I set out to write about the Mercedes 300 SEL 6.3 without any of the tired jokes about third world dictators and flags on the fenders that seem to follow every big Mercedes sedan. Well, I’ve already failed there, but I promise I won’t bring it up again. That is because this car really wasn’t designed for dictatorial limousine service. It was designed for wealthy individuals, the scions of business and industry, to drive themselves wherever they needed to be in speed, comfort, and restrained style. This was the first true Q Car.
What is a Q Car? It's a large, four door sedan with a honking big motor, inexorable speed, and lavish comfort all wrapped in a subtle and stately body. It’s something that every German manufacturer now makes, but in the late 1960’s it was an entirely novel idea. A hallmark of the Q Car is that it is driven by the owner, it is not a limousine. It is the kind of car that someone in a V6 Mustang might just try to pick on, only to be sorely disappointed when he is left in a rather understated cloud of dust. It is what we sometimes call a “sleeper,” and a particular version of a sleeper at that.
The origins of the name probably come from reference to Q-Ships used in the first and second world wars. Q-Ships appeared to the enemy to be run of the mill commercial vessels, yet in fact they hid big weaponry behind their sheet metal which allowed them to attack with the element of surprise. Driving is not war (although sometimes it may feel that way), but the Q Car borrows from the Q Ship concept. A pedestrian looking shell with big firepower under the sheet metal.
In the case of the 300 SEL 6.3, the body was that of the standard Mercedes SEL of the time, which was Merc’s 4 door flagship sedan, internally called the W109. Under the hood, however, was a 6.3L V8 designed and built by hand at a time when the letters AMG in sequence were but a whisper. The motor, known as the M100, was designed for use in the Mercedes 600 “Grosser” limousine of the time. It was an iron block brute, with single overhead cam, and mechanical fuel injection. While it is fun to romanticize about rogue engineers at Mercedes defying the top brass and building an illicit skunk-works sedan, the reality is probably a little bit more… realistic.
This car likely came about because the M100 was extremely expensive to design and build, and the Grosser limo sold in paltry numbers, which meant that use in a smaller and more affordable (a relative term) sedan would boost economies of scale. Or who knows, maybe sales numbers were just back fill to justify what was clearly a wonderful and unique product. Whatever the reason, we’re glad Mercedes did it.
The power output now seems modest (about 250 hp in U.S. Spec), but in ‘68 when this car debuted in the hands of consumers it was the fastest production sedan in the world. And while it could put down sub-seven second sprints to 60 mph, it’s reason for being was long distance, high speed Autobahn cruising. In fact, Mercedes claimed on its debut that it was capable of sustained cruising at 125 mph on the autobahn. A claim there is still little reason to doubt. Just as the power and performance figures seem modest today, the interior specifications don't impress on paper 50 years later. But it was all state of the art in '68.
Air suspension, power windows, standard air con, and a big sunroof were high ticket items of the time. And to compare this car to modern Q Cars is to miss the point. The allure of the 6.3 for me is twofold: 1) they hold a special place in automotive history; and 2) they represent a quality of craftsmanship and attention to detail that is almost non-existent in the automotive world today. Mercedes continued to build cars like this, probably through the R129 SL 500, and there is a sturdiness and quality that has been lost somewhere since. For example, the hardware for the door latch is like jewelry, and not because it’s meant to impress, but because that was the best way to do it. This car is beyond comparison to modern cars, it evokes a different time, and a different place in automotive history. Someday when someone writes a dissertation on the complete history of the Q-Car, the Mercedes 300 SEL 6.3 will be Exhibit A.