Mercedes-Benz 220S: Ponton perfection

| 27 Feb 2024
Classic & Sports Car – Mercedes-Benz 220S: Ponton perfection

Mercedes-Benz has always had a feel for what makes truly a desirable, luxurious open touring car, and the 220S and SE of the Ponton era rate among its very best.

From a distance, you might find it difficult to see what makes them so coveted – I certainly did – yet once exposed to their elegant period charm and beautiful detailing, the light soon dawns and you swiftly realise that you are in the presence of something a bit special.

Built in fairly small numbers from 1956-ʼ60, these luxury models, based on the latest unitary saloons, signalled a return to form for Daimler-Benz AG of Untertürkheim every bit as potently as did the 300SL Gullwing.

And all of this little more than a decade after it was left in a state of complete destruction at the end of the war in 1945.

Classic & Sports Car – Mercedes-Benz 220S: Ponton perfection

Despite its swing-axle rear, this Mercedes’ handling is benign

The mission for these two-door models was to offer buyers, particularly in America, a glitzier version of the staid 220 saloon.

In the USA, rich connoisseurs didnʼt mind paying big money for exclusive European cars, but at least liked to see – and let others see – where their money had gone.

In the 220 (nicknamed ʻPontonʼ after the design of the front subframe), how youʼd spent your bucks was perhaps not immediately evident.

The car looked strong and heavy (it was actually quite light for its size), but had an austere, practical finish and a plain three-box body that didnʼt do justice to its performance and refinement.

It also shared its unitary shell – a Mercedes first – with poverty-spec 180 and 190 models, which had a slightly shorter wheelbase.

By offering coupé and cabriolet variants of the Ponton, Mercedes could market a more attractive model that was clearly related to the saloon, but for which it could charge more.

It also plugged a gap in the corporate hierarchy between the top 220s and the big 300 series: something less expensive, almost as grand, but a lot more manageable.

Styling was the poor relation to engineering at Mercedes in the ʼ50s, but for these two-doors looks really mattered.

Classic & Sports Car – Mercedes-Benz 220S: Ponton perfection

Mercedes-Benz’s M60 2195cc straight-six engine was also used for the marque’s later Fintail saloons

Karl Wilfert and Frederich Geiger were allowed a free hand to create something chic and desirable, so there was lots of chrome to break up its flanks, with wheelarch trims and imposing overriders.

The front and rear ʼscreens were also fashionably – but not excessively – curved.

With its long rear quarters, it was a shape that invited two-tone paintwork and whitewall tyres, yet still looked sophisticated and rich.

Much of the carʼs huge price – about double the already substantial figure asked for the saloon – was justified not only by its styling, but also the finish.

Chrome, leather and wood were lavished upon these models to give them an opulent, handmade feel – and in fact they were pretty much hand-assembled.

This tradition would be maintained on the W111 coupés and cabriolets that replaced them in 1961.

The prototype 220 Cabriolet was on display at the Frankfurt show in September 1955.

With a flood of orders in hand, production began in July 1956, with the Coupé following in October.

Mercedes-Benz settled on a more powerful 100bhp twin-carb 220S specification to take account of the Cabrioʼs 300lb weight increase over the saloon but, drivetrain and suspension apart, they shared surprisingly little with their sedan counterparts.

There was a shorter wheelbase (by 4¾in) and an impressive rear overhang to allow for a huge boot.

Classic & Sports Car – Mercedes-Benz 220S: Ponton perfection

Mercedes’ quality finish meant a big price, and only 26 came to the UK

The body panels and glass were new, and, to save weight, the steel-skinned doors – much longer than those of the saloon – had alloy frames.

The Cabriolet was reinforced underneath to recover the rigidity lost to the canvas roof.

On the open version, Cabriolet ʻAʼ and ʻCʼ models were offered.

The ʻAʼ was a two/three-seater with a bench or individual reclining or non-reclining seats, the space behind acting as a luggage platform.

The ʻCʼ offered the same front seat options, but had a proper two-seater rear bench.

Alongside the hardtop Coupé, Ponton Cabriolets were built at an annual rate of roughly 1000 cars through to 1960, outliving the saloon by a year.

For the final two seasons of production, badged 220SE, they had Bosch fuel injection and up to 120bhp.

In Mercedes-Benz speak, the carburetted Coupés and Cabriolets are W180 Type IIs, while the 220SE is a W128.

Total production was just 5371 examples of both types, the open car always comfortably outselling the hardtop.

The 220S pictured here is from Mercedes Classic Center in Stuttgart, where it is one of a range of cars available to hire.

Classic & Sports Car – Mercedes-Benz 220S: Ponton perfection

The Mercedes-Benz 220S has a strip speedometer that tops the minimal yet sensibly laid out instrument panel

From the inside, it is a machine that exudes restrained opulence.

At double the price of a Porsche 356, not even Hollywood budgets could afford to write off a 220 Cabriolet.

The Ford saloon that piles into the back of one in Hitchcockʼs North by Northwest had an aluminium front end, built by George Barris to minimise damage to the Mercedes.

The price also dictated a glittering celebrity order book including the likes of Ava Gardner, Anita Ekberg, Bing Crosby, Maria Callas and Rocky Marciano.

Even with the snug, beautifully contrived top erect thereʼs good vision through an adequately sized rear window.

Lower the roof – a smooth manual operation thatʼs best completed by two adults – and it stows nice and low, giving a smooth side profile.

The cabin recalls the detail and luxury of pre-war Mercedes.

There are storage bins under leather flaps in the doors, and the five chromed switches for choke, lamps, heater blower and dash lights are a tactile delight to operate.

Classic & Sports Car – Mercedes-Benz 220S: Ponton perfection

Wood, leather and chrome dominate the Mercedes’ plush cabin

The magnificent polished walnut dashboard is a solid lump that flows showily over the ribbon speedometer, along the tops of the doors and up the ʼscreen pillars with a passenger grabhandle integral with the timber.

There is also the inevitable Becker Mexico, with medium- and long-wave settings.

The lengthy, hefty doors, with their delightful chrome furniture, have straps for the rear passengers who can effect an elegant exit without tipping the front seat forward (if they have an Audrey Hepburn waistline).

They get switches for their own reading lights, too.

Some will tell you that once Mercedes had mastered automatic transmissions and fuel injection, it rather lost interest in making manual, carburetted cars that drove nicely.

This 220S, however, has a smooth engine well matched to a column change with a light, accurate action, although it crunches if you snatch gears.

Itʼs not especially fast, but from 2.2 litres Mercedes extracted performance to match most big 3-litre cars of the period.

The M60 ʻsixʼ made its debut in the previous generation of 220 models and would continue well into the ʼ70s as a staple Benz power unit.

Low-geared overall, with a fairly wide gap between third and top, the 220 hums briskly up to 70mph and should cruise at 85-90.

Classic & Sports Car – Mercedes-Benz 220S: Ponton perfection

The Mercedes-Benz 220S is finished to an exceptional standard

The refinement of this rattle-free Cabriolet gives it a feeling of total capability, delivering ride comfort that many cars couldnʼt manage in the 1970s.

That said, Benz brakes didnʼt reach the same high standards until it discovered discs: the drums on this car are hard to modulate.

Thereʼs nothing wrong with the handling, even if the 220S appears to be teetering on its rather skinny 13in tyres.

Twirl the light, low-geared steering and you slither on the flat seats, but unless youʼre really going for it the 220S takes curves in a state of mild understeer and generates reasonable grip.

The limits are found more easily in the wet – the back comes out first – but it all happens quite slowly and benignly, despite what you might have read previously about swing-axles.

Brisk, refined and handsome open or closed, it must have been one of most capable touring cars on the road.

These glamorous versions of the otherwise slightly forgotten Ponton series are beautiful inside and out, rarer than the later W111s and a wonderful exemplar of fastidious ʼ50s Stuttgart build quality.

Even before Jon Voight drove one in The Odessa File – or Robert Mitchum in the ʼ70s remake of The Big Sleep – these cars were collectible and in short supply.

They donʼt come on the market that often these days, either: I think I can see why.

Images: James Mann

Thanks to: Mercedes-Benz Classic

This was first in our January 2009 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication


Classic & Sports Car – Mercedes-Benz 220S: Ponton perfection

Mercedes-Benz 220S

  • Sold/number built 1956-’60/3429 (plus 1942 SEs from 1958)
  • Construction unitary steel
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-head ohc 2195cc ‘six’ with twin Solexes (SE Bosch injection)
  • Max power 100bhp @ 4800rpm (106bhp from ’57, SE 115/120bhp)
  • Max torque 119lb ft @ 3500rpm (127lb ft from ’57, SE 152lb ft @ 4100rpm)
  • Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension independent, at front by wishbones rear swing-axles; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering recirculating ball
  • Brakes drums, with servo
  • Length 15ft 4in (4670mm)
  • Width 5ft 9½in (1765mm)
  • Height 5ft ¼in (1530mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 10¼in (2700mm)
  • Weight 3196Ib (1450kg)
  • Mpg 25
  • 0-60mph 17 secs
  • Top speed 99mph
  • Price new £4000

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