Safety Dance

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In the words of Mark Watney, here’s the rub: Mercedes in 1960s America was facing a pretty big opponent. Namely, America. We were pretty into ourselves back then, as any glance at American cars from that era will tell you. Vast stretches of chrome and behemothic proportions dominated the highways and main streets of this country, solidifying their place among the righteous crowd who drove them. They were the Frank Sinatras of the world, shoving themselves down our roads, brimming with gin, vermouth and bombast. And Mercedes was pushed aside, relegated to the penalty box that is a “niche brand.” But not, as we now know, for long. This is a 1964 Mercedes Benz 190c.

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The W110 chassis (remember, Mercedes has some weird chassis code naming scheme that I can’t fathom) was introduced in 1961 as a replacement for the car that helmed Mercedes Benz through the 1950s, the Ponton A. Always looking to push the boundaries of naming convention, Mercedes wanted to call the replacement for that car the Ponton B. But as it turned out, that was not to, um, “B.” The replacement car (or, more accurately, series of cars) ended up being called the “Heckflosse” Mercedes, “heck” in German meaning “tail” and “flosse” meaning “fin.” The reason for all this can be found, interestingly enough, at Cadillac. See, during this time period, Mercedes’ leadership was into the idea of aggressive expansion, particularly into the American market. And how else to capture the hearts and minds of the American luxury car buying market than by slapping some big, dramatic, swooping fins the trunk of their latest cars, just like the ones that Cadillac famously popularized?

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The 190c was the smallest of the Heckflosse cars, featuring a four cylinder, 1.9 liter gasoline engine developing 80 horsepower and accelerating from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 18 seconds. Okay, so a little underpowered perhaps, but the 190c was also lighter than its competition (less than 3000 pounds) which meant it had a top speed of around 90, which wasn’t too bad. You could also get a diesel if you wanted, called the 190Dc, which became, despite being pretty tepidly reviewed, a favorite among cab drivers. Both engines could be had with a four speed transmission, in manual or automatic flavors. Interestingly, the 190c’s gear lever was mounted on the steering column, but if you were feeling frisky, you could select the option that put the lever on the floor, for a sportier driving experience.

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Okay, so I know the Heckflosse cars’ party piece was the tailfins, but to me, the really special part of these cars was the interior. I mean, look at this. That’s a gorgeous thing to look at for the duration of your morning commute. It’s simple and elegant- very 1960s Mercedes. Now, admittedly, the interior in that link is probably much better taken care of than the 190c in these pictures, and I am still holding out for blue interiors to make a comeback, so I’m biased. But who cares? Mercedes Benz did a nice job, and I think part of the reason I like it is its form-over-function mentality. See, Mercedes during this period employed a Hungarian-Austrian engineer named Béla Barényi, considered by many to be the father of modern automobile safety. His work is evident in the 190c: the dash and the steering wheel are padded, the latter of which is designed to collapse in the event of a crash so as to not go all Bloody Face on the driver. The passenger compartment was non-deformable, on account of the innovative use of crumple zones. Barényi has over 2500 patents to his name, so I’ll stop there, but the takeaway is clear. The Heckflosse cars were some of the safest cars of their time. They are also the first cars to be crash-tested in the modern way.

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So, a very safe, very well built, competitive German sedan that looks a bit like a Cadillac- what’s not to like? Good question, though an argument could be made for the price. The 190c, which was the smallest and cheapest of the Mercedes range at the time, cost $7000, which is about $53,000 in 2015 money. The smallest Cadillac at the time, the Calais, cost the equivalent of $37,500. So that’s a bit of a bummer. On balance, the Calais didn’t offer the same level of safety equipment as the Mercedes, or the option of a diesel engine, but at the end of the day you were paying significantly more money for a car that, in other countries, was used as a cab. Such was the story of Mercedes in the 60s, and if it hadn’t been for some bad decisions on Cadillac’s part (highlighted in this excellent alternative history piece), things very well might’ve stayed that way.

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Additional Thoughts:

  • There were coupe and convertible variants of the 190c which also bore the name Heckflosse, despite their lack of tailfins.
  • The diesel version of the 190 outsold its conventionally-fueled counterpart by almost 100,000 units.
  • There was also a short-lived, seven-seat derivative of the 190c, featuring a wheelbase that had been stretched by 65 centimeters.
  • The vertical speedometer, while very cool, was roundly (zing) criticized by reviewers, and replaced by a more conventional unit on later cars.
  • Many consider this car to be the grandfather to the modern-day Mercedes E-class, which is, unsurprisingly, a popular taxi.
  • Hey look, it’s the Brooklyn Bridge!
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