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Just what the doctor prescribed

Mercedes-Benz 200 D (1967, W110)

21/03/2013 00:24 | Comments: 

Contributing editor

8 years of working for IBM have chiselled Balázs’s English skills to a level inappropriately high for this magazine, but did much to blunt his interest towards office work and computers. Earlier a reader and seldom contributor, also a deeply affected car maniac, he left IBM and joined us for a longer term as a journalist, but he’s back again to making money – at another IT company. Luckily he kept on writing for us and hasn’t dropped his love for photography either.

It was just one of those perfect days. A day when not even my rusty bucket – better known as my Merc – was out of place in that hidden little street where it took me. All the cars around were in their late thirties...or older. But my goal that day was not to write a car review. Not by a long shot. I went there to enjoy a rare treat. To go back in time and be a West-German accountant out of the 60’s.

The perfect tool for that is a Mercedes-Benz W110 'Fintail'– but not just a standard one. For that purpose, I needed one that is more of a statue, a piece of art rather than a car. The sole function of a statue car is its very existence. A halfwit like me should never own one. I'd just end up using it as an everday car, condemning it to a slow but certain death commuting to work on those pothole-filled jokes of roads...damn, it would've looked great in the company garage, stacked between the grey manager Mondeos. But no, its purpose is to make the disciplined owner smile, when he takes it out for some posh vintage car meeting twice year. But for the rest of the year, the owner must show self-control, and spend his time dreaming about those two special days.

The W110 'Fintail' or 'Heckflosse' is by no means a rare car: 628 282 pieces won't make it a statue. In addition, our statue car belongs to the lower class of the Fintail-society, with its 2-litre diesel engine, two optional extras (larger hubcaps and dual-tone horn) and its price of 11 500 Deutsche Marks. The only cheaper Fintail at the time was the 2-litre gasoline version, which was available for 500 Deutsche Marks less. At the top of the Fintail upper class was the 300SE (33 350 DM). Before you raise an eyebrow, I know the 300SE coupe is not W110, but W111, and it doesn't have a fintail. Still, it's called that. Period.

The first series of the W110 was cheaper, with the 190 (9 950 DM) and the 190D (10 450 DM). After four years of production, the 200-series succeeded the 190. While the Deutsch mark was busy inflating, the Fintail was improving. The indicators descended from the bottom of the A-pillar to right under the headlights. Also, the number of crankshaft bearings was increased from three to five, making the idle a lot smoother for the 200 D's.

But this is still not enough to make it a statue. But the condition of this Fintail does the job finally. A bit of dealer-marketing 101: no rust, no body damage, never smoked in...not one lonely cigarette, kept in garage, low mileage, original condition and unrestored. Sounds familiar? You read that, then you check out the car on the spot and the only thing you feel is disappointment. But for once, in the case of this Fintail-statue, it's all true. Too bad it's not for sale. What's even worse: it never will be.

An average company car suffers more wear and tear in a single year, than this Mercedes did in it's whole life. Everything is in or close to original condition. Shiny chromes, rust is non-existent, impeccable lines. The only minor scar in its close to perfect body is on its right side, the fading memory of a close encounter of the Polski Fiat-kind. When I got in, the unmistakable smell of the upholstery, matured for almost half a century simply smacked me in the face and teleported me back to my granny's couch... lovely! And the maturation process was never spiced with tobacco. Whenever I hear that a car is non-smoking, I laugh. But here the owner pulled out the original cigar lighter. It was practically untouched!

There are no actual seats inside. Instead, there's a couch both in the front and the back. Due to it's strict, Prussian design, there's no possibility for the 'need for speed generation' to just lay down, like they do in their beefed-up hot hatches, casually grabbing the top of the steering wheel with their left hand. One sits with a straight back, stilted and proud. That's pretty much the only possibility. And in case one belongs to the boiler-shaped body type, as I do, then the passenger's size should not exceed the average slender girlfriend's, because the car is rather tight in the shoulders. Officially it's for six people, but in Hungary the underaged are not allowed to drive so let's stick to four average people, and it will still be quite intimate.

The whole posture of driver and passengers is of those barflies you see sitting on a stool at a bar. The dashboard reinforces this feeling with its straight and flat surface. The only difference is that the dashboard is padded end to end. At the time there was no Euro NCAP crash legislation, not even as a loose concept. There was however Béla Barényi. One of the many innovations of Mercedes' safety-obsessed engineering genius was the padded dashboard and steering wheel. Due to lack of enough space on the internet, I'd respectfully decline listing his other couple of thousands of patents. Ok, maybe I'll name just a few.

The non-deformable passenger cell, collapsing steering column, the already mentioned padding, along with crumple zones all around the car made the Fintail one of, or maybe the safest car of its age. All these were Barényi's innovations. His genius claimed many victims of the Fintails, as Mercedes was the only car-maker at the time, that was doing regular crash tests the way it's done today.

In any case, statue or not, I guess it's time to set off. I LOVE IT! I LOVE IT! I LOVE IT! Hmm...sorry about that. I got carried away so much by the car, that by the time I reached my keyboard I lost all my dignity, integrity and objectivity. The first article I managed to scrape together was just an incoherent drooling over the Fintail, and instead of showing up on my editor's screen, it was just quietly dripping out of his inbox.

Anyway, back to the car: at first I needed some help to fire it up, even though it has a Start/Stop button...just a little different than the ones you can see today. Unlike in modern cars, where the number of buttons on the dashboard is on par with the keys on a church organ, the Fintail has only a handful of buttons without any pictograms. After putting on the ignition, I pulled the lever on the left, or the 'slingshot' as those weird Merc-guys call it, halfway out and held it there. Then I waited. All is fine, no need to hurry. After a while a little wire started glowing behind a small grille, that loosely resembles a salt cellar. Then I pulled out the slingshot completely, the engine coughed one or two, then it came to life. For an old diesel engine it ran surprisingly smoothly. If there wasn't a sign saying '200 D' in the middle of the dashboard, I'd think it's running on gasoline with the valves slightly out of adjustment. The smoothness is the result of three things: the already mentioned 200 D engine with the five crankshaft-bearings (OM621 VIII), the pre-chamber injection and the healing touch of a very special mechanic... or is he a weapons smith?

55 diligent horses without the slightest need for speeding. Why would I hurry? Why would I want to go faster then 130 kph? One should enjoy these gifts of the Wirtschaftswunder, and cruise peacefully through the streets of West-Berlin. Pop in Café Kranzler for a nice Schwarz and a Strudel, then drive down to Kino Parisien for the premiere of The Graduate. The clutch needs minimal effort, using the column shifter is pure joy. It pops in the selected gear with a masculine click. It's close to impossible to miss the intended gear. After changing to third, I left it there simply because there's no need for the rest. Third gear is enough for all speeds, and I'm pretty sure that the rest of the cogs are only there for the driver's entertainment. So after a while, I was changing gears just for the sheer fun of it.

Driving this 45 year-old car seemed to be the most natural thing after a couple of meters. The Fintail simply halved my pulse. One could say it was all because it cannot go fast, but that would be untrue. One does not want to go fast, it's as simple as that: it's a rolling nursing home for the weak hearted. Yet, as light as it may seem, one still feels how robust the whole car is. Whenever I think how people refer to the /8 as a rolling safe, I can only chukle. From behind the wheel of Fintail, the Strich Acht is simply leichtbau. A fragile tinbox. My W123? A high tech computer with a cellophane body.

I see the potholes, but don't feel them. The 13-inch wheels, with the swimbelt tyres don't tell much about the road. For the rather comfortable suspension Mercedes was still using kingpins, and together with the swing-axles it made a very stable ride. The only source of suspense were the breaks. I had to step on the pedal hard, yet it felt like as if the breaks were responsible for decelerating the surroundings and not the car. In short, it lacks all directness or strength.

The W110 won't boil the driver's blood, though the temperature rises as the speed increases... or so it seems. That's because speedometer is not a classic gauge with a dial, but rather a thermometer. When accelerating, a little yellow stripe starts rising changing to a stripy red and yellow, then turning red completely.

It's impossible to piss off the four-cynlinder, 1988cc engine, as it peacefully consumes the kilometers. And in terms of consuming fuel? Honestly? Since at the time of driving it, I was in such a perfect state of bliss that I couldn't care less. I talked with the owner some time later, and he said the consumption is a steady 8 litres. For 100 kilometres, man. It's a small appetite and the legendary Mercedes-indestructibility, along with the brand's well know guarantee for comfort made it the ideal choice for taxi drivers.

If you don't believe me, ask Ralf Werner. He's the proud owner and driver of Berlin's oldest taxi, which should come as no surprise, is a W110 190 D – that is the older version of the car. The Fintail, proudly named by it's owner 'Nemoluk', is quite a common sight nearby the club Berghain in Friedrichshain, as it's been roaming the streets of the German capital for many decades now. During its usual shifts from 8pm to 2am it accumulated almost a million kilometers in its old body over the years, and it likely will continue doing so without any major headaches. Ralf Werner isn't the only one praising the W110's, as most of the taxi drivers of the day sang odes to the model...quite literally, I must say: a Swedish christian choir of taxi drivers, the Taxibröderna Göteborg did exactly that on one of their recordings back in the 70's.

So you see, that special Fintail I have the luxury of driving, with only 130 000 kilometers behind it, is still only being broken in. I admit though that I should've started my somewhat biased review with it's looks. Well, it's not actually a beauty to behold, you should let some time for its prettiness to sink in. Like the somewhat chubby little girl, with the honest eyes and ever-smiling lips that you know you will marry, since she's gonna be there taking care of you till your last breath. Sure, who wouldn't want to hook up with a Victoria's Secret model, but somehow I have the feeling that Ralf Werner would've ended up being a butcher, had he tried to use Pietro Frua's Maserate Quattroporte as a taxi instead of the Fintail.

The shape of the car is dominated by the small fins and to this day it somehow stands out from the rest of the classic Mercedes models. No wonder, since nothing expresses more the bohemian exaggerations of American car history– the perfect opposite of Mercedes' philosophy – than the fins. In addition, by the time the W110's hit the streets the whole idea was dead and buried for a decade in that country far and beyond the great pond . However, the designer of the W110's, Karl „Charly” Wilfert had a motto: Never try to avoid an argument! The unbearable designer genius of Mercedes managed to convince the board that it's actually a parking assistant.

The W110 had another interesting touch in its design which hardly anyone ever notices (including me). I was already an hour into the photo shoot, when the owner asked me „Have you noticed that the doorhandles in the back are higher than the ones in the front?”. As matter of fact I didn't, but since that time it is the first thing I notice whenever I see a W110.

Inside comforting simplicity is the dominant theme, with the aforementioned couch, the paddings, the simple buttons and one of the greatest, but since forgotten invention of the car industry – the wind wings. There is something shamefully exciting in opening them with an Oreo biscuit. In any case, owning and using one daily wouldn't be a particulary bright idea, even if it has an almost 600 litre trunk. But it doesn't have power steering. Nor are there any real safety features: airbags or ABS. It's tight in the shoulders and the brakes are weaker than Hungarian football. Today's football that is. And what's worse ­ worse than the brakes– is that you're not allowed to smoke in it. Still, as health is the most important, there's nothing less stressful than driving an old Fintail, so I urge all doctors to prescribe it to their patients.

EPILOGUE

A day after I handed in the article, I got a very distressing call from Tibby, the director of the magazine. Knowing the freaky schedules he has, it wasn't that surprising that it was 9:30pm, however his voice was grumpier than usual. „Hi boss, how are y...”, I tried asking. „Why is the door handle higher in the back?”, he interrupted. „Tell me! Tell me NOW!”

After I managed to gather my voice, I told him I don't know. Nobody does. „You mentioned some designer”, he said „Some Carlos or whatever. Call him up and ask! I cannot sleep because of this, so find it out!” Then he hung up. 'Carlos' was meant to be Karl Wilfert. To add to my drama he died in 1976. As resurrection is not among my short list of skills, I needed to find another way, (since Tibby's beauty sleep is of utmost importance for both the magazine's and it's employees' well-being).

So stay tuned!

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