Of all the major manufacturers, Daimler-Benz AG has been foremost in meeting the challenges, legal and consumer-generated, that have come with barrage-like intensity in recent years and which have sent automakers to the wailing wall of Congress and the federal courts. Rather than rushing, fraught with panic into stopgap measures to satisfy the latest fiat handed down by the smog and safety lictors, they react with stolid Teutonic effectiveness not only to satisfy the demands but to do so in a manner that only improves the product. Daimler-Benz builds Mercedes cars - with method, foresight and efficiency.
Perhaps the salutation in the owners manual of the latest offering, and the one under discussion, the 450SE sedan, says it best: "You have chosen to drive a MERCEDES-BENZ, a car in whose construction and production we have taken great pains because we believe quality is not a matter of chance."
You've seen the TV commercials with Phil Hill barreling a new 450SE in a slalom among two rows of facing trucks with the trucks closing together like giant alligator teeth for the second run. That, in essence, is what the new "S" series, of which the 450SE is the first in the U.S., is all about. It is quite possible that any competent driver familiar with the car could duplicate at least the first part of Hill's TV display. You may have noticed (or can check, if the commercial is still being run) that the car exhibited almost zero dive as it snaked its way among the trucks. The reason is an entirely new front suspension taken directly from the experimental C-111 rotary-powered sports car. It is, to quote the literature, "a maintenance-free double wishbone set-up with zero steering offset and built-in progressive anti-dive control." What this means is the harder the car is forced into a diving mode as in braking or turning, the more resistance the suspension creates to counteract it.
Gone is the old subframe to which the suspension was attached in earlier models. The lower wishbones attach directly to a crossmember welded between the chassis side members. The upper control arms are set in rubber mountings but the major control is exerted by a pair of arms leading back to an anti-roll bar that runs across the chassis behind the engine. The effect is that the pivoting axes of the lower and upper control arms cross each other. Because of this the anti-dive effort increases in direct proportion to the deceleration or weight transfer. There is an added benefit in that the angle of steering lock is increased from the previous 39 degrees to 43. The turning circle is reduced by a foot under that of the considerably smaller current 280SE sedan. The steering is also quicker than even that of the "sports" 450SL and 450SLC cars at a super-rapid 2.8 turns lock-to-lock, another point that explains why it doesn't necessarily take the likes of Phil Hill to do at least the first part of that TV slalom number.
The rear suspension also is different and was taken from the 450SL and SLC. Coil springs are used at all four corners and damped with gas-filled shock absorbers and there is a stabilizer bar at the rear as well as on the front. Braking is by discs at all four wheels.
The other major change in the "S" series is styling and body construction. That is, it's major for Mercedes because it still has the solid, conservative, boxy, Teutonic lines associated with the marque which, like a Brooks Brothers suit, will never go out of style but will never be au point in terms of fad fashion. The new look is lower and a touch smoother than the previous versions. The most noticeable change is at the front where the headlights are set horizontally rather than vertically as has been the case for roughly a decade. The classic radiator grille has a much more horizontal appearance, as though the stylists felt that if Rolls-Royce could get away with the hammered-down look, so could they.
There are no surprises in the interior. There are the same seats designed not by stylists but by orthopaedic surgeons. The dash is the same as the 450SL and SLC; instrument cluster on the left, a huge speedometer in the middle and a choice of either a quartz-crystal electric clock or tachometer on the right. Along the bottom is a row of indicator lights, not idiot lights but warnings since they're backed up for the most part by instruments. The really significant changes are hidden. The doors are guarded against intrusion by steel beams and the roof will take a 10-ton static load for the protection of anyone unlucky enough, wastrel enough or unskilled enough to roll it. The fuel tank, as in the 450SL and SLC is above and forward of the rear axle and protected by steel firewalls both front and rear. Except for the lack of a bladder it's nearly as safe as a NASCAR fuel cell.
The 450SE and SEL has as standard equipment a host of items that previously were strictly optional, some of which have not been available on many other cars. Among them are:
- Air conditioning
- Automatic transmission
- Radial tires
- Power four-wheel disc brakes
- Becker Grand Prix AM/FM Stereo radio (450SEL)
There are a lot of little touches developed with the SL and SLC models that aren't apparent but they add a lot. There are a number of chrome bits that look suspiciously like trim, but they act to keep water and dirt off the side and rear windows. The fluting on the wrap-around side-lights and taillights is also functional, since it was discovered that they will stay clean in the muddiest, slushiest conditions. The safety/consumerists can rest assured that there is not one single protuberance to catch an unwary or unfortunate pedestrian; even the internally adjustable side mirror has rubber edges and will fold back on impact with the softest pedestrian. The windshield wipers operate in the area of lowest turbulence and sluice excess water off into deep side gutters. The touches are myriad and not one has been placed on the car without a thought to function as well as appearance. Even the side trim is meant to stave off damage. It might even be proof against New York parking attendants although that's a bit much to ask since those worthies could do mortal mischief to a Patton tank in three quick passes.
Driving the 450SE, even for those used to the Mercedes mystique, is a unique exercise, an experience in perfection of the state of the art but surprisingly lacking in exhilaration in normal use. The car does exactly as it is bidden, exactly when it is bidden and you get the feeling it will continue to do so forever. It is absolutely rock-solid and provides no surprises whatsoever. The engine is the same 4.5 litre (275.8 CID) single-overhead cam V-8 that was introduced two years ago. Other than the fact it is a work of meticulous precision there is nothing brilliant about it. Peak power is developed at a relatively low 4750 rpm and the net horsepower developed is an equally conservative 190 net bhp.
What Mercedes has wrought in the 450SE and 450SEL is a solid, totally safe, comfortable, reliable, quality automobile that will, on demand, take its owner and passengers to any destination where there is a reasonably civilized road and do it without a worry or fuss. That it will also, on demand, hold the road with all but the better mid-engined sports cars is icing on the cake. It isn't there for sporting reasons but for safety. And possibly, just possibly, to set up the parameters for the NHTSAs long-sought handling standards. Would that such logic were probable.
© May 1973 Motor Trend, USA.