Mercedes-Benz: After 130 Years, 10 of Its Greatest Cars
If Mercedes feels like it’s been around forever, that’s because, well, it has. On January 29, 1886, Karl Benz patented a design that mated a gasoline engine to a horseless carriage, laying the groundwork for the car as we know it. A few months later, Gottlieb Daimler developed his own horseless carriage with his business partner Wilhelm Maybach. In the early 1900s, Daimler Motors began producing cars under the Mercedes name, and in 1926 merged with Benz’s company, forming Mercedes-Benz.
But the story doesn’t end there.
In the years since, Mercedes has become a global leader in luxury, safety, and technology. It was among the first automakers to offer models with fuel injection, anti-lock brakes, airbags, and today, autonomous driving features. The industry-wide adage has long been that whatever appears in its flagship S-Class sedan will find its way into competitor cars in 10 years time.
So with 130 years of history and countless innovations, it’s nearly impossible to tell the company’s history in a few words. Instead, we chose 10 of our favorite road cars to come out of its Stuttgart factory in hopes that we could provide a rough outline of where the company has been and where it’s going. It may be impossible to tell where transportation will be in 130 years, but with a track record like this, we wouldn’t be surprised if Mercedes-Benz is still at the vanguard.
1. 1886 Patent Motorwagen
The one that started it all. People had been experimenting with self-propelled transport for over a hundred years before Karl Benz came along, but he was the first to mate the gasoline engine to a vehicle, an innovation that would transform the way humans lived, worked, and socialized in the span of a few decades. After building several cars in relative anonymity, in 1888, Benz’s wife Bertha took one on a 120-mile round trip to visit her mother, causing a sensation wherever she went and putting the Patent Motorwagen in the national spotlight. By the 1890s, Benz was working of four-wheeled cars, and at the end of the decade, Benz & Cie. had become the largest automaker in the world, having produced nearly 600 cars.
2. 1928-’32 SSK
For a certain type of gearhead, the 1928-’32 SSK roadsters are still the greatest sports cars ever built. Designed by Ferdinand Porsche, The SSK — Super Sport Kurtz, or “short” for its short wheelbase — was unusual for the era in that it was designed for both speed and handling. Power came from a massive 7.1-liter supercharged straight-six that could be tuned to crank out an astonishing 300 horsepower and over 500 pound-feet of torque. Considered to be one of the first blue-chip classics, it was the darling of the replica car industry before the Shelby Cobra came along, with the most notable copy being the Chevy V8-powered Excalibur SSKs of the ’60s. But with fewer than 40 SSKs built by Mercedes, real ones fetch between $5-10 million at auction today. Incredibly fast and impossibly gorgeous, the SSK represented the pinnacle of Mercedes’s pre-war sporting pretensions, at least on the street.
3. 1954-’63 300SL
If the SSK is too much of an antique to still claim the “World’s Greatest Sports Car” title, then it could easily go to the iconic 300SL. We could go on forever about this car (and we have), but here’s the abstract: American importer Max Hoffman convinced Mercedes to shake off its post-war torpor by making a street-legal version of its W194 race car. The result was one of the most advanced road cars the world had ever seen. With its fuel-injected straight-six, streamlined body, and lightweight gullwing doors, the 300SL could top 160 miles per hour, making it the fastest production car on the planet. It was also considered to be one of the most beautiful — in its day, it was adored by movie stars and professional drivers alike. Just 1,400 gullwing coupes were built before it was replaced by a roadster model. Good luck finding either for less than a million bucks today.
4. 1963-’71 “Pagoda” SL-Class
Mercedes went in a completely different direction for the second-generation SL-Class, and it still ended up becoming one of the all-time greats. No longer based on a race car, the smaller, lighter SL was designed by Paul Bracq for fast, comfortable, and stylish long-distance grand touring. But in an era when cars on both sides of the Atlantic were still dripping with chrome, the SL, with its clean lines and trademark “Pagoda” removable hardtop (inspired by Japanese architecture), seemed to preview a simpler, more streamlined automotive future. With a design that’s only gotten better with age, these SLs represent the best Mercedes had to offer in the ’60s.
5. 1971 AMG 300SEL 6.8 “Rote Sou”
In the 1960s, AMG was just one of many small independent tuners scattered around Germany. But in 1971, the company took a full-size 300SEL, bored its 6.3-liter V8 to 6.8 liters, updated its suspension, painted it bright red, took it racing against some of the finest sports cars in Europe — and won. With 428 horsepower and 448 pound-feet of torque, the “Rote Sou” (Red Pig) annihilated sportier entrants from Alfa Romeo, Ford, and BMW at the 24 Hours of Spa in Belgium, becoming an overnight sensation in Europe. Within a few years, AMG had become the most famous Mercedes tuner in the world, and put the company (founded by two ex-Mercedes engineers) on Stuttgart’s radar. The rest, of course, is history.
6. 1976-’85 W123
The W123 (the factory internal designation) wasn’t the fastest, the most luxurious, or even the prettiest in the Mercedes stable, but it could make a serious claim for the greatest all-around car ever built. Available as a coupe, sedan, wagon, limousine, and ambulance, the W123 was an instant success for Mercedes, selling over 2.6 million of them over its decade in production. Inside, it could seat five comfortably, had ample luggage space, and its MB-Tex vinyl interiors stayed factory fresh even after decades of regular use. Under the hood, its mechanics were dead simple, and its available OM617 diesel engine was known to last for 500,000 miles with routine maintenance. In Africa and the Middle East, they’re still used as taxis and long-distance desert transport. But go to any city anywhere in the world, and you’re likely to see at least a few W123s still driving around. Pretty remarkable for a car that celebrated its 40th birthday this week.
7. 1975-’80 450SEL 6.9
If it weren’t for its price tag, the 1975-’80 450SEL 6.9 would be the ultimate sleeper. Starting at $40,000 (around $157,000 today), the 6.9 was twice as expensive as a Cadillac or Lincoln, and just a hair cheaper than a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. It didn’t look any different than a regular S-Class either, but beneath that understated bodywork was a complex self-leveling hydropneumatic suspension and massive hand-built 6.9-liter V8 cribbed from the superlative 600 Grosser. In U.S. spec, it was good for 250 horsepower, 360 pound-feet of torque, and could hustle the 2-ton beast from zero to 60 in 7.1 seconds. If you ever wanted to know when the Germans started gleefully dropping the largest engines they could find into their big sedans, look no further.
8. 1986 AMG “The Hammer”
AMG was already fairly well known in Europe by the mid-’80s, but in 1986, it exploded onto the global stage by transforming the ordinary E-Class into the fastest four-door car in the world and renaming it The Hammer. Mercedes’s 5.6-liter V8 was bored out by AMG to an even 6.0 liters, cranking out 365 horsepower in U.S. spec. Along with some other choice upgrades, AMG’s creation was a 187-mile-per-hour rocket that could hit 60 from a standstill in 5.3 seconds and keep up with the Lamborghini Countach and Ferrari Testarossa. It isn’t a coincidence that within a few years of The Hammer going on sale, Mercedes-Benz and AMG made their partnership official.
9. 2003-’10 Mercedes-McLaren SLR
In 1999, Mercedes wanted to get into the supercar game, and turned to McLaren to help it return to its street-legal race car roots. A supercharged 5.4-liter V8 meant the 617-horsepower SLR could scramble from zero to 60 in 3.8 seconds, and top out at 206 miles per hour. And with a cutting edge carbon fiber body and chassis, all this performance didn’t come cheap; the SLR started at over $450,000, and a little over 1,400 cars found homes. It may not have been the prettiest Mercedes ever built, but less than a decade out, the SLR is already a legend.
10. 2014-present AMG-GT S
With its favorite tuner now firmly a division of Mercedes, you can get virtually any model you want in a crazy fast AMG-badged version. But in 2010, Mercedes gave its go-fast team the reins and let it design a new sports car, the Ferrari 458-fighting SLS AMG. A follow-up car, the AMG GT, bowed for 2014, improving on all the successes of the SLS AMG and trimming away everything that didn’t work. In top-spec S trim, the GT’s twin-turbo V8 is good for 503 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of torque, making it a serious Porsche 911/McLaren 570s/Audi R8 killer. With a profile inspired by the 300SL and that big three-pointed star up front, the GT S is the perfect blend of Mercedes’s greatness, past and present.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.