FINS FOR FINESSE

By Graeme Hurst

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The driveway of our family home in Cape Town has seen a variety of cars grace its tarmac over the last six decades, as the family photo albums attest. Standouts include a bright red Borgward Isabella (bought new from Wolman Motors in 1958) and a 1300 GT Junior Alfa, which is technically the first car I drove after holding the steering wheel when I was around a year old. There was also a visiting Lotus Seven that ended up wrapped around a pole on Pinelands bridge after a dice and – many years before – Dreamboat, a friend’s Plymouth Savoy that fulfilled bridal car duties when my parents were married back in ’67.

But an equally memorable four-wheeled visitor which my grandmother once spoke of arrived a year after the wedding bells rang. An out-of-the-box Fintail Mercedes-Benz, owned by her brother-in-law (a bigwig with Santam at the time), glided in for the first time one weekend afternoon. Complete with his family attired in their Sunday best, the visit was to show that he had ‘arrived’ – not literally but metaphorically speaking – thanks to the three-pointed star’s reputation as a maker of premium luxury cars.

Back then a Fintail or ‘Heckflosse’ in German (to use the colloquial term for the Mercedes W111 series of sedans boasting distinctive fins at the rear) was a pricey acquisition that made a statement as soon as you turned out of your drive. The perception was partly due its unique blend of European and trans-Atlantic styling but also thanks to the price one needed to pay to enjoy Mercedes-Benz’s engineering.

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For 1959, that styling combination represented a step-change in looks and size from the decidedly conservative lines of Merc’s outgoing Ponton saloon. In comparison to the W111’s older sibling’s rather dumpy lines, the Fintail’s profile – embellished with generous chromework – was almost a taste of the jet-age. But the model wasn’t just about conveying its owner’s position in society; it was also a ground-breaking design when it came to ensuring the well-being of its occupants and achieving economies of scale on the assembly line.

Launched at the Frankfurt show in late ’59, the Fintail was the first model delivered out of Mercedes-Benz’s strategy to streamline its engineering and production operations which had (until then) consisted of a monocoque unit for the Ponton, a chassis-based format for the hefty Adenauer saloon and a spaceframe design for the super-desirable 300SL roadster. From then on, all the company’s products would be based on the same floor pan and swing-axle rear end to some degree.

But, more importantly, the Fintail was a turning point for the Stuttgart carmaker in terms of promoting passenger safety through advanced engineering. It was a desire born in part out of the company’s association with the horrific Le Mans tragedy in 1955 and the increasing need to lessen the resultant injuries sustained in accidents that had steadily increased as vehicle performance evolved during the 1950s. The focus on protecting passengers resulted in the advent of the passenger ‘safety cell’ along with other safety-related design solutions, both inside and outside the car.

In many ways, the Fintail’s development pre-empted that famous 1980s ad strapline ‘Engineered like no other car in the world’. It certainly looked that way, thanks to the crisp ‘fin’ treatment to its rear which echoed the looks of products from Detroit’s big three, although Stuttgart management – not wanting to be seen as emulating other car makers – was quick to explain the fins away as ‘parking aids’. Believe them or not, the styling flourish quickly became a signature look for the brand and clothed a raft of clever thinking.

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Top of the list was the adoption (for the first time) of front and rear ‘crumple zones’ – basically portions of the monocoque structure that were designed to give way in the event of a serious collision and absorb the kinetic energy that would otherwise be passed on to the vehicle’s occupants. The safety focus extended to a collapsible steering shaft which used a section of expanded metal to allow it to ‘concertina’ and so absorb an impact instead of translating the movement by shoving the steering wheel into the driver’s chest.

The same steering wheel featured a wide, softly padded centre boss in case the driver’s face made contact, while the dashboard featured a leather-covered soft ‘roll’ from side to side to protect your legs in a similar fashion. Aiding it all were burst-proof door locks and, of course, front seatbelts – a novelty back then when marketing types in the automotive industry feared their fitment as standard would make cars look unsafe.

To start, the Fintail range comprised three models, all boasting the 2.2-litre, overhead-cam ‘six’ that powered the premium variants of the old Ponton. First up was the regular 220, boasting single round headlights and twin, single-choke carburettors which made it good for 96mph. Next up was the 220S with true 100mph ability (thanks to dual twin-choke Solex carbs) and additional brightwork. The latter, and the fact the model had leather seats in place of vinyl, meant it gained an ‘S’ for ‘Super’. One of those would’ve set you back R3 531 in March 1965 when CAR magazine’s editorial team got their hands on one.

That was R300 more than the regular 220 but around R500 less than the range-topper (here in SA at least), the 220SE, with the ‘E’ standing for ‘einspritzung’ (or injection). All three models boasted servo-assisted front disc brakes and optional automatic transmission while the range was made more accessible in 1963 with the intro of the 190 model. Featuring two fewer pots and just 1.9-litres of cylinder capacity, the 190 (which later became the 200) was also available as a diesel, for the man who wasn’t in a hurry. All the four-cylinder versions were technically referred to as W110s in factory parlance and were identifiable on the road by a shorter bonnet and reduced external trim. The range expansion was the start of attempts by Mercedes to broaden appeal to the first-time customer, with a 200 Fintail costing R2 943 here in SA in August 1966.

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At the other end of the spectrum, overseas buyers with deep pockets could opt for the 300SE with air-suspension on the rear axle. Badged in-house as the W112, it was the equivalent of today’s top-line S-Class and featured the company’s M189 six-cylinder motor, power steering and substantially more chrome. It was developed to bridge the gap left by the Adenauer saloon until the new 6.3-litre, V8-engined 600 limousine was ready and, for that reason, was available in long-wheelbase 300SEL form – with the ‘L’ standing for ‘Lang’ in the SEL moniker… one which Mercedes still uses today for stretched versions of the S-Class.

The 300SE and SEL shared showroom floors with another premium Fintail take: a two-door variant, sporting much-reduced fins and a pillar-less design. Also known as the W111/112 series, it came in coupé and convertible form. To start with, the ‘two-doors’ were available with the same 2.2-litre engine or 3-litre (also with the air-suspension) but soon evolved into the 2.5-litre and 2.8-litre variants before Mercedes added a 3.5-litre V8 option, badged as the 280se 3.5. The latter was hugely expensive and was regarded as the ultimate statement in four-wheeled opulence, whether you were brushing shoulders with movie stars in Hollywood or pretending to be one as you soaked up the sun along the French Riviera…

And there’s an air of that opulence in the humbler Fintail saloon. Slide in behind the wheel and the thick leather (on the S and SE models) adorning the generously proportioned and softly sprung seats imbues a sense of luxury, as does the white-rimmed steering wheel and the padded dashboard. The perception is further fuelled by the multitude of chrome finishes of the controls – with their well-engineered action when you engage with them – while your eyes quickly clock the unusual vertical ‘strip’ speedometer, which relies on a colour-calibrated ribbon to convey your speed.

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Along with the rear styling fins, that instrument must’ve looked seriously avant-garde back in 1959, but both were a step too far for conservative Stuttgart; the lines and interior of the W108 series that followed just six years on were a lot more restrained and traditional. Ditto those on the W114/115 saloon series that followed in ’68.

Representing the start of the premium S-Class and more mid-tier E-Class parallel product approach, these two later variants would help sow the seeds of Mercedes-Benz’s success in the luxury saloon segment for the next fifty years. And their launches, and the many W-prefixed saloon models that followed, would generate plenty of marketing material about the safety features incorporated into their design.

Today the company is still perceived as being at the forefront of both automotive safety and the luxury car segment, with a string of clever safety feature-related designs under its corporate belt. Designs that first broke new ground when the Fintail ‘arrived’ 60 years ago.

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