The greatest car of the 20th century is one you might not know even exists
This year I have dedicated too much of “Airbag” to complaining about cars. That’s wrong, because I love cars. So as promised, this month is going to be about what many car nerds, like me, consider the single greatest car of the 20th century.
There are many truly great cars: The Big Three of Packard, Peerless and Pierce-Arrow; Rolls-Royce; Aston-Martin—all those and others made cars where engineering and quality, not price, were the priority.
But there’s one particular model which had all that, plus performance, and one more thing. No one particularly cared if it even sold.
In the mid-1960s, Mercedes-Benz engineer Erich “Waxy” Waxenberger was incensed when a German journalist told him he was “getting old, building granny cars.”
Without the knowledge or approval of any executives, he ordered a single long-wheelbase 300 SEL body shell from their new six-cylinder S-class sedan and into it stuffed a fuel-injected 6.3-liter V-8 from a limousine.
Waxenberger tried to sell the idea to management but didn’t necessarily have plans for his 300 SEL 6.3 beyond proving a point. Then, late one night, the head of passenger car research Rudolf Uhlenhaut was working late when he heard something strange out the window.
All he thought he saw, however, was a motley 300 SEL making a very wrong noise. He immediately insisted on driving the 6.3 and even though Uhlenhaut still didn’t think it would sell, Waxenberger convinced him.
It wasn’t cheap—about $10,000 factory delivery when it debuted in 1968, and $14,000 at an American dealer in 1969. For an exotic sports car or cross-shopped against a Bentley, that was a great deal. But it was twice of the cost of an Imperial LeBaron, Cadillac Fleetwood Eldorado, Lincoln Continental or even Jaguar XJ12 sedan.
Still, why was it so incredibly expensive? It’s because of a level of engineering, attention to detail and pure luxury that hadn’t been seen since before World War II. In addition to the huge and hugely powerful engine (it really barely fits), it had self-leveling air suspension and a limited-slip differential, power steering and four-wheel power disc brakes, all-electric windows, auto-locking doors and a hundred other little details.
The interior was walnut, leather and wool all over and everything was made with the greatest precision possible, in the finest materials available. At the same time, it could cruise effortlessly at 120 mph and accelerate faster than Porsche 911S or Ferrari 330 GTC, with the absolute confidence, stability quiet and comfort that befit a 4,000-pound luxury sedan.
The 300 SEL 6.3 received all the praise in the world in its day: Motor Trend said, “What surprises you immediately when you drive the 6.3-liter is the large amount of comfort—around you, under you and everywhere.
Second and here you must beware—you do not realize while driving that you are actually going fast, very fast indeed!” Road and Track said, “If we had to choose one car, regardless of cost, to serve all our automotive desires, it would have to be the 300SEL 6.3.” In Car & Driver, Brock Yates said “...the automobile is the most stimulating, desirable 4-door sedan to appear since the Model J Duesenberg...capable of going like the hammers of hell.”
The love for the 6.3 has never stopped, either, in part because it’s a rare Sixties car that feels at home today.
It’s been said Mercedes-Benz built this as a gift for its engineers: “Here,” they were saying. “Here is everything we are capable of doing. We know you spend your time building cars that can go a million miles as taxis, and we appreciate it. Thank you.” The 300 SEL 6.3 represents what can happen when the single consideration is “build the best thing you possibly can.”
We love it not just because of what it can do but because of what it represents, the absolutely pure essence of what is possible when there are literally no limits. Edmond Rostand wrote in Cyrano de Bergerac, “Who knows her smile has known a perfect thing.” It’s a reason never to lose hope.
“So what makes it so great?” asked Road and Track. “Simply that whatever it is asked to do, it does better than almost any other car.” They didn’t sell many and probably lost money on it anyway, but almost 50 years later, it is as wonderful as ever, unchanged in the flow of time.
David Traver Adolphus is a freelance automotive researcher who recently quit his full time job writing about old cars to pursue his lifelong dream of writing about old AND new cars. He welcomes the inevitable and probably richly deserved kvetching about Airbag and anything else on Twitter as @proscriptus.