Although the first Mercedes-Benz 170S wasn’t built until 1949, the model was in its own way a survivor of World War II and then helped Daimler-Benz, the company that made it, survive the peace.
Allied bombing had done its level best to destroy the ability of the Third Reich to wage war. Mercedes-Benz, according to estimates made in the spring of 1945, suffered about 75 percent damage to its automobile assembly plant in Untertürkheim and 85 percent to the coachbuilding facility in nearby Sindelfingen. So little was left of the aero engine plant at Berlin-Marienfelde that the remains were pulled down. Said a brief statement by the board of directors: “Daimler-Benz ceased to exist in 1945.”
Fortunately for Daimler-Benz, however, the Untertürkheim and Sindelfingen plants and the truck plant factory in Mannheim were all in the American zone. The rubble was cleared, and vehicle repair occupied as many of the prewar staff as could be recalled. Currency reform in June 1948 and the Marshall Plan boosted the German economy, and Daimler-Benz began actual automobile manufacture within three years of the war’s end.
Not surprisingly, the first car was a prewar design. The Mercedes-Benz 170V had been introduced in 1935, a 1.7-liter four-cylinder under development of the 1.7-liter six-cylinder Mercedes-Benz 170 that had debuted in 1931. It had been Daimler-Benz’s first venture into the “cheap car” market, and it sold quite well in the shadow of the mighty Mercedes-Benz 500K and 540K, and in truth, it paid the bills.
The Mercedes-Benz 170V was one of the few Mercedes for which tooling remained intact, and for the struggling German economy, it was the only one that made sense to build. It was old-fashioned, with its upright radiator shell, separate fenders and freestanding headlamps, but it also had sophisticated features such as fully independent suspension. True, the rear suspension was the now-maligned swing-arm arrangement, but it was advanced for the era.
During 1949, Daimler engineers found even more power for the 1767-cc side-valve four, raising compression to 6.5:1 for 52 horsepower. The transverse leaf front suspension was replaced by a double A-arm/coil spring system similar to that of the 1937-39 Mercedes Grand Prix cars.
All the changes warranted a new name: Mercedes-Benz 170S.
Although modern replacements for the prewar designs were already on the drawing board, there’s no denying the trim and elegant design of the budget Benz. Driving the 170S matches the look. The steering is not heavy for an unboosted system, nor does the ratio seem excessively slow. The fully synchronized four-speed gearbox is light to the touch, angling out from under the dash, but easy to move from gear to gear.
Beautiful woodwork frames the windshield, and dash top and surrounds the Becker radio centered on the dash of the Mercedes-Benz 170S. The front seats are comfortable chairs while the back seat is proof that Germans have a sense of humor. The cushion is adequate but there’s virtually no legroom, despite the 170S’s 112-inch wheelbase.
The engine runs quietly, though with 2690 lbs (dry) to cart about, there’s little blitzen in this Benz. A four-door sedan tested by Road & Track in 1952 ran the quarter-mile in 27.5 seconds, by which time it hadn’t broken 60 mph. On the other hand, the owner’s manual listed both maximum speed and cruising speed at 75 mph.
A 1951 Mercedes-Benz 170S Cabriolet, however, is just as happy to cruise with its top folded back on a late summer’s evening, and all the happier for the Marshall Plan, the American Zone and the Allied bombs that missed the tooling for the 170S.
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