Finding The Softer Side Of German Engineering With A Mercedes-Benz W111 Coupe In Hampstead
Photography by Virgiliu Andone
Through a mixture of stereotype and fact, many of us have come to regard Germany as a well-oiled, technologically advanced place that makes up for a lack of emotion with a knack for engineering. Indeed Germany does seem to have a dispassionate resolve that “gets things done” for a lack of a better term, but that is of course an oversimplification—as is any description of a group of millions of people reduced to a few sentences.
We like to joke about Germany’s sense of humor and fascination with rules, but there are certainly romantic sensibilities to be found if you look past the low-hanging comedic fruit. A perfect embodiment of this sensibility is the Mercedes-Benz W111 coupe. It is at once recognizable as stereotypically German—and few things are as easily attributed to country of origin as a big Mercedes-Benz—but it is not just an imposing luxury car.
Sure, for its day, there is some advanced technology underneath this graceful behemoth, but this technology is not the forefront, not the defining facet. The maths that went into this car are modestly confined within the masterful lines of Paul Bracq and Friedrich Geiger. Unlike an S-Class today, this car attains respect without looking like something that a gangster would wrap in matte black. The big coupe’s size is enough to convey its status on the road. It feels presidential, but unlike say a Mercedes-Benz 600, it has always appeared to me as the kind of car that ferries its occupants toward signing a peace treaty rather than a declaration of war.
For this story—which I shot before the COVID-19 lockdown, and thus look back at extra fondly!—we took this beautifully kept 280SE to the London neighborhood that perfectly fits its character. Away from the usual tourist hotspots, Londoners have a treasure that, while being iconic and immensely popular amongst us, has miraculously escaped the perils of mass tourism. Perhaps this is also due to the fact that Hampstead does not quite fit the usual narrative of the all-conquering Empire. Even though property does not come cheap here by any measure, you don’t feel like you need to buy something expensive to justify taking a walk or a slow drive down the narrow streets that surround the heath. It’s not the ostentatious Mayfair, nor the busy Fleet Street, nor the world famous Notting Hill. Hampstead, the London high ground, is the place where powerful people live a luxurious life in a refreshingly convivial fashion. The stately but inviting Merc finds a home away from home here.
Hampstead is, in many ways, still a village. Some of the old streets are very narrow as you can see, and you could be forgiven for thinking you must be miles away from any major city. Paris’s Montmartre comes to mind as a similar place, as the views are just as stunning. And there are narrow stairs and paved streets and beautiful old buildings that pile on at an almost claustrophobic level. And really, it is just as romantic here. Fortunately though, it’s not as busy as Montmartre.
On the ancient streets of the Hampstead heath, you can appreciate the proportions of the W111, and realize it’s not quite as big as it appears. It is agile enough to explore the capillaries of the neighborhood, and the magic of its design allows it to shrink and expand its presence depending on the context. Never too much, never not enough. It is more of a chameleon than an outright statement maker, though it always leaves an impression.
The owner of this car, Clive, bought it sight unseen, from eBay. No, he is not that kind of guy. He tends to be methodical and understated in everything he does. Yet, this time, he had no hesitations. He wanted this car for as long as he could remember, and he just felt this rare Webasto sunroof example was the one. It’s fitting I think, that this very emotional decision from someone endowed with the virtue of exemplary pondering. Having the gift of logic and reason does not have to inhibit your feeling from breaking through, and not every Mercedes-Benz needs to be thought of as an austere amalgamation of engineering. Clive has been a Mercedes-Benz fan as far back as he can remember, and when I asked him what made him finally buy the one he loved most, he plainly replied that sometimes you really need to take risks if you want to achieve something dear to you. Over-rationalization can lead to inaction if you’re not careful, after all.
Though it’s not the only example, I like to think that this particular Mercedes-Benz design challenges the preconceptions about German style better than most. It is neither industrial, nor overbearing. It is not harsh, it is not devoid of soul. It is soft, indulgent, inviting. Its curves connect it to the classic German baroque heritage, rather than Prussian strictness.
The car still conveys an undeniable amount of figurative power, but it communicates this power in a language completely foreign to say, an AMG’d G-Wagen. Like the property here in Hampstead, this Merc coupe is meant to celebrate one’s stake in life, but unlike traditional status symbols, it doesn’t rely on an overt display of aggressive wealth. In our age of luxury cars with maw-sized grilles and slit-shaped laser beams for headlights, this car is a refreshing alternative.