“With just a single car built, this Italian styled 300SEL is a real rarity, but it’s been hiding behind closed doors for decades with a puzzling past”
With the underpinnings of a brand new Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3 and a body designed by sergio pininfarina,this rare combination of German engineering and Italian design should have been the absolute best of both worlds. That’s not how it turned outthough, and the original owner, who paid the equivalent of £165,000 in today’s money, for the restyling alone, is still unknown as he didn’t want his name associated with it. unloved, it may have been, but this unique Mercedes has survived nearly half a century including nearly two decades in storage to become a sensationally lucky barn find for Ibalo Sportscars in the netherlands.
There weren’t many manufacturers in the late 1960s that could match the build quality of Mercedes, and when it mated the huge 6.3-litre V8 to the 300SEL saloon, that had previously only been seen in the 750kg heavier 600 limousine, it truly outdid itself. Faster than both the Jaguar E-Type and Porsche 911, it rode on air suspension and featured both electric windows and air conditioning.
But such a feat of motoring master craft wasn’t enough for one seriously wealthy Dutch car enthusiast, and he asked Mercedes to make a more elegant, one-off body for him. They politely declined the commission, but his second choice wasn’t any less of a prestigious company. Legendary motoring styling house Pininfarina was famed for its work for Ferrari, Alfa Romero and Lancia, and it had already worked with Mercedes before, with the elegant 1955 300b Coupe.
With a deal agreed, the 300SEL was taken to Italy to face the angle grinders. The original A- and C-pillars were positioned closer together and re-angled, which necessitated a whole new roof and windscreen. This was positioned at a shallower angle, which brought the roof height down by 50mm. Although this may not be regarded as the finest example of Pininfarina’s craftsmanship, all of the steel body panels were hand rolled and individually beaten into shape.
“This rare combination of German engineering and Italian design should have been the best of both worlds”
DIEK FROM LINE IBALO OUT THE SWAGE LINE THAT RUNS ALONG THE SIDE AS A CHARACTERISTIC PININFARINA DESIGN, and is supposedly similar to the Ferrari 400, although this car has nothing of the prancing horse’s powerful stance. The square basic looking -shapedboxy rear,lights has something of the Fiat 130 Coupe about it, which incidentally is a car also designed by Pininfarina.
But beyond this information of the build itself, the story turns to conjecture. The main point of interest here being its similarities to the Rolls-Royce Camargue and although the 300SEL’s build pre-dates the Pininfarina designed Rolls-Royce by a full five years, the Camargue project was initiated back in 1969, and so the bodywork designs may well have already existed. Could this car have been used as a rolling example to demonstrate to Rolls-Royce? Did Pininfarina have an idea to save time by crafting a body he already had the blueprints for? Or maybe it was the owner himself who decided he wanted it to look like this. However the plan came to be, no matter which angle you look at it from, it’s uncannily similar to the almost contemporary Rolls-Royce.
SOMETHING THAT MIGHT LEND A LITTLE CREDENCE TO THE CAMARGUE COPY STORY IS THAT THE FRONT OF THE CAR, which of course couldn’t resemble the unmistakable Rolls- Royce grille and lights, doesn’t seem to have too much attention to detail bestowed on it. Angular, and perhaps a little unimaginative, especially coming from such a styling house, the stacked headlights look a lot like they were simply taken from Ford’s 1965 Galaxie model, mixed with a grille that takes its cue from an SL Pagoda. The second owner also wasn’t too impressed with the design and swapped the original black surrounds to the current ones from a W114/115.
INSIDE THOUGH, IT’S A DIFFERENT STORY AND OBVIOUSLY NO EXPENSE WAS SPARED, although today the green carpets against the beige leather seats look a little garish. The dashboard is from the original Mercedes, but just about everything else is not just bespoke, but exquisitely crafted. The trim on the door panels and headlining, which still looks as new as the day it was installed, seem as though they’re from a much higher class of car than a production line Mercedes-Benz.
Diek shows me the over-complicated mechanism to open the front and rear quarter windows, devices that feel as though they come from a Pullman limo, as does the vacuum operated central locking system, which in its day was the height of upper class motoring technology. But it was apparently the interior that caused the first owner to sell the car, as despite pouring so much money into having a unique car, a few years later, with 39,000 miles on the clock, he passed it on and bought
“Thedashboard is from the remains in place. original Mercedes, but justabout everythingelseisnot ust bespoke, lacks Vother <]the Front parts flair end of … butexquisitelycrafted”
The car was then bought by a Dutch car dealer, and so the German/Italian hybrid remained in the Netherlands for some time, but it was rarely driven and although thousands of other cars passed through his hands, this one he kept for the rest of his life. Around the turn of the millennium, when he became too elderly to drive, it was put into storage and when he passed away, that’s where it remained until his wife recently made a few enquiries to see if anyone would be interested in taking on an unusual restoration project. Ibalo Sportscars knew about this special and local car already, and so once it had heard, Diek made a beeline to the storage shed and did a deal straight away.
“Diek assured meit was fine to drive, and soI didn’t refuse the offer to take it for a spin”
THERE WERE OBVIOUS SIGNS OF CORROSION ON THE BODYWORK AND CHROME TRIM, not helped by evidence of poor attempts at either re-painting or polishing with some strong chemicals. But despite standing for nearly two decades, it was much more solid than it had imagined. Another demonstration, if one was required, of the incredible engineering quality of Mercedes. “The engine started straight away,” he smiles. “And most importantly, the hydraulic suspension was fine, as anything to do with that system is an incredibly expensive repair. It was leaking some oil and petrol, so we changed the oil, fixed the leak, put new spark in and that’s all.”
Even though the minimal service is all that’s been done since it was pulled out into the light of day again, Diek assured me it was fine W to drive, and so I didn’t refuse the offer to take it for a spin. A mere touch of the key and the huge and lazy sounding Ml 00 V8 burbles to life. With the thin and delicate gear lever pulled down to D, we edged forwards. Mercedes created a world class saloon in the W109, and Pininfarina made no changes to the running gear, so although the steering felt a bit leery and the brakes a little weak, it was only because I was sub-consciously comparing it to a modern car, not a 50-year old one. With only 44,000 miles on the clock, most covered with a chauffeur, and with regular servicing, it drove very well.
PUSHING THE PEDAL DOWN TOWARDS THE ODD COLOURED CARPET, the deep rumble of the V8, muted by the thick sound proofing, pulled us along nicely up through the four gears, which wasn’t unexpected. The air suspension, self-leveling, of course, gives a sublime ride quality that even few modern models can rival.
It might not be the prettiest car in the world, and it’s certainly not the most eye-catching Pininfarina creation, but underneath it’s all top class Mercedes workmanship. And coupled with that unique body, it’s the reason it’s still going after half a century.