Is $24,500 [AUD] a big price tag for advanced engineering, specifications, performance and total safety? Obviously not for the people who buy this Benz - the waiting time runs to four months, plus! The 1973 International Car of the Year is a superb example of mass-produced precision, with high standards and attention to detail in every area. Editor John Crawford covered more than 2000 km testing think slinky, silver-grey safety capsule...
NATURALLY the 450SE is a superb motor car. It's also a completely self-indulgent piece of automobile design and engineering, but then it doesn't pretend to be anything else.
Mercedes Benz claim the "S" class is the closest thing to perfection which money can buy. I believe they may well be right in their claim, however I must say that in all honesty, from a driving point of view, there are many cars which I have enjoyed equally as much, if not more than the 450 Benz. It handles very well and it's as responsive as you'd expect, but it's not really a driver's car.
The most absorbing facet of driving the 450 was the feeling of total security. Maybe the safety-orientated advertising is as psychologically successful as intended. Every person who rode in the car said they felt as if they were travelling in a cocoon, protected from any potential danger.
Of course, this is precisely the effect which almost negates my previous comments about the Benz as a driver's car. It really isn't important. Any complaints one has with the concept must be weighted against the overall package and the design intent. Mercedes engineers set out to make precisely the car they designed, with virtually no expense spared. You probably think that's what all manufacturers do, but there's many a change between drawing board and release day. The 450SE is a car of little compromise.
It's important to highlight the safety aspect of the Benz image. It wasn't concocted from a barrel of advertising adjectives and catch-phrases. Safety research has been an important, integral part of vehicle development for some time - the S class sedans are practically direct descendants from the ESVs which MB has constructed over the past five years - the S class cars closely resemble the ESF24, the latest of the safety cars.
That's where a summation of the topline Mercedes starts and ends. Safety and no-compromise engineering is what it's all about.
It is not the quietest car I've ever driven, but this brings up an important point to ponder. The aspect of isolation of the occupants from all outside events is being seriously studied by manufacturers and motor industry researchers all over the world. Some say the passengers should not be too isolated (soundwise) from what is happening around them and I'm inclined to agree.
During my extended test drive of the superb Jaguar XJ12 I often felt cut-off to an almost dangerous degree, and felt then I needed to keep alert at all times, especially because I felt so ioslated.
The 450SE is not the most economical car we've tested either, but its no worse than cars of similar weight and power/ I trust if you have the necessary folding money to buy it, then you should certainly be able to afford to run it - whatever the cost. Mercedes cars have an enviable reputation for reliability and longevity, but when service costs are as high as they are today, you'd be damn well expect such trouble-free motoring for twenty-odd grand.
I have no real complaints about this car - I believe it would be foolish to do any more than express purely personal dislike of some features. To criticise the design and production processes would be resorting to pedantic behaviour, just to be able to say you knocked what most people consider the ultimate car. Price and maintenance costs would be the only grounds on which I would reject this car, apart from that it's purely a personal matter.
I mentioned earlier that I felt the 450 was not as much a pure driver's car as others I'd driven, and I still hold to this view. the 450 has very little character and is what we always seem to call an efficient, impersonal German car. Whereas British and Italian specialist car makers appear to hold driver enjoyment as the highest design ideal, the Germans seem to simply arrange the ideal specifications on a piece of paper and then draw up a way to include them into a car. This is the true character of the 450 - not conceived to be enjoyed, but simply to be a collection of specifications and features which discerning car owners desire most. The final package is neat and tidy, but lacking in warmth.
As Mercedes themselves put it - the idea behind the development of the S series was not to strive for the extreme, but to build cars which could adapt effortlessly and safely to the requirements of traffic without sacrificing comfort.
There are no dramatic differences between the 450 and other S class sedans, except in the refinement of the rear axle set-up. The 450SE and SEL have a built-in anti-squat factor which stops the rear from dipping during fast take-offs and heavy breaking. This feature combines with the excellent anti-dive front-end geometry to produce an extremely stable vehicle.
The handling of the Benz is essentially neutral. It has exceptionally high adhesion limits and during our test I was simply not prepared to push the car beyond this neutral attitude, in order to discover the car's limits. I found the car handled everything I could throw at it, without fuss and drama. On the road, at any speed, it is very sure-footed.
The front suspension is by coils and wishbones and in conjunction with the well-designed swing axle/trailing arm rear end it offers sufficient spring travel and efficient damping. This results in an exceptionally comfortable ride and pin-sharp handling response. There is, as anticipated, an absence of suspension noise and yet there is fairly good feedback from the steering.
The steering is one aspect which is difficult to assess, to my complete satisfaction at least. It is the well known recirculating ball-type, with MB power-assistance and up to a point it is incredibly accurate for a car of this size and weight. But there are times when it feels slightly dead and there's no firm indication as to what is going to happen next. Especially in situations where you have the car delicately balanced in a quick cornering manoeuvre.
I fully realise that the likelihood of this occurring and upsetting and upsetting the driver is very slim, under all normal circumstances. However, seeing as how we're talking detail points about the ultimate car I believe it's worth mentioning.
While we noted very little suspension noise, even on fairly rough roads, there seems to be a lot of unwarranted road noise finding its way into the cabin. We believe most of this is caused by the tyres - the type fitted to the test car were not particularly inspiring.
The brakes on the test car worked well enough, but there was severe lock-up from the front left-hand disc during our low speed (50km/h) stops. We believe however that this was a fault solely related to this vehicle. Other test reports of the 450Series has revealed total satisfaction with the braking system under all conditions. Since returning the road test car I have driven two other privately-owned 450SEs and found their brakes to be without fault. There was considerable dust on the pads of the test car and perhaps this is a service item which requires regular and detailed attention. As the brakes warmed up, during our tests, they got better and better, pulling the big 1740kg car up straight every time.
I must lay great praise on MB engineers for their brilliant piece of design work on the handbrake - it's fabulous. The handbrake is an umbrella-type which protrudes from the dashboard, just below the instrument cluster. It has a flexible moulded-rubber ring handle and is very easy to use. It is positive in operation and invites regular use because of its placement and ease of operation. Should it be required as an emergency brake its location is ideal.
The 450 engine is the same unit as fitted to the 350SE, but with the stroke increased from 54.8mm to 85mm to give 4520cc capacity. The engineers have opted for a hefty increase in torque, rather than a big power lift. The cast-iron block/alloy head SOHC V8 is quiet in operation except for slight resonances at certain points in the rev range.
Fuel feed is by way of the excellent Bosch fuel injection system. The car started first time every time and ran faultlessly. There were no flat spots, no hesitancy and in all seriousness the fuel consumption was quite reasonable.
The funny thing is no matter how the car was driven, or who drove it, we always seemed to wind up with an average fuel consumption figure which hovered around the 14mpg mark. That's not good, but at least it's consistent. The arrangement of the gear ratios in the excellent automatic transmission and the torque curve of the engine meant kickdown wasn't employed as often as you'd think - this also helped achieve consistent consumption figures.
If the 450 is expensive to purchase and run, then the fittings and finish certainly reflect the investment. The interior trim is absolutely beautiful, being a combination wool, corduroy and PVC. Buyers may have leather seats, or the cord type as fitted to the test car - at no change in price. We prefer the cord ones simply because they're softer to sit on. The 450Seats tend toward firm and the material upholstery made it that little bit more comfortable.
The amount of room afforded by the design is generous enough. Of course if your 450 is aimed at the chauffeur-set then you may order the long wheelbase SEL version. However the SE is quite adequate for most people.
Where the driving position of the Jaguar XJ12L is cramped for tall drivers, there is more than ample room for two metre-high men to stretch out behind the wheel of the 450. In fact the reverse is the case with the Merc. It is short drivers (like the Editor) who find a little difficulty in setting a totally satisfactory position.
All driver controls and comfort items are in exactly the right place. We liked the separate rotary-action light switch on the dash (with column-mounted dipper/flasher) and the wiper stalk. The floor-pump operated washers were just okay, but we'd rather see them integrated with the wiper control. It becomes distracting to give the job of washing the screen to your foot - because if you're left-foot-braking in wet and greasy conditions it becomes almost impossible to handle both tasks at once, in complete safety..
The transmission shifter is well-located and easy to use. The changes are practically imperceptible and maybe MB should give the driver a selector copy in the instrument cluster.
The illumination of the controls is very good - I cannot understand why this has not been made an international requirement. I refuse to accept the pinheaded idea that because a driver spends a lot of time in his own vehicle he should know where the various controls are located. If a driver has to take his eyes off the road for one single instance (when illuminated controls would negate such action) then the manufacturer contributes directly to a safety hazard and is morally responsible should an accident occur. All cars should have illuminated controls, regardless of the consumer having to bear the cost, which he inevitably must.
The rear compartment in the 450SE is quite comfortable, although I wouldn't describe the rear seat as sumptuous luxury. Comfortable is quite an adequate description. I find the seats in many cheaper cars compare very well with the Merc and in fact better in some cases.
What did impress all of us at MM was the attention to detail. Little points rise to great prominence when assessing the 450SE. There's the heat transfer system to the front doors to demist the side windows when condensation builds up. Check the photos in our coverage and you'll see the channel which runs from the inner panel adjacent to the front footwells into a similar channel in the front doors. This carries hot air from the heating/air conditioning system which is blasted up the gap between the window and the sill to clear the windows.
We liked the exterior mirror which had an interior adjustment system that was far and away more sensitive and accurate to those we're used to on local cars. Then there's the master door lock system, the first aid kit etc, etc. There are ingenious touches like the wiper delay system, If the wipers have been operating on delay and you switch off the ignition they return to normal settings when the switch is switched 'on' again. The heated window switches off as soon as ignition is off, regardless of the position of its own selector switch. The test car was fitted with electric windows, but we'd rather forget about them. The motor speed for the windows was inexcusably slow. Pressing the respective buttons resulted in the windows slowly grinding up or down - not good at all.
The air-conditioning was absolutely perfect, it operated extremely efficiently and gave us no cause for complaint. The general ventilation of the cabin was excellent. On discussing airflow inside the car we must focus attention on a unique use of the exterior airflow - in the cause of safety. As expected the S series have been subjected to extensive wind-tunnel testing and some important results have found their way onto the car.
Both front and rear windows have vertical guide channels for the airstream in order to deflect the normal flow of air and rain away from the side windows, therefore alleviating soiling of the windows and improving visibility.
As far as maintaining the Merc goes I believe it's a mechanic's headache under the bonnet. All the important pieces of equipment are reasonably easy to reach, but the mere sight of all that plumbing would be enough to frighten the most confident serviceman. Luckily it's only a routine operation and that offers few problems.
Overall we enjoyed the 450SE immensely. It is an impressive car and worthy of its elevated position in the automotive world. No wonder it has walked away with top awards in international polls, including the MM Readers' Poll, where it has won the safest car award two years running. You can't really vote for anything but excellence in that category, can you?
© June 1975 Modern Motor, Australia.