Original Article – April 2016 – New York Daily News
Mercedes-Benz likes to claim that they invented the automobile all the way back in 1886, and while that claim has been heavily disputed, there’s no arguing they’ve made some of the most incredible machines in the automotive world since then.
From terrain-traversing SUVs to ‘Bahn-burning sedans and coupes, there are few types of cars that Mercedes has yet to master in some form.
With a new generation of three-pointed stars rolling out in recent years, we decided to take a look back at the brand’s history and pick the 10 best from the last 130 years. Unfortunately, no AMG models were included because, well, we figured that wouldn’t be a fair fight to the rest of the Benzes.
10. Benz Patent Motorwagen (1886 – 1893)
How could we possibly disclude “the first automobile” from the list? In 1886, German engine designer and moustache aficionado Karl Benz was awarded German patent number 37435 for the first vehicle designed to be propelled by an internal combustion engine. It had three wheels, a bench seat, and a crank used for steering, and the two-stroke piston engine went on to set the precedent for future early automobiles. Only 25 were made over the course of 8 years, and each one cost $1,000, equivalent to about $27,000 in this day and age. It’s no S-Class, but cars may not be the same as we know now without it.
9. CLS-Class (2004 – present)
This one may be a bit of a head-scratcher, but allow me to elaborate. With the first CLS-Class in 2004, Mercedes-Benz proved that sedans could be sleek and sexy, and now almost every luxury automaker is scrambling to turn all their 4-doors into “coupes.” As a result, thousands of buyers are sacrificing a little bit of rear headroom for a whole lot of curb appeal. The design treatment has even carried over to SUVs, which Mercedes has finally adopted as well with the GLE-Class and GLC-Class coupes – but I’ll spare you my feelings on that particular trend.
8. 280SL “Pagoda” (1967 – 1971)
It’s hard to follow an act like the iconic 300SL Gullwing, but somehow, Mercedes pulled it off with poise and endless sophistication. The 2nd generation (W113) SL-Class is my personal favorite of the bunch, and the ultimate iteration was the last one. Packing a 2.8-liter inline 6-cylinder, the 280SL put out around 170 horsepower, which was quite a lot for 1967. Body-colored hubcaps add a tasteful touch, and the 280SL is one of the few cars ever made that truly looks good in any color. “The best or nothing,” indeed.
7. 300SEL 6.3 (1968 – 1972)
It may look unassuming, but the 300SEL 6.3 is the one true Benz that every modern Mercedes can trace its roots back to. By shoe-horning the massive 6.3-liter V8 from the company’s 600 limousine into the much smaller 300 SEL body, Mercedes essentially created the formula for the modern German luxury sedan. On top of the massive power in a subtle and stately body, the 300SEL packed air suspension, ventilated disk brakes at all four corners, power windows, and power steering. Oh, and it got to 60 mph in just over 6 seconds. No wonder AMG took this car racing before any other Benz.
6. G-Class (1979 – Present)
Sure, the Wrangler and Land Cruiser may have more iconic names, and the Land Rover Defender may be more ubiquitous around the world, but there’s no off-roader that’s stayed as true to its original design than the Gelandewagen. Staying basically unchanged since 1979, the G-Class has been a military vehicle, safari companion, and even a 6-wheeled monster truck. There are very few countries and terrains that the G-Wagen hasn’t conquered, and though it’s now become a chariot for the rich and famous, there’s no ignoring this truck’s humble roots.
5. C111-II Prototype (1970)
Okay, I’ll concede that the C111 isn’t technically a production car, but it’s just so cool that it had to make the list. From 1969 all the way up to 1991, Mercedes toyed around with the idea of a mid-engine supercar, and it took the form of the gorgeous, fiberglass-bodied C111. The first version, completed in 1969, used a three-rotor Wankel engine (take that, Mazda!), while later versions used a turbo-diesel and even a twin-turbocharged V8. Through its many iterations, the C111 captured the attention of car fans around the world, and despite receiving over 700 deposits for the C112 production car at the 1991 Frankfurt motor show, Mercedes decided not to build it at all. It’s still not too late to start now, guys!
4. 600 Pullman Landaulet (1963 – 1981)
The 600 Pullman is about as close to the definition of the word “Limousine” as a car can get, and there are many good reasons it was a favorite of kings, queens, presidents, and dictators throughout the world. Almost every mechanism on this behemoth was driven by hydraulic components, which were very cutting-edge at the time but naturally had a high failure rate as they aged. The ultimate Pullman is the Landaulet, with a convertible cloth top over the rear seating compartment so heads of state could “connect” with their subjects. As impressive as the Pullman Landaulet is, it’s list of notorious rulers is almost more impressive, with former owners like Saddam Hussein, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un, and even the Pope, there are few powerful bottoms that haven’t ridden in a Pullman.
3. 540K (1936 – 1940)
I mean, just look at it! The 540K is one of the most sought-after and widely-loved pre-war cars ever made, but even a car this gorgeous isn’t without its share of controversy. Built from 1936 to 1940, with the last bodies completed in 1944, Mercedes reaped the benefits of pre-WWII Nazi Germany’s strong industry, and the 540K became a car for the highest ranking officials in the Reich. But despite its notorious owner base, the 540K was well ahead of its time, with a howling 5.4-liter straight-8 cylinder that later boasted a supercharger, pushing power output to an unheard-of (at the time) 180 horsepower. Special edition and custom-bodied 540Ks are some of the most expensive collectors cars in the world – the “Special Roadster” pictured above sold for $9.9 million at the RM Sotheby’s Scottsdale auction earlier this year – and it’s clear to see why.
2. 500E (1991 – 1994)
I know what you’re thinking: what is an early 90s E-Class doing so close to the top of the best Benzes list? As it turns out, this is no ordinary E-Class. In fact, it’s the only Mercedes-Benz in history that was hand-built by Porsche. Why Mercedes would pass off production of one of their most exclusive executive sedans to a boutique sports car builder (at the time) is beyond us, but it was the early 90s, and anything was possible! With a 5.0-liter V8 from the 500SL roadster, each 500E was shipped back and forth between the two companies’ headquarters, and took 18 days to completely assemble. Just over 1,500 made their way to the U.S., and well-kept models are more expensive than you might imagine for a 25-year-old Mercedes. It’s the ultimate sleeper performance car, and may just be the ultimate E-Class.
1. 300SL Gullwing (1954 – 1963)
How could one choose anything else? With its groundbreaking and endlessly-cool “gullwing” doors, the 300SL is likely the most iconic Mercedes ever made, and the good news is that it has just as much “go” as it has “show.” Powered by a 3.0-liter straight-6, the 300 SL made about 220-horsepower all the way back in 1954. It was so successful as a race car in the two years prior, that Mercedes had no choice but to put it into production in 1954, both in coupe and roadster form. It was the car that truly put Mercedes back on the map after WWII, especially in America, and is still recognized by car fans around the world to this day.