History of Mercedes Benz: The 180 Ponton

Mercedes Benz 180/190 Ponton (1953 – 1962)

In the history of Mercedes Benz, it had rarely been that difficult. Daimler-Benz had to decide on one of the most important new car designs. While the four-cylinder 170S clearly showed its age, the six-cylinder 220 was just a 170S with a larger power plant. Also the luxurious 300 Benz still carried prewar genes in its styling and chassis.

This change from more traditional thinking to modern styling proved a bit the problem Daimler-Benz management faced in those days. On the one hand, they could not afford to fall too much behind what competitors were offering, and on the other hand they knew that a too radically modern design might not be appreciated by their more traditionally minded customers. The Mercedes Benz 300 was a clear statement of how much they knew of the preferences of a larger portion of their customer base. From 1951 till 1962 the 300 had not changed dramatically in its traditional pre-war oriented design.

Just eight months before the launch of the 180, the final ponton-design was approved by Daimler-Benz management. At its unveiling in September 1953 the new form was accepted by almost all its potential clients. The new Benz had a 20% roomier passenger compartment and offered greatly increased visibility. Drivers could also pack much more luggage, as the trunk had a 75% higher volume. But the features did not stop there. Inside the cabin, heating could be individually adjusted for driver and passenger and more supportive and larger seats invited to relaxed touring. It is interesting that all of this could be accomplished on the outside dimensions of the predecessor, the 170S Benz. Also worth mentioning is that the new unit-body chassis was far stronger and twice as rigid as the old body-on-independent-frame construction.

The term did not exist in those days, but the ponton 180 could be regarded as the first E-Class Mercedes Benz. It was in the same price league as the six-cylinder Opel Kapitän, which was from an image point of view more competing with the 220 W187 Benz. At 9,950. – DM ($2,360. -) the new Mercedes Benz 180 was not cheap, but buyers did not seem to bother. This latest addition to the Benz family was not only popular at the time of its launch, it was in demand throughout its production run. And for the first time, the magic word “waiting list” was heard.

Naturally for the four-cylinder cars of Daimler-Benz, a diesel engine was made available again. The OM 636 was also taken over unchanged from the previous 170 Benz, and it still lived up to its reputation of a rather noisy, uncivilized power plant. But its sturdy and reliable design made it also capable of living longer than the vehicle it was powering. Small surprise it was so well liked by taxi car owners, who told of 300,000 or more miles on a single engine.

Also, the petrol engine was a carry-over from the previous 170S Benz. So in 1957, four years after the vehicle’s introduction, the 180 received the M 121 OHC engine of the 190, but in a detuned version. The output went up from 52 hp at 4,000 rpm to 65 hp at now 4,500 rpm.

The Mercedes Benz 190 was launched in 1956. It was basically a 180 with an engine developing 75 hp at 4,600 rpm. On the outside it had next to a different badge a wide chrome rim along the lower window line. And on the inside it offered a slightly different upholstery. In August 1959, both Mercedes Benz cars were upgraded at the front with a lower and wider radiator grille.

At that time, Daimler-Benz had moved on already to the “Heckflossen-Zeit” or “fin tail era” with the introduction of the six-cylinder 220b series. In August 1961, the 190 Benz was discontinued, as the fin tail 190 series was introduced. In October 1962 the last ponton 180 finally left the production hall. Over the years the car has seen technical and cosmetic updates, but it had remained the reliable trustworthy Mercedes Benz vehicle, which had introduced nine years earlier the ponton era for Daimler-Benz.

History of Mercedes Benz: The 170S

The Mercedes 170 S (1949 – 1955)

Today in 2012 very few people have an idea what a Mercedes 170 S is all about. Most of them have never even seen one. If asked they might consider it as part of the modern A-Class series and when confronted with the fact that a 1.7 l powered car with a top speed of 105 km/h (65 mph) was once regarded as the ultimate in German luxury engineering, they have understandable difficulties to believe that.

So, let us dive a bit into the history of Mercedes after the war and have a look at what made this strange car so special. In the late 1940s, when this car was launched in Germany, times were very different. And not only in Germany. It was a similar situation all over Europe. Human resources were available in abundance, but there was an acute shortage in raw materials, machinery tools and most of all money. So most automobile manufacturers in Europe tried to launch cars that were either already available before World War II or were mildly upgraded to make them look at least from the outside somewhat more modern. Technically they were all just copies of what was already available ten years earlier.

The first Mercedes after the war was no different. Launched in 1947 the first “new” Mercedes was called the 170 V. It was a direct copy of what Daimler-Benz had introduced already in 1936. Towards the end of the 1940s people had grown a bit tired of prewar cars and wanted something different. But as money was still in short supply, Daimler-Benz used a body that was slightly bigger than the one of the 170V, but was also very similar to cars launched before the war.

The engine was upgraded from 38 hp to 52 hp and the car was launched as the Mercedes 170 S, “S” standing for “super”. Prices started in 1949 at 10,100.- DM ($2,400.- at contemporary exchange rates). It meant that very few could afford the car. As a first in the history of Mercedes: a four-cylinder car for the rich and famous. In the US that kind of money bought you an eight-cylinder Packard. None of 170 V or S cars would have found a buyer in North America. But if Daimler-Benz would have made an attempt to sell the Mercedes 170 S to potential American customers, there would have been no dealership yet to shoulder such a task. That came a few years later only.

But at least in Germany the car played its role surprisingly well. One of the reasons was of course that competition didn’t have anything better to offer. The General Motors subsidiary Opel had the prestigious and well received six-cylinder Kapit, which was priced at around the same level. But that was the end of it, no other manufacturer at least in Germany had a car that could rival the four-cylinder Mercedes 170 S. In typical Mercedes tradition its built quality, its road holding manners and its image were second to none and those three factors were the very foundation on which Daimler-Benz slowly started to re-build its road to recovery.

The icing on the (image-) cake was the introduction of two elegant convertibles, the two-seater Cabriolet A and the four-seater Cabriolet B. Both cabriolet interiors were trimmed more elaborately than the sedan’s. In typical Mercedes fashion, they also had a price tag that made them the most expensive German cars money could buy. Although very few could afford them, and even if Daimler-Benz was most probably not able to make money with these hand built beauties, image wise they were unbeatable.

When production of the Mercedes 170 S was finally halted in 1955, the car looked with its 1930s style fenders like an ancient pelican compared with the more modern ponton limousines, and very few still wanted to buy the car. But together with its predecessor the 170 V this car was in the history of Mercedes an instrumental first step in the company’s later dominance of the luxury car market.