A freezing winter’s night in central London and the roads of the nation’s capital are, for once, deserted. An opportunity too good to pass up. But the icy weather is not really suitable for rorty, snorty sports cars.
No, this is a night for a different sort of automotive conveyance, and a pair of discreet saloons swish along the boulevard towards me. For a second the Georgian streetlamps pick out two badges: ‘6.3’ and ‘Double Six’. Ah, a bit of rorty, snorty sportiness might well be on the cards after all…
Rewind to the mid-1960s and the industrial town of Stuttgart, Germany. Engineers bent over their drawing boards at Mercedes-Benz are developing reliable, well-made cars. The company has long since withdrawn from motor sport, and production of the exciting Gullwing is also now in the rear-view mirror. The solid Fintails and rather girly Pagodas have been selling well, and the next iteration of the boxy Merc saloon is taking shape. Beirut taxi drivers are not holding their breath.
Rudolf Uhlenhaut, the head of the all-conquering Mercedes-Benz Rennabteilung (racing department) of the late ’30s, the man who designed the W194 300SL racing car, is running the engineering department. One of his employees is a bright young racer named Erich Waxenberger, a renowned press-on driver who is interested in fast cars, not stolid saloons. He once embarrassed test driver Mike Parkes at the Nürburgring, lapping the infamous circuit in a dainty Pagoda just a few seconds behind Mike’s V12 Ferrari 250GT Berlinetta. ‘Wax’ means business.
The Mercedes-Benz 300SEL of 1965 is the company’s top autobahn express, its 3.0-liter straight-six producing an adequate 168bhp and enabling a comfortable cruising speed of 100mph. Not bad, but not good enough for Heinz-Ulrich Wieselmann, editor of the influential magazine Auto Motor und Sport, who criticises Mercedes-Benz for producing derivative cars for executives, farmers and retirees. Wax is not amused.
Fortuitously, a 250SE Coupé bodyshell happens to ‘fall off’ the production line and Wax grabs it and secretes it away in the experimental department. He and his team set to the shell with crowbars und hammers and shoehorn in the huge 6332cc V8 engine from the Grosser 600 Pullman. The result is startling: here is an engine that produces an easy 250bhp at just 4000rpm and a stonking 365lb ft at a mere 2800rpm – incredible figures in the ’60s – stuffed into a light production car shell.
Uhlenhaut gets wind of what Wax is up to and insists on a test drive. He instantly loves the hot rod and convinces the conservative board to sign off the production of a four-door, 6.3-liter-engined 300SEL saloon. They think 500 examples or so might sell. A satisfactory ‘halo’ model. When production ceases in 1972, some 6526 300SELs have been sold, each of them more expensive than a Ferrari 365GT 2+2.
The 300SEL 6.3 makes its debut at the Geneva show in March 1968 to the delight of the motoring press. At last Mercedes-Benz is producing a properly fast autobahn stormer.Germany has its new 130mph cruise missile.
In the ever-so-important American market, the 6.3 is launched at Laguna Seca racetrack (!) in June 1968. The Merc is timed at 14.25sec for the quarter-mile dash, with the 0-60mph sprint dispatched in 6.8sec and a top speed of 140mph recorded. This is an ‘ain’t no substitute for cubic inches’ car that is actually well engineered, boasting a four-speed automatic gearbox, air suspension and effective air-con. How could the Americans fail to love it? Well-heeled petrolheads line up to buy this discreet German dragster, a saloon faster than the hot Porsche 911S and Ferrari 330GTC.
Jaguar has long been in competition with Mercedes-Benz. Since the heyday of Le Mans in the ’50s, Coventry has locked horns with Stuttgart. Jaguar, too, has failed to produce a proper sports car since the superbly advanced E–type was introduced in 1961. Popular saloons like the S-type and later versions of the venerable Mk2 are being churned out at Browns Lane, and the emerging middle class is lapping them up. But the Coventry engineers are getting restless…
The XJ6 is launched in September 1968 in both 2.8- and 4.2-liter versions. With fully independent rubber-mounted suspension, automatic transmission, leather upholstery (in the 4.2, at least) and air conditioning, this is ‘the finest Jaguar ever’, Sir William Lyons announces on television. And he is correct. CAR magazine awards the Jaguar its coveted ‘Car of the Year’ accolade. It is incredibly sophisticated and refined, a spectacular engineering accomplishment.
The Germans are shocked. The new Jaguar is a well-priced car that offers doctors, solicitors, bank managers and assorted moneyed-up scoundrels the most impressive of drives; the XJ6 makes the outgoing 420 look like a suet pudding. It is modern and lithe… and yet, the somewhat asthmatic straight-six does not quite deliver the performance promised by the elegant packaging. The 2.8-liter produces a middling 120bhp or so and the 4.2-liter only manages a real 200bhp, not the 245bhp quoted. So the svelte 4.2 XJ6 can only manage 0-60mph in nine seconds and it tops out at 120mph in automatic guise. Just a tad disappointing.
Someone at Browns Lane has been keeping an eye on the autobahn-storming Germans and their 300SEL 6.3. Jaguar’s supreme 5.3-liter, all-alloy V12, the creation of Walter Hassan and Harry Weslake, was developed for the E-type Series III and it weighs just 36kg more than the old-fashioned iron straight-six that has underwhelmed in the XJ6. Here, then, is an opportunity.
The XJ12 is launched at the Earls Court Motor Show in 1972 and the Germans, once again, are shocked. A V12 super-saloon that can crack 145mph and rush from nought to 60mph in 7.4sec, all for just £3720? One third of the cost of a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow and half the price of the Benz 6.3? Unbelievable. Fuel consumption is outrageous, of course, but in the days (just) before the oil crisis, fuel is affordable, especially if you are a chap who resides in Mayfair.
Jaguar had looked at producing double-overhead-cam heads for the V12 but the SOHC arrangement produced so much torque that the added complication was not necessary. A V8 engine was considered too, but in the US market the home-grown V8s were excellent, and Jaguar wanted something rather more special – something exotic enough to compete with the Ferraris and smooth-running enough to challenge the likes of Rolls-Royce. Fuel injection by AE Brico was mooted early in development, but four Zenith 175 CDSE variable-choke, sidedraught carburettors were ultimately chosen for production.
When the Daimler version of the Series I XJ12 emerges, it is externally identical to the Jaguar apart from the signature fluted radiator surround and a ‘Double Six’ badge on the rear.Stiffened front springs support the extra weight of the V12 engine and vented disc brakes cope with the increased performance. A Borg-Warner Model 12 three-speed auto is the only transmission offered; it is the only one that can cope with the V12’s mighty 304lb ft of torque. It is a monster of a car, but somehow it flies way under the radar: only 534 examples are ever sold.
And now to our chilly winter’s evening in London. Commuters are at home in front of their televisions eating their low-calorie Marks & Spencer microwave meals and the roads are clear. Time to see how two super-saloons fare some 40 years on…
The arrival of the Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3 is heralded by a V8 rumble. That deep bass note is the sound of serious cubic inches. It’s not overtly noisy, just quietly powerful. As the car pulls closer you can hear induction suction, pressurised fuel injection and general whirring from deep within its engine room, and a tough, resonating rasp coming from the twin tail pipes.
The Benz is upright and bluff. While the Double Six is all about smooth lines, the Benz is a piece of restrained industrial design – elegant but primarily functional. Finished in metallic green with a tan leather interior (velour was standard), this 6.3 is just the sort of transportation you’d want for the run to your chalet in Gstaad at serious gspeed. (Sorry.)
This example, indeed supplied new to Switzerland, is now owned by local enthusiast Richard Gauntlett. It has stacked halogen headlamps, the optional ‘Mexican hat’ alloy wheels, a sunroof and tinted front winshield. The driver’s door opens with a metallic click – and shuts with a guillotine snap! – and as you climb inside you notice the massive, overstuffed armchair. The large steering wheel is pure Mercedes-Benz with its smooth rim and fat central boss. The 6.3 has a dinky rev counter added to the instrument panel right in the line of sight – not really necessary as the short-stroke V8 produces its 250bhp at a lowly 4000rpm – and the four-speed automatic gearbox knows just when to upshift.
Fire up the Mercedes and the engine maintains a steady but busy idle as all of its mechanical complications spring to life. Close the door and instantly all is quiet. The gear stick is a surprisingly slim chromed lever with an exposed, serrated gate. If Ferrari had built an auto-box in the 1960s, it would have looked like this. You have four forward ratios, making the car unusually advanced for its time.
Select ‘4’ and the transmission hooks up with a thunk. The throttle pedal is typically Mercedes and wooden in feel, but press a bit harder and the gargantuan V8 awakes. This really is a traffic-light-to-traffic-light dragster. It erupts when you give it the juice, and when the lights go green this big old saloon morphs into a quarter-mile king. The acceleration is analogue and you feel every yard of road being pulverised by the big-block V8. The 300SEL 6.3 is a hysterical, tire-shredding muscle car dressed up like a limo – and probably still the ultimate Q-car.
The Daimler Double Six arrives without a sound. It appears suddenly, as if from nowhere, exquisite in dark Oxford blue, its chrome trim highlighted by the urban glow. The windows are of dark Sundym glass, and as the car sits under a streetlamp the deep oxblood red leather upholstery is bathed in a slinky low light. Very nightclub. Details include special chrome pressed wheels and a red, hand-painted coachline running down each flank. This Double Six is uncannily immaculate, but then it has been provided by specialist Graeme Hunt of Kensington. The man is fastidious.
Open the smallish driver’s door and the aroma of Connolly leather wafts around you like expensive eau de cologne. The driver’s seat is set low and it immediately feels snug and smaller than the Benz offering. Stuffed with horsehair and springs, the chair is mercifully nothing like today’s extruded orthopaedic plastic seats, smidged with cheap leather. The burr walnut dashboard with its regiment of Smiths instruments is a joy – who ever complained about wooden dashes? – made extra special by the added Daimler switches mounted below the toggles. This car has the optional extra headrests, too; Sir William Lyons never wanted to see the seats above the window line. Clearly he never had a dalliance with Ms Whiplash.
Start the V12 and nothing seems to happen apart from the Daimler gently rocking for a second on the torque. Then silence. Ease the T-bar back into ‘Drive’ and hit the throttle. Whooooooosh. Imagine gunning down a runway in a private jet in near-silence. That’s the Double Six. Power seems to swell and the whole car picks itself up and lunges forwards in a rush of quiet pace – without appearing to try at all. Seated low, you feel you are in a sports car until you glance behind and remember the rear seats.
The steering is American-market light but we are now used to that with modern cars, so it’s no problem. Cosseted within the car’s monocoque, you feel the suspension working around you. Soft and supple, the V12 is neither wallowy nor vague. It is simply frightfully fast and terribly refined. The brakes haul it up with authority and the gearbox, well, it doesn’t really matter: with this much torque any one of the three forward gears is just fine. But Graeme Hunt suggests I snick the gear selector back into second and hold it there. Then, easing the throttle pedal down to the Wilton carpet, the Daimler’s V12 spins up and we really start to fly. Oh my.
So which one to choose? Difficult. Actually, really difficult. This comparison is not entirely fair because the Benz is a 1969 model and it was out of production when the Daimler Double Six was introduced in 1972. But the Mercedes cost about twice as much as the Daimler and I suppose I expected the 6.3 to live up to its enormous reputation. I did not expect the Double Six to be anywhere near as capable as it evidently is. I thought it might appear cheap and nasty when parked side-by-side with the expensive Mercedes-Benz, but that’s not the case at all.
Both of these cars represent the absolute pinnacle of mechanical engineering reached in Western Europe before the spurious oil crisis hit in 1973. Thereafter most motorists ran headlong for economical mundanity and far away from this sort of automotive leviathan. Outmoded as they may now appear when compared to modern fuel-sipping machines, both vehicles remain extremely fast and capable. The Benz 6.3 is an undisputed icon and an efficient tool with a surprisingly well developed sense of (German) humour. But the Daimler Double Six is just as quick and effective, and has an added dose of civility – one that is tempered by a whiff of arrogant insouciance that I just can’t resist. Two sixes beats a six and a three.
THANKS TO Graeme Hunt Ltd of Kensington, West London (+44 (0)20 7937 8487, www.graemehunt.com) for the Daimler Double Six; and to Richard Gauntlett (+44 (0)20 7824 8000) for the 300SEL 6.3.
1969 MERCEDES-BENZ 300SEL 6.3
ENGINE 6332cc 90° V8, SOHC, cast-iron block with alloy heads, Bosch mechanical fuel injection
POWER 250bhp @ 4000rpm
TRANSMISSION Four-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential
STEERING Recirculating ball, power-assisted
SUSPENSION Front: double wishbones, air spring bellows, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: single-joint swing axle, compensator spring, air spring bellows, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
BRAKES Dual-circuit servo-assisted discs
PERFORMANCE Top speed 140mph. 0-60mph 6.8sec
1972 DAIMLER DOUBLE SIX
ENGINE 5342cc 60° V12, SOHC, all-alloy, four Zenith carburetors
POWER 272bhp @ 5850rpm
TRANSMISSION Three-speed automatic
STEERING Rack and pinion, power assisted
SUSPENSION Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: fixed-length driveshafts, radius arms, paired coil springs and telescopic dampers
BRAKES Dual-circuit servo-assisted vented discs
PERFORMANCE Top speed 145mph. 0-60mph 7.4sec