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Recent Profiles

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It takes a while for enthusiasts to realize these cars are about craftsmanship and balance, rather than style





Mercedes continued its tradition of quality in the mid-1950s with the 220S and 300 model range. The 220S was offered in saloon, coupe, and convertible form.

The 220S Convertible (W128) was produced in limited numbers from 1956 to 1959. It was the last of the "Ponton" series, which had begun in 1953 with the 180 and featured a unitized construction and fully independent suspension. It was powered by a 2.2-liter OHC, 6-cylinder engine with aluminum head. An automatic clutch was available, along with the column-mounted 4-speed manual transmission.
The "Ponton" series was succeeded by the "Fintail" for 1960.

Offered here is a beautiful 220S convertible from the Walter B. Satterthwaite Collection. At the time it was sold new, this car was almost as expensive as a Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz. Nearly every surface was covered in leather or wood, and matching leather luggage was optional. Coming out of a long hibernation and available for the first time in decades, this example is equipped with a Becker radio, factory clock, and other accessories.

{analysis}{auto}1066{/auto} This 1959 Mercedes-Benz 220S Convertible sold for $51,750 at the Worldwide Group's auction in Hilton Head, South Carolina, on November 3, 2007.

The 220S and 220SE convertibles were modestly-sized luxurious touring cars that were introduced to America at a time when our own high-end domestic cars were given to wretched excess.

These convertibles (and coupes) were among the last cars to leave the factory with solid brass trim, which was individually fitted and chromed for each car. The convertibles are frequently called cabriolets by collectors, though that term was dropped by the factory, along with the landau irons of the preceding model.

Construction quality was superb, with even well-worn examples giving rattle-free service after decades of use.

The lavish wood trim was offered in burl, rosewood, and zebrano veneers, and was the only Mercedes wood treatment to feature curving, almost sculpted lines uniting the door trim with the dash.

Excellent highway cruisers



The cars were then and are now excellent highway tourers, with padded tops, tight fitting windows, good sound deadening, and excellent heat and fresh air systems. These systems made the cars better suited to cruising American highways than the Mercedes SL two-seaters of the time.

My wife Danna and I just completed an 8,500-mile U.S. tour in a 220SE, cruising the interstates at 80 mph and enjoying the backroads even more. Our one "mechanical event" occurred when the idle screw fell out of the fuel injection pump and was lost. (It was evidently poorly adjusted by yours truly). I got a new one through FedEx.

The 220S used a 2.2-liter, SOHC inline-6 with two carburetors. This variant was built between 1956 and 1959, with just 2,178 convertibles leaving the factory for worldwide consumption. The 220SE was essentially the same car, using a mechanically fuel-injected version of the same motor, which was uprated to 125 hp. Production of 220SE convertibles totaled just 1,112 units.

These 220S and SE convertibles, while made in small numbers, are nonetheless easy to service. They share mechanicals with the mass-produced sedans and are supported by excellent factory spare parts availability. The newly-opened Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Irvine, California, can locate any part in their worldwide system, and several U.S. independent parts distributors specialize in this model.

As Mercedes enthusiast John Olson (www.SLmarket.com) put it: "The 220S/SE has that rare combination of quality and drivability... unlike many famous cars you wouldn't dare drive more than 50 miles from home. Mercedes-Benz collectibles like the 220SE and 190SL-and even Pagoda SLs-are for mature (if that's the right word) enthusiasts who appreciate quality over muscle."

It is bewildering to Mercedes enthusiasts how casually American muscle cars of the 1960s were assembled. Conversely, it takes a while for general enthusiasts to understand that 1950s Mercedes-Benzes are about craftsmanship and balance, rather than exceptional style (if you don't count 300SL Roadsters and Gullwing coupes).

Rust is the major problem



If there is a fault to be found, it is rust. These early unibody structures were as vulnerable as 356 Porsches, with rockers, floors, and front suspension mounts at risk. As with most cars, long storage (even dry) causes fuel residue to clog the fuel system and rust to gain a hold in the bottom of the gas tank. After ten years of little or no use, expect to rebuild the brakes, fuel system, carburetors, exhaust, and possibly steering boxes and suspension. This can run $9,000-$15,000 in a 220S.

The 220S convertible sold at Hilton Head is almost certainly going to need a full restoration to satisfy most owners. If the car isn't too rusty, and if it is complete, it could take as much as $200,000-$250,000 to restore it thoroughly.

Recent sales of the slightly more desirable 220SE variant have been in the $90,000-$150,000 range for #2 examples, although a beautifully-restored 220SE sold at RM Phoenix in January 2006 for $203,500.

We sold a 220S convertible in 2007 for $130,000, and routinely have 220SEs in the $120,000-$150,000 range. That $130,000 220S had been beautifully restored by Jurgen Klockemann and was probably the high-water mark in quality and price for this model.

Based on these figures, the purchase of our subject car looks ill-advised; then again, supposedly grown-up adults indulge in these miscalculations all the time. For many, there's nothing like nursing an old car back to life using restorers and vendors of their own choosing, and reveling in the adventures and triumphs along the way.

If the buyer adds a $250,000 restoration to his $50,000 purchase, he can enjoy a beautiful collectible for a few years until the market catches up. And with 300SL Roadsters at $600,000, it may take less time than you'd think.{/analysis}

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