Bentley S1 vs Mercedes-Benz 300b: peace makers

| 7 Mar 2022
Classic & Sports Car – Peace makers: Bentley S1 vs Mercedes-Benz 300b

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To be able to go into series production with an all-new luxury car in 1951 (a mere six years after a certain Mr Hitler killed himself in a Berlin bunker) says to me that Daimler-Benz was not quite as ruined by the attentions of the RAF as it had seemed in 1945.

The freshly de-Nazified chairman Wilhelm Haspel saw the new W186 300 as an export opportunity and “a car to gold-plate the name of Mercedes again”.

While the commercial importance of everyday models such as the 170 and Ponton was acknowledged, the creation of the flagship 300, the firm’s first completely new post-war model, was seen as a crucial morale-booster for the company.

Classic & Sports Car – Peace makers: Bentley S1 vs Mercedes-Benz 300b
The Mercedes’ shape is chic, yet restrained

Chief engineer Fritz Nallinger had been made a Wehrwirtschaftsführer – a quasi-military company exec – by Albert Speer in 1940 but, while he was in no sense given to Dr Strangelove-style involuntary movements of his right arm, it was an uncomfortable fact.

In any case, this highly talented engineer became caught up in the post-1945 scrabble by the Allied victors over who would get the best of the German technology – and the brains that had created it.

Many prominent engineers went on enforced vacations at this point.

Classic & Sports Car – Peace makers: Bentley S1 vs Mercedes-Benz 300b
The horn ring doubles as an indicator inside the Mercedes’ well-appointed, luxurious cabin

Nallinger, father of the high-speed diesel engine, was lucky enough to spend two relatively comfortable years in France heading a turbo-jet design group.

When the project was cancelled in 1948, Nallinger was allowed to return to his job at Mercedes, where he retook his place on the board of executives and began to think about the new 300.

The car launched at Frankfurt in September 1951 was not quite in the grandiose mould of the pre-war 770 and 540K.

Classic & Sports Car – Peace makers: Bentley S1 vs Mercedes-Benz 300b
You’ll be comfortable and cared for in the Mercedes’ rear

It was not a car for despots, but the peacemakers of the new Federal republic: the new 300 looked diplomatic, if not exactly approachable.

Much-loved by Chancellor Adenauer (he would not be driven in anything else, mainly because he could wear his Homburg hat while sitting in the back), the 300 was just the sort of vehicle to symbolise a new, peaceful West Germany on the world stage.

The price in its homeland was the equivalent of £1700 (including a heater), rising to £3500 for UK buyers with import taxes, which was still about £1000 less than a Bentley MkVI.

Under its stately curves the 300 – a much more ambitious car than the warmed-over pre-war design that was originally envisaged – was a mixture of traditional and modern features: 12V electrics were something new for Mercedes-Benz, while Nallinger’s beloved swing-axle independent rear suspension was augmented by a novel ride selection system with a servo motor that could stiffen the rear end of the car via torsion bars – by as much as 33% – to account for load.

Classic & Sports Car – Peace makers: Bentley S1 vs Mercedes-Benz 300b
Mercedes’ M186 straight-six is a 3.0-litre unit with 125bhp and 163lb ft of torque

Weighing in at just under 4000lb, the 300 was built on an oval-tube, cross-braced chassis with a 120in wheelbase and powered by the M186 engine, an undersquare 2996cc overhead-camshaft straight-six with its origins in a wartime 2.6-litre commercial-vehicle design: the tooling had survived the bombing.

Later on, canted over and fuel injected, it would form the raw materials for the 300SL Gullwing’s engine.

The joining face of the alloy head to the iron block was cut at a 30º angle to give room for bigger, freer-breathing valves.

It had seven main bearings, an automatic choke on its Solex downdraught carburettor and, with115bhp – to pull a short 4.44:1 axle ratio – the W186 was good for 100mph if you had the patience and along enough stretch of road. It was, for a while, Germany’s fastest production car.

Classic & Sports Car – Peace makers: Bentley S1 vs Mercedes-Benz 300b
The 300 struggles to keep pace with the S1

By the time the much-improved 300b arrived in 1954, with 10 extra horsepower and vastly more torque from its higher-compression engine, Crewe had already been selling its post-war Standard Steel saloons for eight years.

Its highly successful MkVI and R-type Bentleys (and the less numerous, less powerful Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn) were to be replaced by the firm’slast six-cylinder cars in 1955: the Bentley S-type and Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud.

With these models the two Crewe marques would achieve parity in Standard Steel form, sharing engine tune and all other technical features under a completely new body.

Only the grille and badges differentiated the Cloud and Bentley ‘Sports Saloon’.

Classic & Sports Car – Peace makers: Bentley S1 vs Mercedes-Benz 300b
It is a 4887cc iron-block straight-six for the lusty Bentley

In fact, John Blatchley’s Silver Cloud/S-type body supplied to Crewe by Pressed Steel was so gracefully proportioned that it almost rendered the efforts of the various coachbuilders redundant.

With its aluminium bootlid, bonnet and doors, it was substantially longer and wider than the Dawn/R-type body in a conscious effort to appeal to the American market, where sales doubled almost immediately.

Under the skin it was roughly the same as before, only better: the box-section chassis was stiffer, its rear axle was more securely located (by a ‘Z’ bar) and its already superb braking system – with transmission-driven servo – was lighter, smoother and more powerful, with 22% more lining area for the massive drums.

Classic & Sports Car – Peace makers: Bentley S1 vs Mercedes-Benz 300b
The Bentley has graceful, sophisticated proportions

Its big ‘F-head’ straight-six had its origins in the 20hp Rolls-Royce of 30 years earlier, but for the S1 was used in its most advanced 4887cc form as developed for the D-series R-type Continentals.

Running high chrome content cylinder bores, a six-port head and twin SU HD6 carburettors, its output was undisclosed (as usual) but it must have been giving 170bhp – particularly with the later 2in carburettors and raised compression ratio – to urge this 4400lb saloon along at 106mph.

Automatic transmission had been gaining popularity in the R-type; for the new cars, the four-speed Hydramatic ’box (built under licence from General Motors) was a non-negotiable standard fitment.

Classic & Sports Car – Peace makers: Bentley S1 vs Mercedes-Benz 300b
‘The S1’s cabin is the more inviting and relaxing’

Realising that they needed to offer a full automatic transmission to sell the 300 in North America, the Stuttgart boffins, at the time still developing a home-grown self-shifter, had to swallow Teutonic pride and buy in a three-speed Borg-Warner gearbox for the 1955 300c.

It was Germany’s first car supplied as an auto as standard: a column-change manual was an option until the end of 300 production in 1962.

It is hard to conceive of big, expensive cars such as these being built without power steering, but it wasn’t even an option on the S-type and Cloud until 1956 (it was soon standardised), while the Mercedes 300 had to wait until 1958.

That was a year into production of the last-of-the-line, fuel-injected, 160bhp 300d with its squared-up pillarless roof and extended boot design. The long-wheelbase option Konrad Adenauer had requested was standardised on this version, which was redesignated W189.

Classic & Sports Car – Peace makers: Bentley S1 vs Mercedes-Benz 300b
Rear-seat passengers in the Bentley have classy picnic tables

Production figures make for interesting reading.

Of the 5312 six-cylinder Standard Steel Silver Cloud Is and S1s built between 1955 and 1959, the Bentley was the more popular option by a healthy margin of 834 cars, but this trend was reversed quite dramatically with the coming of the S2 and S3.

Total Mercedes 300 production for 1951-’62 was 11,430 cars, if you include the rare four-door Cabriolet with its pram-like hood, with the 300 and 300b selling strongest through to the mid-’50s.

Deliveries then dropped below 1000 per year, picked up a little with the introduction of the restyled 300d, but dropped to just 46 sales in the final season.

Classic & Sports Car – Peace makers: Bentley S1 vs Mercedes-Benz 300b
‘There is an effortless dignity about the Bentley that suavely dismisses comparisons with the German car’

In 1962, as the 11-year-old 300 prepared to make way for a new flagship Benz in the form of the absurdly complex 600, the age of the V8 was about to dawn at Mercedes, but the big-block ‘six’ would live on in the smaller 300-badged saloons and coupés through to 1967.

At Crewe, a new all-alloy 6.2-litre V8 superseded the straight-six from 1959.

Yet there remained a hardcore who yearned for the simplicity of the old engine and the decades of development it represented.

Some said it was quieter, and it was certainly less thirsty and more reliable.

Classic & Sports Car – Peace makers: Bentley S1 vs Mercedes-Benz 300b
You are well catered for in the Mercedes’ rear

This right-hand-drive 300b was sold new in 1954 through Brooklands of Bond Street and has had a small number of illustrious owners.

Showing a believed correct 29,000 miles, it fetched a healthy £43k at Manor Park Classics’ September 2021 sale.

You wouldn’t approach the rebuild costs for that money, and you would never want to pull a part this lovely car anyway.

Classic & Sports Car – Peace makers: Bentley S1 vs Mercedes-Benz 300b
There’s a stylish binnacle with a central speedo in the Benz

Likewise this beautiful Bentley S1, in Shell Grey with red leather and in one family ownership since 1977, with just 37,000 miles.

Many S1s ended up as wedding cars or had their engines stolen for specials. This example is a reminder of what wonderful, usable cars they make.

The second owner gave £8000 for it in 1977 when they could have had a Cloud III for £5000. The £36,500 TUL 202 made in Manor Park’s April sale seems strangely reasonable.

Classic & Sports Car – Peace makers: Bentley S1 vs Mercedes-Benz 300b
The Bentley matches the Mercedes for features, but is finished more simply with rich veneers

The first owner of PGH 327 must have had the self-confidence to match the size of their bank account, because driving such an obviously German car such as this Mercedes in ’50s Britain was to risk attracting considerable public scorn.

Even today the 300b, particularly in gleaming black, has an air of menace that summons up an image of James Bond villains. It was no coincidence that Ian Fleming gave the evil Drax a 300S in Moonraker.

It looks just as substantial as the Bentley S1 but is, in fact, a few inches smaller all the way round.

Despite that, it manages to be easily as roomy inside and has a bigger boot, with space for two spare wheels. You can tell it’s a ‘b’ by the bumper overriders, window vents and perforated disc wheels.

Classic & Sports Car – Peace makers: Bentley S1 vs Mercedes-Benz 300b
A classy way to provide ventilation for those in the Mercedes’ rear

If the Mercedes 300 looks important and presidential, there is an effortless dignity about the Bentley, sleek and voluptuous with its long bonnet and squat roofline, that suavely dismisses comparisons with the German car.

Its designers understood that wealthy buyers wanted a saloon with presence appropriate for any situation, but that was also a private space that did not put its occupants – particularly those in the rear – on display, hence the fat C-pillar that forms a headrest inside the car.

Both saloons have a hand-finished feel – if anything, the doors of the Mercedes shut with an even more impressive finality – and the quality of materials is on a par throughout.

Classic & Sports Car – Peace makers: Bentley S1 vs Mercedes-Benz 300b
‘The immediate impression when driving the 300 is that you feel like the paid help rather than the owner’

With reclining seats, top-quality leather, radio and sophisticated (for the era) heating and ventilation systems, the 300 and S1 match each other feature for feature.

If the Mercedes throws up a few detail oddities – such as a horn ring that doubles as an indicator switch, central chassis lubrication (with a warning light) and those funny, extra-long grabhandles that run from front to rear – then the Bentley counters with classic refinements such as rear picnic tables and vanity mirrors in the C-pillars.

Which environment you prefer is down to personal taste, but it is hard to deny that the slashes of chrome and fussy details of the Mercedes dashboard look somewhat unhappy next to the clean elegance of the S1’s central display.

Crewe had a better grasp of how to use veneers to tasteful effect and, in the end, the S1’s cabin is the more inviting and relaxing.

Classic & Sports Car – Peace makers: Bentley S1 vs Mercedes-Benz 300b
Classic & Sports Car – Peace makers: Bentley S1 vs Mercedes-Benz 300b
A simple elegance to the wheels of the Benz (left) and Bentley

The immediate impression when driving the 300 is that you feel like the paid help rather than the owner.

It has a formal character: driving it seems like a job rather than a recreational activity, even if it remains a fine piece of equipment.

Its column change was excellent of its type, but it still requires quite careful manipulation to avoid wrong-slotting.

Hold it in the gears and the 300 will perform. With up to 6000rpm to play with – and an 80mph third – this would have been one of the quickest saloons on the road in the ’50s, at least for those of a mind to exploit its capabilities.

Classic & Sports Car – Peace makers: Bentley S1 vs Mercedes-Benz 300b
Grabhandles run the length of the Mercedes’ cabin

At pace it seems to shed its weight: the ponderous low-speed heft of the steering becomes smooth and direct, while its cornering abilities are impressive for a large car of its day.

But it does not have the easy low-speed flexibility and manners that make for truly effortless progress at both ends of the performance spectrum.

With an almost 2-litre capacity advantage, coupled to automatic transmission, the Bentley gets many of its performance and refinement benefits by using torque to avoid high revs where possible and slipping into top gear at the earliest opportunity.

Classic & Sports Car – Peace makers: Bentley S1 vs Mercedes-Benz 300b
The Mercedes-Benz has a stately, formal appearance while the Bentley’s lines flow

Power steering makes the S-type much lighter to handle – masking the sort of low-speed understeer that makes the Mercedes feel a bit of a chore on roundabouts – and there are vastly superior brakes, as progressive and potent as the 300’s are dead and wooden.

Both cars are very stable, but where you sense the mass of the rear axle in the Bentley moving up and down, there is something almost modern about the flat, well-damped sophistication of the Stuttgart machine’s composure that must have been quite a marvel 70 years ago.

Where the Mercedes has a silky growl the Bentley merely aspirates with a remote hiss, wafting forward with commanding and ethereal urge that makes it feel like a lot less fuss and work than its Continental rival.

Classic & Sports Car – Peace makers: Bentley S1 vs Mercedes-Benz 300b
Both cars ride beautifully and offer impressive performance, only in subtly different ways

Great car though it is, the 300 was the flagship product of a company that built many other vehicles, applying the same uncompromising but slightly dispassionate high standards of engineering excellence to its commercial vehicles and taxis as it did an exclusive limousine that perhaps required a more nuanced approach.

Rolls-Royce and Bentley enjoyed the luxury of building only one type of car.

Crewe knew exactly who its customers were – and what they wanted – in an era when most of those customers would not have considered that there was any alternative to a Rolls-Royce or Bentley.

In a way, they were right.

Images: Max Edleston

Thanks to Manor Park Classics


Factfiles

Classic & Sports Car – Peace makers: Bentley S1 vs Mercedes-Benz 300b
Classic & Sports Car – Peace makers: Bentley S1 vs Mercedes-Benz 300b

Bentley S1

  • Sold/number built 1955-’59/3073
  • Construction steel chassis, steel body
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, ohv 4887cc straight-six, twin SU carburettors
  • Max power not disclosed
  • Max torque not disclosed
  • Transmission four-speed automatic, RWD
  • Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs; telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering power-assisted cam and roller
  • Brakes drums, with gearbox-driven servo
  • Length 17ft 7¼in (5385mm)
  • Width 6ft 2¼in (1899mm)
  • Height 5ft 4in (1630mm)
  • Wheelbase 10ft 3in (3124mm)
  • Weight 4480Ib (2032kg)
  • Mpg 10-15
  • 0-60mph 13 secs
  • Top speed 106mph
  • Price new £4669
  • Price now £25-40,000*
      

Mercedes-Benz 300b

  • Sold/number built 1954-’57/7746 (all W186 saloons)
  • Construction steel chassis, steel body
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, sohc 2996cc straight-six, twin carburettors
  • Max power 125bhp @ 4500rpm
  • Max torque 163Ib ft @ 2600rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension independent, at front by wishbones, anti-roll bar rear swing-axles, trailing arms, auxiliary torsion bars; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering recirculating ball
  • Brakes drums, with servo
  • Length 16ft 2½in (5055mm)
  • Width 6ft (1838mm)
  • Height 5ft 4in (1600mm)
  • Wheelbase 10ft (3050mm)
  • Weight 3874Ib (1757kg)
  • Mpg 16.2
  • 0-60mph 14.9 secs
  • Top speed 102mph
  • Price new £3500
  • Price now £30-50,000*
     

*Prices correct at date of original publication


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