Journal: This is the Grandfather of Every German Sports Sedan

This is the Grandfather of Every German Sports Sedan

By Doug DeMuro
March 26, 2014
19 comments

Photography by John Whitney Jr.

Ask any owner of a modern high-performance luxury sedan–a BMW M5, a Mercedes E63 AMG–what the grandfather of the high-performance luxury sedan is, and you’re sure to get the same answer: cars don’t have grandfathers. That’s because M5 and E63 owners can’t be bothered with frivolous things like riddles and hypothetical questions. They’re too busy talking on their phone at stoplights.

But if you want the answer to this question, I’m here to deliver it to you. You can trace the lineage of all of these cars, cars that have for years captivated the minds of drivers interested in combining high-performance and practicality, to the 1968-1972 Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the 300SEL 6.3, a little background. To start this venture, Mercedes engineer Erich Waxenberger–reportedly after being told by a German car journalist that he was building “granny cars”–took an S-Class and shoved in the 6.3-liter V8 from the 600, a limousine that was, at the time, the largest Mercedes in production.

Now, by modern standards, a 6.3-liter V8 in an S-Class doesn’t seem so crazy. But back then, the S-Class only came with 6-cylinder engines. And they were slow, even by the standard of the time, with base-level 250S models offering just 130 horsepower and a 0-to-60 time of around 13 seconds.

So now imagine taking that car and shoehorning a powerful limousine engine under the hood. And I mean powerful: it made around 250 horsepower and–wait for it–369 pound-feet of torque. Inside, the SEL 6.3 was a staid, traditional-looking Mercedes sedan that might be purchased by your grandfather, who would promptly place a box of tissues on the parcel shelf. Same thing with the exterior. But under the hood, there was a monstrous V8 capable of sending the car to 60 mph in around 6.5 seconds and gluing the tissues to the rear window. It was Mercedes’ version of the muscle car.

So exciting was the 6.3 that famed Mercedes engineer Rudolph Uhlenhaut caught wind of the project and insisted on driving the car. As Waxenberger tells the story, Uhlenhaut drove the car for only a few minutes before getting out at a traffic light. There, he opened the hood, just to see what the hell was making this car go so fast – and how they were able to squeeze the huge motor into the engine compartment.

Given its unprecedented status, sales expectations for the 6.3 were low. In a 1999 article from Classic & Sports Car, Waxenberger recalls that the Mercedes-Benz sales department never expected to sell even 50 units. But, says Waxenbrger, “in the end, they sold so fast I couldn’t get one for my own test department.” Mercedes ultimately built more than 6,500 examples of the 300 SEL 6.3.

If you want to own a 6.3 now–and who doesn’t?–be forewarned that the sedan has a lot of potential issues that might throw off a casual buyer. Every single unit left the factory with air suspension, and–given that these cars were made from December 1967 to September 1972–even the newest ones are more than 40 years old, which might mean trouble. I’d be happy if the air suspension in my Land Rover lasted ten years, let alone forty. Beyond the suspension, the 6.3’s heating/air conditioning system is notoriously complicated. And, of course, the 300SEL includes a wide variety of other age-related issues likely to affect an older car.

But mark my words: one day, the 300SEL 6.3 will find its rightful place on Concours lawns as the performance sedan that started it all. And owners of M5s and E63s will likely walk right by, phone glued to their ear, searching for something flashier, unaware that they’ve just crossed paths with a legend: the grandfather of the performance sedan.

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19 Comments on "This is the Grandfather of Every German Sports Sedan"

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Jim Levitt
Jim Levitt
3 months 28 days ago

I owned two of these including the last one sold in So Cal. GREAT cars and among my top 5 of all the “normal” cars I ever owned

Chris Robins
Chris Robins
6 months 7 days ago

As an M5 owner is kneel to this ‘Kaiser’ of sporting saloons. My buddy owns one and showed it at The Quail last summer. You’re right….many supposed ‘car guy’s walked right by it not knowing how epic it really is….one thing you left out….a good example is not cheap to buy either, let alone maintain. Epic car. Great to share this piece of history.

John Washbush
John Washbush
6 months 7 days ago

It has too many doors …

Brooks Lester
Brooks Lester
2 years 7 months ago
I was lucky enough to ride in one of these beasts during my high school years. My high school shop specialized in Mercedes Benz (college town, lots of Merc’s in the ‘hood). One day during my senior year in 1982, when walking to class, I saw a very clean silver full-sized Mercedes with collapsed suspension poking its rear out of the shop bay. The badges indicated 300SEL 6.3. I had read of the car, but never seen one in the flesh. Unbeknownst to me, one of my classmates took shop and was working on the car. He was allowed to… Read more »
David Mitchell
David Mitchell
2 years 7 months ago

While it is true, re the sports saloons such as the Mercedes 300 6.3, Maserati and BMW 2500-3.0L, a cheaper and more practical option of course was the Mercedes 280 3.5 sedan. While out here in Aus, the Phase 3 Ford GTHO (Bathurst special) was in many respects the equal to the Mercedes in terms of power. In terms of value, it outstrips all of the above cars. Top condition examples out here ranging in price from $200K upwards towards $750K.

Allan
Allan
2 years 7 months ago

I would argue that perhaps the BMW Bavaria was the first sports sedan. No, it didn’t have a big engine, but it was actually engineered to be sporty. It handled well – which isn’t something you can say of the big Merc.

fe2cruz
fe2cruz
2 years 7 months ago

Were the heating/air electrical issues sorted by the time they released the followup 450SEL 6.9 model from Ronin & Lost Highway? I think the 6.9 still had the air suspension, but I was wondering if the 6.9 was easier to live with and maintain today. Maybe the Quattroporte is the Great-Great Grandpa, the 6.3 is the Great Grandpa and the 6.9 is just plain Grandpa, or would the plain Grandpa title be best given to wait till the Hammer?

Rose Gardener
Rose Gardener
2 years 7 months ago

Please, the hammer doesn’t belong.

Andreas Lavesson
Andreas Lavesson
2 years 7 months ago

Would you like to elaborate?

Twotone
Twotone
2 years 7 months ago

This was my 1973 (yes, made after September 1972) 280 SEL 4.5 Wish I had not sold it.

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Rui Moreira
Rui Moreira
2 years 7 months ago

I’ve read somewhere recently that the reasons for the model to been given the green light were the need for a more powerful engine in the range, specially in the US, and an excess production of M100 engines due to low demand for the 600 model.
But it was a hot rod when it came out, and the list of former owners includes F1 drivers of the time who used to do some “performance tests” on the road to and from the racing venues. 🙂

Andreas Lavesson
Andreas Lavesson
2 years 7 months ago

I’ve always had a thing for performance sedans and while my heart lies with BMW, the 300 SEL 6.3 is certainly no exception. I have to say that this was a particularly beautifully written piece. Although I do believe, or at least want to believe, that not all owners of modern performance sedans are ignorant and egocentric.

However, impressive as the modern ones might be in certain respects, I’m always drawn to the older ones (as most of us on this site, I presume).

Emanuel Costa
Emanuel Costa
2 years 7 months ago

And don’t forget: The 300 SEL maybe the German Grandfather; but Italy’s and europe’s grandfather is the Quattroporte. Just completed 50 years in 2013. And it was successfully created to transport italian executives from Milan to Rome, fast but with all the confort they needed!

Frank B Gabry
Frank B Gabry
2 years 7 months ago
’81 drove Quattroporte from Vienna to Miliano & back again, while in Collage, those where the days, got back to Chicago that summer, was lucky to drive a mighty M-B 300-6.3. But one better car was MY DAD’S ’72 Jag w/V-12 327 Cu.In. Close to 6.3, just Dad’s 2002 always interested me more, he traded it in on ’76 BMW 530i w/special everything very fast car. I think those days where the best, brought back w/me from Europe ’84 Cosworth Serria XRT4i. Somehow those days those cars felt like they flew, the techy -techo 2014 30 yrs newer cars have… Read more »
Matthew Lange
Matthew Lange
2 years 7 months ago

Cool piece on a very nice car. Being pedantic I would point out it’s not the first high performance sedan (or saloon as we would say here). The Maserati Quattroporte predates the 6.3 and in terms of claimed top speed was actually faster.
It was the first hot version of a more mundane saloon though?

Roland Alfonso
Roland Alfonso
2 years 7 months ago

In a dream: ” Mercedes Benz Classic Center, Los Angeles, may we help you?” “Yeah, I need you to perform a complete restoration of my 300 SEL 6.3. Thank you and have a nice day…”

Benjamin Shahrabani
Benjamin Shahrabani
2 years 7 months ago

They also made a 4.5 V8. My neighbor had one. She and her husband bought it new, and picked it up in Germany..however she chose to give it to her grandson (!) instead of selling it to me. I’m sure he destroyed it by now.:D

Jonathanwcmills
Jonathanwcmills
2 years 7 months ago

I myself am looking at the 4.5’s (featured in The Exorcist I might add) the prices are all over, but there are a number of fantastic examples available.

Dustin Rittle
Dustin Rittle
2 years 7 months ago

I wasnt always a huge fan of Mercedes-Benz but every now and then they have a product that i believe is worth giving a look at it. The 300sel 6.3 could have given any luxury car a run for its money at the time. This big luxurious brute could do o-60 faster then most sports car and carry up to 5 people in comfort all at the same time. Not to mention the imposing style this car has making you look like you run your own country 🙂

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