By James Wong
Following the end of World War II, West Germany underwent an incredible economic expansion that brought it to the top leagues of industrialised countries. Unlike the United States which pursued a consumption-based growth model, Germany was always building, creating, inventing, and then exporting this great work to the world. Its automotive industry was no exception – previous relics of war, like the Volkswagen Beetle, went on to find massive commercial success worldwide.
Mercedes-Benz by then already had a rock-solid reputation, and looking back at the long lineage of the S-Class you will find the W108, although it was not officially called the Sonderklasse until much later.
W108s sold in good numbers in Singapore, although from what insiders can punt most of them were the later model 280S. Lenspeed had the immense privilege of driving the W108 recently in one of its earliest launch specifications, the 250S. This came with a 2.5-litre straight-six M108 engine with twin zenith carburettors (what fuel injection?), developing a leisurely 130bhp and a century acceleration performance of about 14 seconds. All this is purely academic, of course, because as I was about to find out, on-road performance is vastly different from what you read on the spec sheet.
When the W108 first approached the small lay-by where I waited, my ears immediately caught the exhaust note of something old – not old in the sense of being broken, but chugging along with character, panache and attitude. I’m not sure if the later fuel-injected 250SE would sound any different, but this one definitely evoked an atmosphere that brought me back to at least 30 years ago, in a good way.
Parking up, what was immediately apparent is the length of the car. Even by modern standards the W108 had a wheelbase and body of an elegant cruise liner, one which surely drew many respectful glances on the road especially at a time in Singapore where most people were still riding around in rickshaws, bicycles and motorbikes.
Even so, the friendly ride height hinted that it was supremely easy to get in and out of the car, as well as to look out of. That, perhaps, could explain why the side rear view mirrors were almost apologetic compared to the size of the rest of the car. They simply weren’t needed. “The beauty of the car is that you can just swing your head back if you’re reversing, and you can see everything,” says the owner of the car who demonstrated it expertly when manoeuvring in the lay-by.
I could well have forgotten to mention how beautiful this car is. Although much have been written about the elegance of classic Mercedes-Benz cars, nothing could prepare you when you first set your eyes upon one cruising down the road. The lines are so correct, free of safety and pedestrian regulations, free of the economics of mass production (which, to be fair, kept these companies viable and making good money). It is simply a stunner, especially with the white-walled rims that are blissfully small in size, just 14-inches, which hint at a serene ride inside.
I was fully satisfied at my little encounter with the W108, but it was an offer I couldn’t refuse when the owner said “Go on, have a go.” I said yes without thinking too much into it, but my mind wandered to managing the car’s length and lack of modern aids which make driving so easy nowadays. However with the owner beside me I could manoeuvre the car at ease, as he always chipped “Go ahead, make the turn. I know this car very well.” Reassuring indeed, especially when I didn’t want to lay even a tiny mark to symbolise my priceless opportunity to drive this beauty.
The massive diameter of the steering wheel greets me as I landed on the traditionally bouncy Mercedes seats. Exquisitely detailed with thin chrome metal and literally a ‘cooking hob’ design, the steering wheel dominated the throne from which you can easily look over to the beautiful gauges. Although borne from an era where night interior lighting wasn’t a huge priority, the controls were easy enough to operate once found, without having to fumble through dozens of buttons like you do in modern cars. Curiously, the speedometer read in MPH, which reminded me a little of my ex-cars in England.
Laid over with MB Tex, the seats feel very new and robust, signalling they could probably last for many more decades to come. Best of all, the cabin is so airy that rear passengers feel like they are sitting in a living room of sorts, with none of the stand-offish atmosphere between front and rear rows like you get in cars nowadays with their huge front seats. And it really is true – visibility is all-round excellent and you can drive naturally without your side mirrors. Best thing about older cars, I think.
Setting off, what is really impressive is the responsive of the gearbox, which can shame some of the 5-speed gearboxes you find in modern MBs like the W212 four-cylinder models before they got the 7-speeder. Equally astounding is the eagerness of the engine to haul, which it does with enthusiasm and good nature, not feeling strained in the least and lending the car a laid-back persona which then extends to the driver’s temperament. Sure, you will not be going fast as 40MPH already feels plenty fast, but that is quite the point – sit back, relax and enjoy your journey in class.
Through junctions the car turns with surprising body control, demonstrating that as early as the 1960s Mercedes has already got their damping spot on between a mix of comfort and stability. Surely the 14-inch rims helped as their thickly-profiled tyres soaked up many of the bumps along the ravaged Bukit Timah Road. Braking was a big surprise too. Equipped with all-round disc brakes with modern stainless steel brake hoses, brake feel was decidedly confidence-inspiring and strong – a laughable contrast to the wet tissue brakes in my Mk2 Golf GTI…
Returning back to the lay-by, I was equally enamoured as I was warmed by the W108. I won’t deny that I love the Mercedes-Benz brand. The three-pointed star has been a significant part of my life as I spent a great deal of time in the W126, W140 and W220. What’s heartening to know is that there is a definite thread running through all of them, and that is the stalwart S-Class feeling that you simply don’t get riding in a BMW 7-Series or Audi A8. In the W108, I discovered where it came from and as I’ve learnt, good provenance is telling.
Is this a perfect steer? Considering that classic cars in Singapore attract only 10% of COE and that they are relatively more affordable nowadays, I’d love to have a W108 in my garage. Actually, I’d definitely have a classic Mercedes in mine at some point in my life, whether it is the W108 or something else. You don’t need a fast car to enjoy motoring. You just need a car that does what it is supposed to do well. And the W108, well, it is a classic Lenspeed machine.