A Postwar Mercedes, Still Overshadowed by Its Racing Cousins

After World War II, Mercedes-Benz wanted to re-establish its position in the automotive hierarchy, to create a car that, in the words of...


After World War II, Mercedes-Benz wanted to re-establish its position in the automotive hierarchy, to create a car that, in the words of the board chairman at the time, Wilhelm Haspel, “gold-plates the name Mercedes-Benz again.”

The brand’s place in the German market had been devastated by a long pause in vehicle development while it produced munitions for the Nazis, and by Allied bombing of its factories. Its place in the European market had been corroded by this wartime collusion, including its widespread use of conscripted labor from concentration camps. And it barely had a presence in North America.

It persevered through the late 1940s, like many global automakers, with slightly updated versions of prewar designs, in its case the 170, a rather unremarkable coupe with a small four-cylinder engine.

“This was a very basic model, the 170,” said Michael Kunz, the director of the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Irvine, Calif., a company subsidiary dedicated to the history, preservation and restoration of the brand’s vintage products, which date back to 1886. “Historically, we are not known as a basic-car company, so it was important to show a resurrection as a leading producer of luxury goods and highly engineered vehicles.”

The result was the Mercedes 300 sedan and convertible. Revealed at the Frankfurt Motor Show in the spring of 1951, the 300 sported a stately design, with a prominent chrome grille, a long formal hood, bulbous fenders that flowed into and out of the front and rear doors, a capacious cabin lined in quality materials, and a tapered rear. It was the largest and fastest production car in West Germany, known in Mercedes’s parlance as a “Representative Class” vehicle.

“These were typically cars that were driven and owned by captains of industry and heads of state,” Mr. Kunz said. “Absolutely the best of the best.”

Brian Rabold, vice president for valuation services at the classic vehicle insurer Hagerty, concurs. “These would have been comparable to a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud or Bentley R-Type,” he said.

They could be had with radio telephones, dictation machines, writing desks, intercoms, partitions between driver and passengers, and custom trim finishes. “If the party ordering it wanted it, the factory would make every attempt to accommodate it,” Mr. Kunz said.

The pope was chauffeured in a specially constructed Landaulet version, with a retractable top over just the rear compartment — a space that contained a single thronelike seat.

Ella Fitzgerald, Gary Cooper and Errol Flynn all bought 300s during the car’s 11-year production run (just over 11,000 were built). Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of West Germany, special-ordered a half-dozen 300s during his 14-year tenure.

“He toured the country in them,” Mr. Kunz said, “and that’s how they came to be nicknamed Adenauer Benzes,” a moniker that sticks to this day.

The 300 was introduced with a smooth, 115-horsepower, 3.0-liter straight six engine, and went through three revisions during its run. The 300b of 1954 upped power to 125 horses. The 300c of 1955 offered the brand’s first automatic transmission, a must for introduction into the American marketplace.

And the 300d of 1957 added a more modern and rectilinear body that incorporated a nine-inch stretch, nearly half of which went to the rear passenger compartment. It also shed the side window pillars. This gave the car a grand and airy profile, enhanced by its new fuel-injected engine, which produced 160 horsepower.

“From a power perspective, they’re not sports cars,” Mr. Kunz said of the Adenauers, which weighed over two tons. He characterized them instead as ideal autobahn cruisers. “It takes a while to get there, but you can go 90 miles per hour no problem,” he said.

This is in part because the car’s engine, and other drivetrain bits, was shared with another stellar postwar Benz. “They provided much of the technology that was used to produce the 300 SL,” Mr. Kunz said, referring to the remarkably advanced Mercedes Gullwing racecar and coupe of the mid-1950s.

The fact that Adenauers are not sports cars has helped keep their values approachable. “They violate a couple core collector car principles,” Mr. Rabold said. “They have four doors, instead of two. And they’re more grand touring, rather than sporting.”

He continued: “I think that it comes down to an emphasis on craftsmanship instead of showmanship. They’re very refined cars, but they’re subtle in their refinement.”

Thus, according to Hagerty, while “average” Gullwings are $900,000 cars, and top-notch ones can fetch $1.2 million, average Adenauers run around $42,000, and perfect ones can be had for under $100,000.

Also contributing to the 300’s limited collectability is the cost of maintaining and repairing one.

“With these cars, there’s more of everything,” Mr. Kunz said. “A lot of chrome, a tremendous amount of leather, complicated and very beautifully done wood on the interiors. If you have a convertible, the padded roof, a very large roof, there are issues with that.”

He went on: “And they have a very complicated body structure with very tight tolerances. When I show the car to someone, I always say look at the transition from front fender to the front door, and look at what the gaps are. The gaps are like two or three millimeters. It’s challenging to get that right.”

The current retail values of these cars thus don’t support the expense of high-end restorations, which can run well into six figures.

“There was one sedan we did where the customer brought it to us in very poor shape,” Mr. Kunz said. “He said, ‘I know I should have my head examined for restoring this,’ but he had owned the car for many years, and that was the emotional bond. He saw himself as steward of the car, and felt it was his responsibility to do it.”

That value proposition might be shifting. “We show that values on these have gone up around 25 percent over the past two years,” Mr. Rabold said.

This has been pushed in part by increased interest from an atypical audience. To measure interest and appeal, Hagerty tracks insurance quote requests on specific vehicles, with the idea that if someone is seeking coverage for a particular car, that person is either preparing to buy one or has just bought it.

“In 2018, Gen Xers accounted for only 12 percent of quotes on Adenauer Mercedes,” Mr. Rabold said. “But in 2020, that was 32 percent. So that shows that there’s some youth appeal, and I think that’s what’s contributing in part to values going up, as they start to be discovered a little more.”

If you’ve been in the market, it’s a good time to buy, especially if you find a car that someone else has paid to bring back to life.

“These are a really great combination of luxury and engineering. They’re overbuilt. They’re really quality cars,” Mr. Rabold said. “If you can find a restored one of these, it’s a great value.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: A Postwar Mercedes, Still Overshadowed by Its Racing Cousins
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