300SE 2-Doors: Friend of Foe?
(Daimler Media recently published a piece on the 112 series 300SE two-doors. We’ll publish it as part of our Daimler Learning Series at a later date. For now, we’ll give you our take on these attractive but complicated coach built cars. ed)
If we polled 100 classic Mercedes-Benz enthusiasts as to their favorite pre-1972 series of automobiles valued at $100k or less, the odds are quite high that the majority would vote for a 111 series coupe or cabriolet. While the best-of-series 280SE 3.5 cabriolet stands firmly at the top of this group of 2-doors, its earlier and arguably more exotic 112 series air suspension cousins are lesser known and perhaps under-appreciated.
When introduced in late 1961 Mercedes-Benz envisioned the 300SE coupes and cabriolets as range topping, segment defining automobiles for their more discerning clients. “The two new models not only represented the summit of their model series in March 1962, they also set the general standards for two highly exclusive bodywork forms behind each of which a particular interpretation of the fascination for cars stood: the premium-class coupé and the cabriolet.”
“In addition to checking the typical 60s era coupe issues – rust, missing items, dead wood, dead leather, collision repairs, leaking diffs etc. – one must add a careful engine and air suspension evaluation…and a careful look for engine oil leaks. A leaking rear main oil seal (a rope type seal) requires…engine removal!”
Beyond the 220SE
Constructed along side the 300SE, the 220SE 2-doors certainly couldn’t be considered utilitarian for they shared the gorgeous, opulent, interior and fabulous build quality of the 300SE. Both cars shared the same sublime Paul Bracq design. However, in Mercedes-Benz’ product hierarchy the 220SE was down market from the 300SE. For the more performance and prestige oriented buyer, the 220SE’s paltry 134 (SAE) horsepower and conventional steel spring suspension simply wasn’t sufficiently sophisticated, or so Mercedes-Benz deemed.
Enter the 300SE with a muscular (for the era) 184 hp and self-leveling pneumatic suspension and four-wheel discs. Mercedes-Benz addressed the status of a 300SE buyer discreetly but tellingly by noting, “Driving a luxury-class coupé is an expression of automotive culture that is as exclusive as it is elegant: the two-door, closed touring car combined flowing forms and sporty ambiance with powerful drive systems and fine appointments. ” In today’s parlance, a 300SE coupe or cabriolet buyer would be a member of America’s currently maligned “1%”.
Foibles: Should you buy one?
The fact that I can rotate in my chair at this moment and see our highly optioned 280SE 3.5 coupe and our 5-speed 250SE coupe sitting side by side in our new warehouse betrays my fondness for the 111 2-doors. How do I feel about the 112s? Not quite so fond.
Auto, Motor und Sport Magazine in its 7/1962 issue hailed the two new 112-series cars as the “non-plus-ultra of modern automotive construction”. That was true. Buyers enjoyed self leveling suspension fed by a compressor hung on the front of the engine, a powerful 3.0 liter six cylinder with direct design links to the M198 series 300SL engines, four wheel disc brakes and one of the most sumptuous interiors in the industry. Late series cars were capable of 125 mph. Wind the clock forward 45 years and the massive M189 engine and air suspension become liabilities.
To get an independent assessment of the 112’s relative value, I asked one of our most active buyers how he would value two identical Mercedes-Benz coupes – a 1967 300SE and a 1967 250SE. Without hesitation he said he would value the steel spring, M129 engine 250SE/280SE at least 20% higher than the complicated 300. Why? Engine rebuild costs for the 300 would be double the 250’s. Costs to sort the air suspension – the system rarely becomes fully sorted – dwarf a typical suspension refurbishment on the steel spring car. Power output for the 250 is just 14 hp shy of the 300. Interior design is identical – both have the lovely formed veneer surrounding the instrument binnacle – and aside from the 300’s plated brass full length side molding, both cars appear identical.
Rarity doesn’t guarantee demand
For some reason, we’ve never been able to find an untouched, survivor 300SE to fully experience the ‘as new’ air suspension driving experience. I’m sure there have been a few out there but they have eluded us for over 20 years. Lack of use is a 112’s mortal enemy. In addition to the typical brake and fuel system issues, moisture invades the air system and prevents the clever system from behaving as Mercedes-Benz intended. On the other hand, steel springs do quite well sitting idle.
Looking at the relative build numbers reveals the special status the 300s enjoyed at Mercedes. While a total of 16,902 220SE coupe/cabriolets were constructed from 1960 (2 units) through 1965, production of the 300s was a 3,127 units – 708 Cabriolets and 2,419 coupes -from 1962 through late 1967. There is no doubt a well preserved 112 coupe or cabriolet is a gorgeous automobile and at the right price is worth buying. If you buy one be sure to drive it regularly to keep the suspension issues at bay. But driving it will put wear on that big 20 grand to rebuild 3 liter. You can’t win.
Want to buy one?
Not checking a 300’s engine fitness is suicidal. When I inspected the white car at the top of this page to consider buying it back from our client, it would not run on 6 cylinders. Presuming there was fouled plug or a dying ignition wire set and making a commitment to buy the car was too risky with the M189 engine. I had the car flat-bedded the 2 hour drive to us for a closer look and we found…a dead engine! So, after avoiding a very expensive mistake, I sent the car back to the seller where is sits today.
In addition to checking the typical 60s era coupe issues – rust, missing items, dead wood, dead leather, collision repairs, leaking diffs etc. – one must add a careful engine and air suspension evaluation…and a careful look for engine oil leaks. A leaking rear main oil seal (a rope type seal) requires…engine removal!
roy spencer/editor mercedesheritge
photography/daimler ag – mercedesheritage