be designed so that the basic body structure could function as both chassis frame and underlying superstructure of the passenger compartment.

A conservatively managed company, Daimler-Benz was also concerned with whether the buying public would accept the new unit-body chassis, so management tried it only on the 180 (W120 series) sedans, while continuing the X-shaped, oval tubular steel frame on other models.

Much to the delight of purchasers, real world use proved that the new unit-body chassis was considerably stronger and twice as rigid as the old body-on-frame design. It allowed less noise into the passenger area, provided for more flexibility in attaching different engines to the subframe, made overall manufacturing more efficient, made maintenance far easier, and allowed Daimler-Benz to pioneer “safety cage” construction. Within a few years, no passenger cars used the old body-on-frame chassis structure.

On a personal note, I remember Tom McCahill, writing in Popular Mechanics in 1952, touting the forthcoming Mercedes-Benz 180 sedan’s unit-body technology. He used an illustration that showed the passenger compartment as having the inherent structural rigidity of an eggshell, which requires considerable force to crush relative to its weight and thickness. In the event of a collision, the subframes would collapse, but the eggshell of the body surrounding the passengers would remain intact.

  Having lived near a busy, four-lane highway as a youngster from 1947 to 1954, I vividly remember one weekend hearing the screeching of brakes and the resounding crash of sheet metal, and running 100 feet to the highway to see a driver impaled on the steering wheel of his vehicle and the frame bent in an inverted V. That one article in 1952 made me passionate about the Mercedes-Benz brand and its commitment to technological innovations in safety and performance.

Of probably more interest to buyers, more interested in styling changes than structural engineering, the Ponton vehicles, starting with the 180s in 1953, forsook the clearly separate fenders of their predecessors and had a very smooth-sided body. There was just the hint of a fender shape in the long sweeping crease from the leading edge of the front fender to the back edge of the front door, and again with a vertical crease to form a round shape that indicated where the rear fender began.

The Ponton was subtle yet conservatively enough styled that the older generation used to seeing fenders could feel comfortable that its styling cues had not been abandoned.
Today, those feature lines are part of the magic that Pontons exude, and they are, in fact, enhanced in the 220S/SEs by the addition of chrome trim strips along the horizontal creases. In the coupe and cabriolet, the horizontal trim piece is wider and continuous from front to rear, with a slight V for accent. (See side profile pictures.)

There were 449,531 vehicles using the basic unit-body chassis in the Ponton series (180, 180D, 220S, 220SE sedans; 190SL roadster; 220S, 220SE coupes and cabriolets). Of these, there were just 1,974 SE sedans and 1,942 SE coupes and cabriolets, so they are very special and quite rare.

A feature article in Road & Track from the 1950s liked the overall clean styling but could not understand why Mercedes-Benz retained the tall radiator. Wilhelm Haspel, Daimler-Benz CEO from 1942 to 1952, insisted that new postwar models would retain the distinctive radiator shell despite the fact that designers at other companies were stretching their grilles into horizontal shapes spread across the front of the car. As is true with so much from Mercedes-Benz, engineering and styling are usually evolutionary, rarely revolutionary, the 300SL coupe (Gullwing) being a notable exception.

Mechanically, the 220SE had a Bosch fuel-injection system (the feature that distinguished it sufficiently from the 200S to justify a new chassis number), with a massive long-ram induction manifold that dominated the top view of the engine compartment. This was a two-plunger, manifold-injection system that did not have the power of the six-plunger setup on the 300Sc cabriolet and the 300SL Gullwing. However, it provided a much better-running, more fuel-efficient, higher-horsepower engine than was possible with carburetors.

The 2,195cc engine was carried forward from the 220a sedan that had produced 80 horsepower. The 220S sedans produced 106 horsepower; the 220SE fuel-injected engines produced 115 horsepower DIN, 134 horsepower SAE. Acceleration from 0 to 62 mph improved from 20 seconds to 17 seconds to 15 seconds. Gasoline mileage ranged from 15 to 20 mpg. These Mercedes-Benz engines were all precision-made with a short stroke and could run at higher revolutions than most other engines of their era. As a result, these cars had a 4:10:1 differential ratio, leading to 3,320 rpm at 62 mph. The gearing ratios and consequent engine speeds are high by today’s standards, but this provided good acceleration and moderate fuel economy given the weight and engine size. All required premium fuel with an 8.7:1 compression ratio. Incidentally, because of the quality of the valves and valve seats, all postwar Mercedes-Benz passenger-car gasoline engines run on unleaded with no additives.

Both the W180 and the W128 chassis series have four-wheel, independent suspension with a “low-pivot” swing axle in the rear, a technology that gave a smooth ride and safe handling (compared to the swinging half-axles of VW and Corvair fame).

The 220SEs have a top-fender-mounted light (a long chrome spear) that adds a touch of style to the front of the vehicles. Options included radios (Becker or Blaupunkt) with push buttons or signal tuning, fitted luggage, a front bench seat instead of two bucket seats, reclining seats, whitewall tires, and two-tone paint (on the coupes and cabriolets). A few sedans have the large folding, fabric sunroof (typically manufactured by Webasto).

A four-speed column-shifted manual transmission is most commonly found, though an optional semi-automatic gearbox was available with a Hydrak clutch that was activated when the shift lever was touched to move to the next gear. The Hydrak clutch (an electro-mechanical, vacuum-operated system) was complex and often replaced years later with a manual clutch. The 13-inch wheels and tires were often replaced with 14-inch wheels and tires. Some dealers installed air conditioning as an after-market option.

220SE Sedans
The sedans ride on an 111-inch wheelbase with an overall length of 187 inches. They weigh 3,014 pounds and have a maximum speed of 99.5 mph, riding on 6.70 x 13 tires with power-assisted drum brakes to bring them to a stop. Their taillights are small, square lenses in a chrome bezel. In the sedans, there is a chrome rock protector at the leading edge of the rear fender, continuing with a chrome trim piece along the horizontal crease to the taillight bezel.

The sedans are really larger inside than they appear. Some stylists attribute this illusion to the small (13-inch) wheels and rounded fenders that give it the Ponton nickname. The rear seats are quite comfortable, with room for three passengers. The interior woodwork is elegant, though not quite as expensive or extensive as that in the coupes and cabriolets. Radios were optional, but most cars were sold with a radio, usually a Becker or a Blaupunkt.

220SE Coupes and Cabriolets
Mechanically, the coupes and cabriolets are the same as the 220SE sedans. They ride on a 106.3-inch wheelbase, 4.7 inches shorter than the sedans, with an overall length of 183.9 inches, and are approximately 0.8 inches lower than the sedans. Primarily because the firewall and trunk partitions are metal in the coupes and cabriolets, they weigh more than the sedans. The coupes have a curb weight of 3,146 pounds. With the extra stiffening in the floor panels required by the cabriolet body, plus the extra weight of the folding top frame, the cabriolet weighs 3,234 pounds.

In the coupes and cabriolets, the rear fenders extend straight back with the longer trunk, and have vertical taillights (much like the big 300d “Adenauer” sedans). They also have more extensive, higher-quality woodwork on the interior, including a grab handle for the front-seat passenger formed into the woodwork – very, very elegant. The coupes and cabriolets have front-seat carpeting, instead of rubber floor mats, and chrome-plated door jambs.
The two front seats on the two-door cars fold forward for access into the rear seating area. Seating includes an occasional seat that could be folded down to serve as a luggage shelf, but an optional bench seat could be ordered. This is not a place for two adults to ride for long trips. There is no angle to the rear seat back, and there is not much padding on the seat bottom or back. The cabriolet is only a 2+2 if the +2 are very small people. The rear window on the coupe wraps around so that it is vertical at the rear pillar and provides unusually good visibility.
In nearly all respects except for the folding fabric top, the cabriolet is identical to the coupe. The cabriolet top is a beautifully crafted, multilayer fabric (German Happich canvas top, horsehair headliner in a bow-tied sleeve, and a tan or gray wool headliner) that creates a cocoon for passengers with comparatively little wind noise at speed. It folds down into a canvas boot behind the seats and makes for totally enjoyable driving in nice weather and comfortable driving in wet or cold weather.

In Summary
Any member of the 220SE (W128 chassis) family is an excellent choice for the Mercedes-Benz connoisseur who wants classic styling, solid mechanicals, and an enjoyable ride for those occasions in life when elegance and refinement are the standard.
The Kemp Museum Vehicles

Fred Kemp Sr. began his collection with the 1960 220SE coupe in April 1993 and had his shop do a major restoration on it. He added the 1960 220SE cabriolet in July 1996, and finished the series with the 1959 220SE sedan in April 2001. Each of his vehicles has been restored and maintained to the high standard worthy of its position in his collection. The Star staff thanks Rodger Van Ness, executive director of the Kemp Museum, for making these vehicles available to us so that we can share their special attributes with our readers.