For many decades, coupés by Mercedes-Benz have been synonymous with elegance and exclusivity in automotive engineering. An extraordinary design, high-quality appointments and trailblazing technology come together as a style-defining unit. The principle of distinctiveness extends from the 300 S Coupé of 1952 right up to the new CL-Class. But for all their technical refinements, the coupés also give rise to emotions. Their appearance is a delight to the senses.
Building exceptional motor vehicles was already a carefully and intensively maintained tradition at Mercedes-Benz before the Second World War. The rare Coupé versions of the supercharged models bearing the Mercedes star on their bonnets, which were produced between 1934 and 1939, are rightly seen as a unique phenomenon on the roads, for example.
Mercedes-Benz built on this tradition only a few years after the end of the war at the 1951 Paris Motor Show, where it presented the 300 S Coupé, the S-Class Coupé of the W 188 model series. In doing so Mercedes-Benz not only showed that it was worthwhile investing creative potential in the future; it was also presenting a cultural phenomenon with the 300 S Coupé. The car combined a successful design, exclusive appointments and the best vehicle technology of its day into a style-defining whole. It also marked the rebirth of a Mercedes-Benz tradition which has remained alive to this day: the tradition of great coupés with their visionary symbiosis of perfectionism and emotion.
1952: The 300 S Coupé makes its mark
Looking back from today’s standpoint, the 1950s appear to be a retrospectively oriented utopian decade. At the time nobody knew what lay ahead, though it was clear that the debris left over from the Second World War had to be removed as soon as possible. The most visible signs of the general desolation were the roads, which were in an appalling condition. The traffic density in Germany was 19 cars per 1000 inhabitants.
It was against this social background that Mercedes-Benz launched the 300 S Coupé in the W 188 model series, which had been presented at the Paris Motor Show in autumn 1951 and entered series production in summer 1952. The motoring press referred to it as a "car for the world’s elite". With this highly acclaimed top-of-the-line model the Stuttgart company not only demonstrated its outstanding engineering expertise, but also its future-oriented entrepreneurial spirit.
It was particularly the design of this Coupé that captured the attention. The sweeping wings and stretched bonnet produced "traditional and, in this case, particularly noble contours", to quote a comment made at the time. Furthermore, the "calm, dignified lines in exquisite harmony with a modern design" had a tangible aura of power. In this respect it also reflected the resurgent spirit of the time.
The refined, sporty Coupé was equipped with a 110 kW/150 hp six-cylinder engine and was capable of 175 km/h. How seriously Mercedes-Benz took its enthusiastic target group, which included the American film stars Gary Cooper and Errol Flynn, became obvious in 1955, when the company presented a revised model, the 300 Sc Coupé. The engine now had an injection pump rather than the previous carburettor, and the output had increased to 128 kW/175 hp.
The 300 S and 300 Sc Coupés rounded the post-war product range of Mercedes Benz off at the top end, and at the same time continued a tradition which had already begun in the 1930s: producing prestigious cars with a sporty touch for the most discerning customers. The very few remaining post-war Coupés – only 314 were produced between 1952 and 1958 – are among the most sought-after collectors’ items and change hands at the highest prices at auctions.
1956: debut of the "Sindelfingen body"
By the mid-1950s the "post-war years" were well and truly over. The tentative economic resurgence in Germany had developed into a boom which has gone down in history as the "economic miracle". During the four years from 1952, car ownership doubled to 40 per 1000 inhabitants.
When Mercedes-Benz presented the 220 S Coupé in the W 180 series in 1956, the motoring world referred to it as the "Sindelfingen body", as the car had been created at the development centre in Sindelfingen. With its two doors, flowing roofline and prominent, curved rear window, the 220 S Coupé once again showed powerful and elegant contours. Large bumpers and fog lamps characterised the front end. The most striking feature was the three-fold division of the passenger cell, front end and rear end into a characteristic form which quickly led to the nickname "Pontoon” Mercedes (i.e. with a self-supporting body chassis structure) – a term which has gone down in automotive history. In fact this was a pioneering new design, and a totally new approach to occupant protection: the self-supporting body, which deforms under impact and therefore absorbs energy instead of transferring it to the occupants.
The characteristic "Pontoon" models in this series were first introduced with a 100 hp engine, including the Coupés. Shortly afterwards the engine output was increased to 78 kW/106 hp. Responding to customer wishes for increased performance, Mercedes-Benz offered a petrol injection system in the 220 SE (W 128 series) at a price of 1900 Marks from September 1958, and this increased the output to 85 kW/115 hp. Like the 300 S Coupé of 1952, the "Pontoon" Coupés of the W 180 and W 128 model series demonstrated that imaginative design, trailblazing technology and driving pleasure were not mutually exclusive, but were in fact expected by the customers. A total of 2081 examples of the 220 S and 220 SE Coupés were produced, and these too are highly sought-after collectors’ items.
1961: the 220 SEb Coupé climbs the pinnacle of elegance
In 1961 yet another coupé was in the limelight at Mercedes-Benz, when the 220 SEb Coupé in the W 111 series was presented during the opening ceremony for the new Museum at the plant in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim on February 24. Once again the designers had demonstrated their creativity and unerring sense of style. This elegant and prestigious coupé possessed a compelling aura, while power and comfort blended to form a harmonious whole which was already visible externally. The tailfins which adorned the saloon models were now only vestigial, thereby reinforcing the flowing lines. The car’s well-balanced design dispensed with any form of styling gimmickry. Moreover, this fully-fledged four-seater with plenty of space for longer journeys had been developed from the ground up.
Car density in Germany had more than doubled once again since 1956. It now stood at 95 cars per 1000 inhabitants, though the quality of the road surfaces was still rather variable. The designers at Mercedes-Benz had planned ahead, however: the 220 SEb Coupé was the first series production car by Mercedes-Benz to feature disc brakes at the front. The six-cylinder engine developed an output of 88 kW/120 hp, enough for high average speeds on long journeys. The 300 SE Coupé in the W 112 model series of 1962 featured a four-speed automatic transmission, air suspension and power steering as standard, in line with customer expectations. The popularity of these models was spectacularly reflected in the production figures: more than ten times as many W 111 and W 112-series Coupés were built as the preceding "Pontoon" models, namely 28,918 units.
1981: a new departure for the Coupés
When the Mercedes 380 SEC Coupé and 500 SEC Coupé in the C 126 model series were presented in 1981, the designers and engineers had returned to the S-Class rather than the SL-Class as the basis for the Coupés. This initially meant that their dimensions were slightly increased. The design of the new Coupé was also derived from the four-door saloons, with elegant and harmonious contours. Its aura was one of even more raw power and agility, however: the body designers had pulled off the remarkable achievement of clothing an extremely muscular body in a finely tailored jacket.
The expectations of car buyers increased. Mercedes-Benz engineers met the demands for more output with V8 engines for the new Coupés, which had also been thoroughly revised to achieve lower fuel consumption and exhaust emissions as part of the "Mercedes-Benz Energy Concept". The output of the 380 SEC Coupé was 150 kW/204 hp, that of the 500 SEC Coupé 170 kW/231 hp. As a motoring magazine wrote at the time: "The feeling of spaciousness and visibility are quite excellent, the SEC appears to drive itself."
The excitement generated by the new, large Coupé was not least confirmed by the sales figures, with 74,060 units of the W 126 series produced. These Coupés, which many aficionados regard as "the ultimate touring car", are now among the most sought-after young classics produced by Mercedes-Benz. They combine technical progress in performance and handling safety with the traditional standards of exclusivity and comfort.
1992: building on tradition and success
In 1992 Mercedes-Benz chose major international events as the stage for a new launch: the world debut of the new SEC Coupé in the W 140 model series took place in January, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and the European debut followed two months later at the Geneva Motor Show.
Although the SEC Coupés adopted certain technical features from the S-Class Saloon presented in 1991, their design was definitely distinctive. What is more, they illustrated the tradition of coupé design and engineering at Mercedes-Benz in a quite remarkable way. Clear, calm shapes with discreet, powerful lines exuded dynamism, elegance and unpretentious sportiness. This was an unbeatable combination for coupé enthusiasts, and it once again underlined the unique status of Mercedes Coupés on the world market. Two variants were initially available: the
500 SEC with a V8 engine and the 600 SEC with a V12 unit, generating an output of 235 kW/320 hp and 290 kW/394 hp respectively to match the Saloons. Both were equipped with numerous extras ex factory, and represented the pinnacle of the passenger car range.
Demand for the exclusive coupés by Mercedes-Benz remained unbroken in 1992, however the expectations of customers seemed to be rising in parallel with the general level of car ownership – in 1992 this reached the unheard-of figure of 502 per 1000 inhabitants. Theoretically it would be possible to seat the entire population on the front seats of the German car fleet. In order to meet the great demand for luxury coupés, the Mercedes Coupé family was reinforced with the 205 kW/279 hp S 420 in March 1994. In May 1995 the Electronic Stability Program was first introduced in the S 600 Coupé. Once again Mercedes-Benz had confirmed its pioneering role in the field of handling safety. The response by the market was emphatic, as 26,022 units of the C 140 series were produced.
1999: into the new millennium with the CL-Class
World debut at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1999, where the innovative Mercedes-Benz CL-Class Coupé (C 215 series) was first presented to the public. In terms of design, engines and appointments this model impressively demonstrated the undiminished innovative strength of the Stuttgart-based manufacturer. The new design lines were unmistakable from the start: the long, flat bonnet, the dynamically arched roofline, the striking rear end and the expressive reinterpretation of the now familiar twin-headlamp face produced a form which exuded both sporty performance and elegance. Athleticism was incomparably combined with suppleness. Continuous side windows and the lack of B-pillars made the vehicle body appear light. This highly acclaimed coupé immediately claimed the throne in this elite market, and was soon among the world’s most desirable luxury coupés.
The engines Mercedes-Benz offered with this extraordinary coupé did it full justice: the top-of-the-line CL 600 was equipped with a newly developed, smooth-running twelve-cylinder power unit developing 270 kW/367 hp and a torque of 530 Nm. The "smaller" CL 500 featured the 225 kW/306 hp V8 engine. The new Mercedes coupé also featured innovations as standard which no other car in the world could boast at the time of its presentation, first and foremost the innovative Active Body Control (ABC) suspension system. Other standard features included an extensive safety package, with front airbags, sidebags and windowbags.
In the autumn of 2002 the V12 engine in the CL 600 was upgraded by the addition of biturbo supercharging and related measures which brought its output up to 368 kW/500 hp; at a boost pressure of one bar it delivered a maximum torque of 800 Newton metres from an engine speed of just 1800 rpm – 36 percent more output and 51 percent more torque than the previous 12-cylinder unit. This meant that the Coupé could accelerate from zero to 100 km/h in 4.8 seconds, and on up to an (electronically governed) top speed of 250 km/h.
As of autumn 2002, Active Body Control (ABC) was modified for all versions: the system now took the overall weight of the car at any given moment into account when computing the suspension control forces required. The result was that handling characteristics remained more or less the same no matter how the car was laden. Among other product enhancement measures at the time was even more sophisticated safety equipment, including what are known as up-front sensors in the front end of the bodywork, which can detect the severity of a crash early on in the process and thereby control front passenger airbag deployment in two stages, as the situation requires. Moreover, the sensors make it possible for the belt tensioners to be activated even sooner.
The production volume of these C 215-series Coupés shows that Mercedes-Benz is firmly on the right track with this continuation of the coupé tradition, as 46,800 units had been produced by May 2006.
The tradition of modern coupés by Mercedes-Benz, with their visionary symbiosis of perfectionism and emotion, will also continue into the future. Development will continue to be based on innovative strength and a future-oriented approach which are both visible and tangible. Perfected design, exclusive appointments and state-of-the-art vehicle technology will also combine to produce a seminal stylistic unit and a class of its own in the future.