When it comes to performance saloons, Mercedes-Benz has a rich and illustrious history – we drive three V8 powered SELs from one very special collection.
Words: Wilhelm Lutjeharms
Images: Charles Russell
RONIN. A film well known for its car chases through narrow European streets. But for Mercedes-Benz enthusiasts like us, there is only one star in the film – and it is not Robert De Niro. It is the brown 450SEL 6.9, driven in a way only likely to be seen on a film set. Today, fortunately, no one is chasing me, although I am following other cars – in a less lairy fashion, of course.
The leading car is a 6.9, driven by the owner of all three of these stately Mercedes. Next in the convoy is his wife, piloting a rather special 300SEL 6.3. I am behind the wheel of what could possibly be the only 280SEL 4.5 in the country, and I’m absorbing every second of the experience.
We head up the beautiful Outeniqua Mountain Pass outside George and the owner isn’t holding back. Watching the two grand Mercedes limousines in front follow the contours of the road is a sight to behold. Classic driving at its finest. I chose to drive the 280SEL 4.5 first because it is the least powerful saloon here, but I am surprised how remarkably light on its feet it feels. On paper, its 145 kW V8 is overshadowed by the more powerful 6.3 and 6.9, but the 280SEL 4.5 is the lightest of the three and as I shift the floor mounted transmission lever to S, the transmission drops to a lower gear and holds it as I press the accelerator when exiting each corner. Once you have chosen your line and the initial body roll has settled, you can get back on the throttle with enthusiasm. After you have mastered its ways, driving the 4.5 is even more satisfying than you might imagine.
At this pace the 4.5 easily keeps up with the other two saloons, and all too soon we need to turn off at a lookout point for our first shoot location, a perfect opportunity to examine all three engine bays. The 6 834 cm3 M100 V8 in the 6.9 looks the most modern unit, although it is based on the older 6 332 cm3 M100 found in the 6.3. That engine was the first V8 installed in a Mercedes-Benz production car (originally launched in 1964 with the über luxurious 600 Grosser), while the 6.9’s motor was, and still is, one of the largest capacity engines ever slotted into a Mercedes-Benz – very appropriate indeed for the first range of cars that received the S-Class title.
With photographs in the bag, it is time to drive the other two saloons and I head for the black 6.3. Although it lacks an original steering wheel, the interior provides an experience to savour. The dark red upholstery gives the cabin a luxurious aura, while the red carpets further contribute to its almost Victorian ambience. Wood veneer can be found in the front and rear, too.
This car has a story to tell. Rumours suggest it belonged to the Royal Family of Lesotho at some stage in its life. Strong evidence of this is the fixed divider, which separates the driver’s quarters from the rear – not a feature seen often in these cars. The divider means the driver’s seat is fixed in position, but that’s not a problem for me because I’m granted a more commanding view over the steering wheel. VIPs in the rear are treated to controls for the Becker radio and the ventilation system, not unlike those in the W100 600 Grosser.
Little effort is needed to use the 6.3’s indicator stalk and as I turn back onto the mountain pass, the engine is thoroughly warmed. I slowly press the throttle and immediately I feel the V8’s eagerness, which translates into a swift burst of acceleration. As with the 280SEL 4.5, I take it slower through the turns, but the moment I can predict my trajectory out of a corner, I press the throttle again and it is surprising how healthy this 184 kW saloon feels, despite its considerable years. It took another three decades or so before Mercedes-Benz and AMG officially tied the knot, but the 300SEL 6.3, introduced in 1967, is in essence the first true Mercedes-Benz performance saloon!
At slower speeds, there is a slight delay before the engine responds, followed by a lift of the nose while the long rear overhang dips closer to the ground. But it proves easy to keep an eye on the small, centrally mounted rev counter with its redline just over the 5 000 rpm mark. I’m surprised at how similar the driving experiences are in the 4.5 and 6.3. The willingness of the engines and the gusto with which they rev are almost identical. The additional weight of the 6.3 is easily offset by the surplus power and torque. With full air suspension, the 6.3 was one of the most advanced performance saloons of its time, and suddenly it makes sense why this car’s US launch took place at the Laguna Seca race track in California, and why the hugely talented Mercedes-Benz engineer and executive Rudolf Uhlenhaut was in attendance.
As we pull over for more detail and interior photography, the sun starts to set behind the mountains in the distance. Even in this fading light the 450SEL 6.9 has an imposing stance. With the longest body and wide tracks, it claims the largest wheelbase here (2 960 mm). Owing to the oil crisis in the 1970s, Mercedes- Benz had to postpone the launch of its top S-Class by almost a year and a half, until September 1975. It was worth the wait.
Nearly 40 years later, as I open the door I’m overcome by the smell of the lush and cosy velour interior (leather upholstery was optional). It overpowers the more traditional smell of Mercedes-Benz cars of this era. Once seated, the velour chairs allow little movement and I immediately feel as if I could drive into the night for a few more hours. How plush and luxurious this car must have felt in its time.
Even when performing a simple task such as closing the 6.9’s door, I sense I’m dealing with a different beast. The door feels heavier than those attached to the other cars, and it shuts with a more distinctive thud. Velour inserts in the doors are framed by thick blue moulds, all contributing to the safe and cocooning atmosphere of the cabin.
The 6 834 cm3 V8 was the perfect powertrain for Mercedes’ top S-Class at the time. Even though the flagship Grosser was still available when the 450SEL 6.9 went into production, the 116 S-Class eclipsed that car’s power and torque. Developed from the 6.3-litre unit, the 6.9’s M100 features mechanically controlled, Bosch K-Jetronic injection and dry sump lubrication, and is connected to a three-speed transmission – the only unit Mercedes had at the time that could handle the grunt on tap. Needless to say, this engine’s character is vastly different to that of the 6.3.
As expected, it is slightly lazier and takes a more relaxed run through the rev range than the two older Mercedes. Once you have sampled the maximum performance, you can’t help but sit back, pull the armrest down and settle into a comfortable cruise. Thanks to a 96-litre fuel tank, fuel stops should not inconvenience the driver too much.
The improvements Mercedes-Benz made during the leap from the W108 and W109 to this V116 are immediately apparent, particularly when it comes to refinement, taken care of by the 6.9’s suspension with hydro-pneumatic level control at the rear. Engine and road noise are kept at bay, while the heavier kerb weight means the car feels more planted on the road. It also means you don’t really want to hustle it through corners. A good job then, I wasn’t tasked with driving the 6.9 in Ronin.
Too soon the sun sets and we drive the cars back to their neat garages, where they are stored and looked after. What a perfect evening to drive three of Mercedes-Benz’s most noteworthy saloons from the previous century, each with an engine larger than most, if not all those in Mercedes’ current line up. There can’t be a winner – that was not the aim of today. Each saloon offers a different experience, although the engine is the dominant factor in all three. There is little in terms of an exhaust note, but when you put your foot down, you can hear those V8s working hard.
The 280SEL 4.5 was an export model for North America, making its presence here all the more special. And the 450SEL 6.9 was one of the fastest saloons of its time. However, if it was my money, the 300SEL 6.3 would inspire the biggest smile every time the garage door opened. It is one of the original Q-cars and the original 6.3. But don’t take my word for it. When Road & Track tested this car new, the magazine called it not only “the greatest sedan in the world” but described it perfectly by stating it was “truly the executive road racer” and that it “does more different things well than any other single car”. Amen to that.
Specifications: Mercedes-Benz 280SEL 4.5 (W108)
Engine: 4 520 cm3, V8
Power: 145 kW at 4 500 rpm
Torque: 358 Nm at 3 000 rpm
Top speed: 200 km/h
0-100 km/h: 11 seconds
Gearbox: three-speed, automatic, RWD
Weight: 1 705 kg
Fuel consumption: 15 L/100 km
Production years: 1971 - 72
Specifications: Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3 (W109)
Engine: 6 332 cm3, V8
Power: 184 kW at 4 000 rpm
Torque: 500 Nm at 2 800 rpm
Top speed: 220 km/h
0-100 km/h: 6.5 seconds
Gearbox: four-speed, automatic, RWD
Weight: 1 780 kg
Fuel consumption: 15.5 L/100 km
Production years: 1967 - 72
Specifications: Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9 (V116)
Engine: 6 834 cm3, V8
Power: 210 kW at 4 250 rpm
Torque: 549 Nm at 3 000 rpm
Top speed: 225 km/h
0-100 km/h: 7.4 seconds
Gearbox: three-speed, automatic, RWD
Weight: 1 935 kg
Fuel consumption: 16 L/100 km
Production years: 1975 - 80