1956 Mercedes-Benz 220S W180
Feature: 1956 Mercedes-Benz 220S W180 well-preserved Ponton. The Mercedes 220 S is an unflashy example of just what makes the marque so special, and marked the transition from imperious carriages to the brand’s modern cars.
1956 Mercedes-Benz 220 S W180
GROWING OLD GRACEFULLY
The lines of the 1956 Mercedes-Benz 220S W180 are deeply satisfying. From behind the large steering wheel the bonnet is more aggressively curved than it looks from the outside. It creates definite channels between the wings and leads the eye to the iconic three-pointed star emblem mounted atop the radiator.
There was another determined bidder but he bowed out. Harry tickled the carbs, started the car, and drove it home
Owner Harindra ‘Harry’ Pilapitiya says that this was all quite deliberate. Not to put too fine a point on it, Mercedes designers thought it helpful for drivers to have a gunsight to aim through when piloting their cars.
LIKE A PONTOON
From the outside, the front of the car has a friendly, unthreatening face, and the lines flow harmoniously to a neatly rounded and tucked-in tail. The modest tail lights are no more than what was considered necessary at the time. The slightly longer lines, subtly accented by chrome trim, all flow together and work just a bit better in this W180 than in the previous, shorter, four-cylinder model, the W120. To create the W180, that body was made longer in the front to accommodate the six, and another few centimetres were added to the rear passenger compartment, giving it generous foot room. The extra rear quarter-light that this made room for is the easiest way to spot the difference between the two models.
Chrome trim highlights the bulges over the wheels, following the lines dictated by previous generations of bodies with separate mudguards. This body was Mercedes’ first move away from the traditional body-over-separate-chassis construction. That is why both of these cars are known as the ‘Ponton’ models, which is French for ‘pontoon’. It describes the unitary styling and construction. After this generation, this approach was so universal in almost all cars that the term was discarded.
Mercedes could see the unitary construction and unified shape was the way forward but clearly thought that this tribute to mudguards of old was a handy way of avoiding making the shape too bland or dull — like the Vanguard, for instance.
HARRY SAYS ‘RELAX’
This car makes for a very nice classic. It is comfortable, weather tight, airy with its upright windows, and easy to drive. The pleasing solidity and thoroughness of a Mercedes build allows you to relax. Some apparently were assembled in Australia but this car came from the Untertürkheim factory in Stuttgart. Harry has driven it on holiday down to the central North Island knowing full well he wouldn’t have to compromise on comfort or get out the toolkit. The fully independent suspension is soft and the car, while nicely balanced, rolls a fair bit so you are not tempted to push it too hard. The front has proper double wishbones, coil springs, and an anti-roll bar. The rear has a swing axle, radius arms, and coil springs. Steering is by recirculating ball.
This car has the optional bucket seats, which are also softly sprung, so you are located a bit better than the bench seat fitted to most of them. Contemporary testers who enjoyed the car’s 100mph (161kph) performance did have to hold on tight to the wheel to hang in there. It is worth noting that the oversquare chain-driven overhead-cam six-cylinder engine with twin Solex carburettors is a smooth and even eager performer, with a generous redline of 6000rpm, so it does encourage you to drive in a way that keeps up with the traffic.
RARE GREEN STRIPES
This car has fabric-covered seats, all still original and intact. Mercedes MB Tex vinyl and leather were options. Harry says that fabric seats, especially in this green stripe, were quite rare. The dashboard and door cappings are all wood, in keeping with the car’s luxury credentials. Interestingly, the car has a rubber-mat floor under carpet pieces in the footwells but it is certainly durable.
Despite the old-world wood, the car has a snazzy modern horizontal speedo and some quirky period controls. The headlamps are controlled by three different switches. There’s a turn switch on the dash and a flasher on a stalk allowing drivers, in the European fashion, to flash their lights twice to call another driver on or to hold high beam to indicate this car was coming through. It’s a shame that this form of communication didn’t really catch on here. I remember this system also applied in the UK. It was employed fastidiously on the three-lane A-road near my former home, allowing cars travelling in both directions to use the central third lane for overtaking. Ah, the good old days. The third switch, for turning high beam on and off is, of course, a foot pedal.
As the stalk works the headlights, the indicators are operated by rotating the steering wheel’s horn ring left or right. Perhaps that was a bit heavy for the self-cancelling mechanisms of the day, which might explain why it doesn’t have one. You have to remember to turn the indicators off again.
There are individual heater controls with chrome levers left and right, a nice chrome Blaupunkt valve radio, and an odd little rotating control on the end of the row of switches. Turning it produces a notched mechanical clicking. “It’s a spark advance,” says Harry.
Back when the quality of fuel was more variable than it is today, drivers could advance the ignition for optimum performance or back it off if the engine started pinking on low-quality fuel. There’s one more thoughtful addition. When the fuel gets low and the engine coughs, flick a lever under the dash and you will access the fuel reserve. It switches to a different and deeper feed from the tank.
KNOWING WHERE TO TICKLE
The most remarkable feature of this car is its original condition. Although Harry has restored other vehicles and has spent his working life in Mercedes workshops, now running his own on Auckland’s North Shore, he doesn’t plan to go beyond what he has already done to this car. He is happy to see it grow older gracefully and he fully appreciates its importance as a survivor.
It had just one owner before he bought it, a couple from Titirangi who had bought it new and clocked up less than 60,000 miles. The wife continued to drive it occasionally after her husband died, until one day she failed to pull the steering column–mounted gear lever back far enough to engage reverse, got first, and crushed the bumper and front grille. She decided enough was enough, and gave up driving. She went into a home and on her passing the car went to auction. Harry was tipped off about it and went to the auction, about 10 years ago. “It still had the damaged grille and the car was completely grey, matte grey.”
With the owner not being an enthusiastic polisher in her later years, the original sage green paint had succumbed to age. The varnish on the wooden door cappings had also dried out and split. And it wouldn’t start. It had fuel and spark so other potential bidders acquired a worried frown. Harry knew that you needed to tickle the back of the carb to bleed it but he wasn’t going to tell the other bidders. “I could have got it for $4K,” says Harry.
It wasn’t to be. There was another determined bidder but he bowed out before $10K. Harry tickled the carbs, started the car, and drove it home. It seems like a steal now, and it probably was, but that wasn’t unusual at that time. It’s not like the other bidder was some chancer; he wound up buying another 220 S soon after.
GRILLE TO A GOOD HOME
That smashed front grille might have looked daunting but Harry found it easy to replace. His cousin works at a Mercedes wreckers. He actually had just that grille, complete with a lot of German auto event badges, hanging on his bedroom wall and he was happy to see it go to a good home.
Harry’s links into Mercedes networks around the world also came in handy in fixing the front bumper. He got the central number-plate section from the UK, the sides from the US, and the overriders from Germany. For the sake of the wood, Harry decided to sand down and recoat the window surround wood cappings but he did that with a light touch. He didn’t go for the gloss-high polish some restorers like. Not only would that produce distracting reflections but he also wanted to match the dull finish, the patina, on the unrestored dashboard.
Harry has also resisted the temptation to fix a couple of other signs of age. The left-hand front indicator lens has a few cracks appearing in it. On the nearside rear flank, the chromed strip has a tiny dent and the chrome has flaked off in that area, revealing the brass beneath. Harry is almost proud of them.
When he wound down the window on our drive, you could also see the fabric trim around the windows had begun to fray and fibres were dancing in the wind. Harry has no intention of replacing those yet, either. I was with him completely on the chrome strip and the lenses but I had to admire his nonchalance about that telltale fluttering just out of his eye-line.
The car still has the owner’s manual in the glovebox, old maps in the map pocket, and the original tool roll, with all tools in place, in the boot — although they might qualify for a bit of a clean-up. The original paraffin wax has dried out of the canvas tool roll so a bit of surface rust has moved in.
Harry did decide to repaint the car a couple of years ago. While hardcore ‘patinistas’ might challenge that decision, I can understand it. The old paint had had it, which meant the body was vulnerable to rust so, as in the case of the door cappings, repainting it was a sensible decision in the car’s best interests. There’s no doubt that the new paint also shows off the car’s classy lines. It doesn’t deserve to look dowdy.
VARIATIONS ON A THEME
The W180 was introduced in 1954 as a more luxurious version of the 1.8- and 1.9-litre W120, with the extra length fore and aft adding 170mm to the wheelbase. The first car, the 220a, had a single-carburettor 2195cc six delivering 63kW. It was replaced two years later by the twin-carb 220 S, which produced 84kW. It was available with an optional Hydrak automatic clutch, but Harry is quite pleased his car doesn’t have one. “They burned out a lot of clutches,” he says.
They had micro-switches on the gear lever. Touch the gear lever and the clutch disengaged. This was a trap for people who didn’t know how to drive the car, or those who like to rest their hand on the gear lever in anticipation of a change. As soon as they did that, the clutch would disengage and they would lose drive. No doubt the automatic clutch was also fiddly to keep up to the mark, so it wasn’t a surprise to hear Harry say that a lot of owners disengaged it. They simply had to remove or disconnect the servo and add a clutch master cylinder and clutch pedal. It seems that Mercedes wasn’t a fan of the system, either, as it doesn’t seem to have appeared on any models since.
There were a couple of other models of this car. Somewhat quirkily, alongside the 220 S, Mercedes introduced a 219, which had the single-carb 220a motor and the longer front but the shorter back end of the previous W120. It also did without the 220S’s brake booster. A two-door cabriolet joined the line-up later the same year and there was also a two-door coupé.
The final iteration of this body shape was the einspritz, or fuel-injected, 220 SE, designated the ‘W128’ and introduced in October 1958. It was replaced in late 1959 by the heckflosse, or fintail, W111, which carried the marque through to 1971. This was altogether a bigger, wider, and more imposing car. I’d go so far as to say menacing. If a black W111 hoved into view in a television show, it would inevitably be filled with baddies.
Compared with those cars, charming in their own way, the 220 S seems a much friendlier classic car companion. It’s not exceptional in any area but it has a satisfying feeling of rightness and togetherness, and a willing, smooth engine. If ‘just driving it’ is what classic car ownership means to you then the solid reliability offered by Mercedes’ thorough approach to engineering in those pre-computer days means that a W180 offers a great option.
Given Harry’s skills with the marque’s mechanicals and the readiness with which he could tinker and ‘improve’ the car, the self-restraint that he has shown in his deliberate hands-off approach to preserve the car’s period charms and patina is impressive and praiseworthy.
If ‘just driving it’ is what classic car ownership means to you then the solid reliability offered by Mercedes’ thorough approach to engineering in those pre-computer days means that a W180 offers a great option
TECHNICAL FILE 1956 MERCEDES-BENZ 220S W180
Engine M180 III in-line six
Max Power 100bhp (74kW) at 5000rpm
Max Torque 127lb ft (171.5Nm) at 3500rpm
Comp. ratio 7.6:1
Fuel system Twin Solex 32 PAJTA Valves 12, single overhead cam, duplex chain
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Suspension, F/R Double-wishbone and coil spring / Swing-axle, radius arms, and coil springs
Brakes, F/R Drum, power-assisted / Drum
Track, F/R 1430mm/1470mm
Kerb weight 1350kg
0-62mph (0–100kph) 13.7 seconds
Top speed 100mph (161kph)
He is happy to see it grow older gracefully and he fully appreciates its importance as a survivor
There are individual heater controls with chrome levers left and right, a nice chrome Blaupunkt valve radio, and an odd little rotating control on the end of the row of switches
The fully independent suspension is soft and the car, while nicely balanced, rolls a fair bit so you are not tempted to push it too hard