Back when wool cheques were fat and the Taxation Act slender no decent-sized country town was complete without a Mercedes-Benz agency.
Side-by-side with the products of Messrs Massey and Ferguson sat the legacy of Messrs Daimler and Benz; big, comfortable and prestigious but above all exceptionally durable transport over roads that could destroy most European luxury cars within months.
Under urban conditions the three-pointed star commanded equal respect and for very similar reasons, its prestige accompanied by an intimidating presence shared only with the biggest of US luxury cars.
Mercedes-Benz introduced the W116 S-Class in 1972, early cars sat on a 2860mm wheelbase, powered by a 2.8-litre six-cylinder or 3.5-litre V8.
Defying soaring fuel prices it added a 4.5-litre V8 to the range in 1973, the 450SE offered 200km/h and hit 100km/h in a shade under 11 seconds. Torque increased 30 percent, although power only rose a nominal 15kW.
The transformation was most obvious at speeds above 100km/h, which in rural Australia circa 1973 were perfectly legal, and a 450SE tested in Modern Motor magazine took 5.4sec to accelerate from 100-130km/h.
The SE and SEL both sat on four massive coil springs ensuring a smooth ride over tram tracks and cattle grids alike while anti-dive geometry complemented handling and adhesion that were amazing for a car of this bulk.
When new the 450SE cost six times the price of a Holden yet the interior was strangely austere, leather seats were optional but rarely seen, more popular the standard combination of corduroy-like fabric and vinyl.
Power steering and central locking were included, air-conditioning listed as an option was fitted to almost every Australian-delivered car.
'Benz 450 buyers still go for the fact that it's big, comfortable and durable.
If the 450SE had a fault it was slightly cramped rear seat room and in late 1973 that was remedied by the introduction of an SEL version with 120mm more legroom and a wider door aperture for easier entry.
Adding extra metal brought a 25kg weight penalty but most owners wouldn't have noticed the minimal drop in performance.
In Australia the big change came in 1977 when ADR27A emission regulations chopped the 4.5-litre engine's output by 18kW, adding almost two seconds to the SEL's 0-100km/h time.
At higher speeds the difference was marginal but from a standing start late-series cars are noticeable slower.
In 1978, with concern over fuel prices waning, Mercedes-Benz introduced its most powerful post-World War II model, the 450SEL 6.9.
Despite its bulk the 6.9 would run the standing 400 metres in under 16 seconds and although increased weight blunted low-speed acceleration, top speed was 230km/h.
Unlike the 4.5-litre cars, the 6.9 used hydro-pneumatic suspension and dry-sump lubrication, multiplying repair costs if something fails and rendering them less practical for everyday use.
The 1981 arrival of the W123 Series saw the 4.5-litre cars replaced by lighter, more efficient 380 models and the massive 6.9 discontinued.
On the road
It's sad for many potential owners that the first contact they'll have with an S-Class is through a four-spoke wheel that feels as unfriendly as it looks, but perseverance is rewarded and once you come to terms with the tiller these really are magnificent cars to drive.
The power steering, provided its maze of componentry has been properly maintained, is superb, requiring minimal effort at low speeds yet remaining pin sharp as the pace quickens.
An elevated driving position and massive windows ensure all corners are visible so you can place the five metre long beast with unerring accuracy.
If you've ever noticed the way 'Benz front wheels keel over on full lock, therein lies the secret of its manoeuvrability and 11.8 metre turning circle.
Despite V8 power this big 'Benz is more a cruiser than a rocketship.
Acceleration is languid until 1700-plus kilograms gets fully into stride as this is a car that thrives on wide open spaces and steep climbs.
Cars that haven't enjoyed a recent transmission overhaul are likely to be a little sluggish but manual shifting through the unique gate compensates for tardy kickdown and when worked hard the 'Benz auto shows why it was regarded as the best of its time.
Brakes are just as you'd expect; huge, reassuring and seemingly immune to overwork. In 1975, Modern Motor pulled a 450SE down from 100km/h to a dead stop in 38 metres.
Tyres play a major part in the road-ability of a big 'Benz and the standard 205/70VR14 items struggle a little in the wet, 215/65s provide more grip with minimal effect on ride quality.
Quality trim and finish means good cars still look great but beware neglected cars as replacement items can be expensive.
The interior and passenger accommodation remain controversial aspects of the design and if you're accustomed to Brit 'walnut and Connolly hide' or North American 'brushed nylon and glitz' you'll be disappointed by the 450 cabin.
Apart from that Titanic-scale wheel, proportionally huge instruments and a strip of afterthought timber the driver is surrounded by vinyl.
Everything you need, including an outstanding air-conditioning system, is there and every control except the stupid foot-operated windscreen washer logically placed. The handbrake when not in use even hides in a recess below the right-hand ventilation outlet.
Age and neglect mean that really cheap 450Sedans are easy to find but not recommended unless you're a skilled automotive engineer with lots of spare time and cash.
Well-presented and reliable SELs start around $10,000 with short-wheelbase versions $1500 less and near-perfect examples on $4000 more.
Look for documented service histories that show all the big items, such as engine, transmission, suspension and brakes, have been fully maintained.
Our featured car is a particularly fine example, having covered just 170,000 kilometres from new and spending its life being coddled and cosseted by the proverbial 'one careful owner'.
A 1974 model, it is one of the first long-wheelbase 450SELs sold in Australia and is fitted with a sunroof and sumptuous leather seat trim.
Tony Bishop from Autofair in the Melbourne suburb of Oakleigh said this car was one for the true 'Benz enthusiast, complementing impeccable condition with complete service records, the original factory build sheets and even an original brochure.
It took Jim Roumer, Mercedes-Benz specialist at the Chadstone Service Centre in Oakleigh just three words to summarise the problems that beset the 450-series 'Benz; "Age and neglect," Jim said.
"Many of these cars are more than 25 years old and owned by people who begrudge spending money on maintenance so they can be a very expensive proposition for the unwary."
For those wanting to guard against nasty surprises when buying a car of this type, Roumer and other specialists offer $150 pre-purchase checks.
Body: Unless severly neglected, rust isn't a major concern. Areas to check include inner mudguards, the boot floor, battery tray and suspension mountings. As pioneers of the controlled crumple zone, Mercedes-Benz cars aren't easy of cheap to repair properly after a major accident. Look carefully for chassis ripples and mismatched paint. A bumper will cost $500 second-hand and a grille about the same.
Engine: 'Benz engineering and an under-stressed design mean no major problems and properly maintained engines will last 400,000 kilometres. Failure to use the correct mix of inhibitor leads to corroded cylinder heads, reconditioned they cost about $3000 a pair, while rebuilding a serviceable engine is between $5000 and $7000. Watch for leaks at the rear main bearing seal and listen for timing chain noise. Chains rarely brake but need to be replaced every 150,000km to prevent valve damage.
Chassis & suspension: Weight is the killer here so expect to spend money if the car hasn't been fitted with new shockers within the last 50,000km. Upper wishbone bushes are often neglected, upsetting the zero-offset geometry and causing tyre wear. Watch Euro imports for rust hiding beneath the underseal.
Transmission: Well maintained, the Mercedes-Benz auto will survive almost indefinitely and even neglected units continue to work reasonably well. Signs that the 'box is due for some major surgery include jerky changes and grubby oil. If nothing significant is damaged, a transmission rebuild costs a very reasonable $1800.
Brakes: Four discs, vented at the front and with a massive power booster, make for effortless stopping but hard use causes rapid pad and disc wear. Normally pads last 40,000-70,000km, discs about 150,000km.
electrics: Bosch electrics are virtually bombproof so just check that everything, especially the sunroof, works. Power windows are normally slow-moving but there progress needs to be smooth without jerks or shudders. Air-conditioning should deliver cold air almost immediately, a coolish flow and/or underbonnet noises means a $1000-plus overhaul.
© September 1999 Unique Cars, Australia.