Lacking 1950s luxuries, the elegant but old-fashioned 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300S Coupe was a sales flop
BusinessWeek - Jun 5, 2008
More expensive than the 300SL sports car and almost double the price of a contemporary Cadillac, the Mercedes-Benz 300S was one of the world's most exclusive automobiles. Elegantly styled in the prewar manner, yet technologically up to date, the 300S was built to the Stuttgart firm's uncompromising standards. Such conservative luxury produced predictable results: Only 760 300S/Sc cars left the factory between 1951 and 1958.
The 300S was a short-wheelbase derivative of the 300 saloon, one of Mercedes-Benz's first all-new designs of the postwar era, which had debuted at the Frankfurt Auto Show in 1951. The 300 re-established Mercedes-Benz in the front rank of prestige car manufacturers.
Although Mercedes-Benz would adopt unitary chassis/body construction for its lower- and mid-priced cars as the 1950s progressed, the retention of a traditional separate frame for the 300 family enabled a variety of coachbuilt body types to be offered. The 300's cross-braced, oval-tube chassis followed the lines of the 170S and 220, with independent suspension all round and four-wheel drum brakes, but incorporated hypoid bevel final drive, dynamically balanced wheels, and driver-activated front suspension and clutch lubrication.
We are advised that this 300S coupe has enjoyed only three owners and covered a mere 64,000 miles from new. In the vendor's hands since 2006, it benefits from thorough servicing and extensive refurbishment carried out that same year by his personal mechanic. The refurbished interior retains a delightful original patina, while other noteworthy features include a clock, Becker radio and electric antenna.
The car is offered with sundry invoices, assorted original and period documents, original Hirschman warranty booklet, original Becker warranty booklet and address list, instruction manual, a photographic record of its re-commissioning (on CD), and Belgian registration papers.
This car sold for $216,775 at Bonhams's Paris Rétromobile auction on February 9, 2008.
Daimler-Benz surpassed its pre-1940 annual high of 28,000 vehicles just three years after resuming production following the war, though few were sold in the U.S. The new 300 series was launched in time for the 1951 Frankfurt and Paris Auto Shows. Forty-seven 300 sedans, one four-door convertible, and two 300S two-door coupes were completed that year.
They were 100% new, with fresh tooling for the body, chassis, engine, and suspension—a massive undertaking for the recovering company. Engineering was brilliant, and with a normally aspirated 3-liter straight-6, the cars achieved the same top speed (100 mph) and acceleration using half the fuel of their pre-1940 5.4-liter supercharged straight-8s. They also shed a ton from their predecessors' weight.
Unfortunately, the 300 proved to be a sales and financial disaster. For all its innovation, quality materials, and craftsmanship, the 300s sorely lacked essential 1950s luxuries—power steering, automatic transmission, air conditioning, power seats, and power soft tops. Stuttgart's choice of pre-WWII 540K designer Hermann Ahrens masked the new engineering with an image of the past.
The 300S was the antithesis of the 300SL and 190SL, and it was hard to believe they came from the same company. Total production was only 13,000 cars in eleven years. By comparison, Cadillac, with all luxuries and up to 100% more horsepower, averaged 100,000 sales each year.
Rarer than the 300SL Gullwing coupes
One by one, Mercedes added "American" features, almost all invented in the U.S.—Bendix power brakes, BorgWarner automatic transmissions, and dealer-installed a/c supplied by Arctic King of Texas. But when Mercedes added a little more power, Cadillac added a lot more. When the dust settled, only 560 Mercedes 300S cars were sold between 1951 and 1955, while 200 Sc cars were sold from 1955 to 1957, making them rarer than the 300SL Gullwing coupes.
Many of the world's most coveted collector cars have been poor sellers, which bizarrely guaranteed exclusivity. Negatives when a car is new may be catnip to collectors, and styling may be seen in a different light 50 years later.
The scale and proportions of Ahrens's 300S were his final answer to a down-sizing trend that continued though the 1930s; the most famous 540K Special Roadster had a 131-inch wheelbase, but by 1939, that had shrunk to 119 inches.
While appearing huge, the 300S wheelbase is only 114 inches. Its proportion of glass area to hood length, the shape of the roof, and the tire size all create the look and feel of a much larger car. Mercedes-Benz engineering and craftsmanship would seem to guarantee collectibility.
With few exceptions (such as the Gullwing), open cars appreciate first and most, followed by special versions such as woodies, limited high-horsepower editions, and coupes. Sedans bring up the rear.
This "pecking order" is also very pronounced between the S and Sc. The Sc (all bodies) have always achieved markedly higher prices because they are rarer and, frankly, improved cars. Not to downgrade the S; its styling is identical except for subtleties such as the use of rubber bumper pads only on the S and chrome wheel arches only on the Sc. Mechanically the Sc sports the 300SL's direct-block fuel injection, a 14-quart dry-sump oil system, and low-pivot single-joint rear axles, which bumped power from 163 hp to 200 hp and assured negative-camber cornering. All else being equal (which it never is), Sc models often bring a 25% to 33% premium.
Most collectible cars suffer a few decades when they are shunned by modern car consumers and ignored as too young by old-car enthusiasts, and 300S and Sc coupes have followed the rules. They remain in the shadow of the slightly rarer open 300S and Sc roadsters (fully disappearing top) and convertible (with landaulet bars and lined top that is too bulky to fold flat).
One upside is that, due to support by the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center, it is easier to get replacement parts for an older Mercedes than any other car on the road. It's hard to get a GM-supplied wrap-around windshield for your 1953 Cadillac Eldorado, but your local Mercedes-Benz dealer will have a new curved 1953 300S windshield in 48 hours.
No mention of trophies, essential for a #1 car.
Coupes began to appreciate during the 1990s. Better examples passed $100,000 but rarely topped $150,000. As recently as spring 2006, Mecum sold a black 1957 300Sc coupe in similar condition to this Paris car (shown here with incorrect luggage) for $150,000. I believe $216,775 for this older, carbureted variant is a record.
Was this a good buy? I'd say not. Close examination of description and photographs suggests a strong condition #2 car with no mention of trophies, which for me are a requirement for condition #1. Still, as a famous auctioneer once said, "You never pay too much for a great car, you just pay it too soon." These are great cars, so the buyer has time on his side. The purchase may look very astute in five years.
If you've got one you're thinking of selling, be aware that buyers for these cars are as rare as the cars themselves. For a car and an eligible buyer to find each other takes patience, and lowering one's asking price to attract a buyer is often money wasted. In fact, high-end auctions are often the ideal way to get the word out and speed the matchmaking process, as the Bonhams result demonstrates.
The SCM Analysis
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Chassis # Location:
Right side of firewall
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Left side rear of block
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