It’s not every day that I experience first-hand the dream car I once coveted at 14. It was then that the Mercedes-Benz C111 first appeared on the cover of the November 1969 issue of Road & Track, and it wasn’t until years later that I saw one in person during a visit to the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Stuttgart, Germany. So when the automaker offered me a ride in the C111, driving from the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles to the brand new Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Long Beach, I jumped at the chance. After all, I would ride with Marcus Breitschwerdt, Executive Vice President of Mercedes-Benz AG and Head of Mercedes-Benz Classic.
The reason for the trip was deliberate: to smooth out the paint finish and prepare the prized experimental car for the Mercedes-Benz display at Pebble Beach during Monterey Car Week. But instead of choosing to deliver it safely in a carrier, the car keepers decided to have fun braving the Monday morning rush hour on what might be the heaviest freeway slog of this side of the Bronx Freeway.
Minutes after leaving the Petersen, in a situation perfectly suited to Los Angeles traffic, the car hovered on Wilshire Boulevard and brought in a team of specialists, following in a suitably colored Classic Center transporter, to fix minor issues then as the gazes of passers-by alternated from annoyance to wonder at what might as well have been an orange missile parked in the median. My hosts and I took advantage of the interruption to enter the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for coffee and a chat.
There, my affable driver turned what could have been “just” a discussion of classic cars into a more substantial discussion, explaining that the recent sale of the factory’s Uhlenhaut coupe – at $143 million, the car sale the highest in history – will serve a higher purpose. The proceeds will anchor the endowment of 1,000 scholarships, each year, to promising students – all with an ecocentric mindset – whose means might otherwise not allow them to pursue a career in automotive transportation.
This ambitious and selfless commitment from the world’s most ubiquitous automotive luxury brand is grounded in the company’s own history. It seems, as Breitschwerdt explained, that two of the company’s three patriarchs – Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach – were themselves from modest families, and their trajectory was only made possible through education dispensed by the largesse of local institutions. Breitschwerdt, who has hung his hat at Mercedes-Benz since 1991 and has held various senior positions, is firmly committed to this goal.
We hit the road again, and when the opportunity presents itself, Breitschwerdt presses the accelerator. The C111 flies enough, turning the heads of drivers curious enough to look up from their cellphones and vanity mirrors. I’m glad I’m not behind the wheel of this precious artifact in gridlocked city traffic, where the rear ends buck in the air like angry rodeo bulls while the brake lights flash brightly. When a lane opens, my driver shifts the five-speed shifter up a gear as we pick up speed, punctuated by the deep exhaust of a good old V-8 engine. The two-person cockpit is a bit austere but with plenty of elbow room and good forward vision. Forget the back. The chaise’s bucket seats upholstered in houndstooth fabric – oh so German – are a chic counterpoint to the orange metallic paint called weissherbst (white autumn) which looks surprisingly contemporary today.
Comfortable cabin temperatures for a tropical chameleon were an added bonus. Luckily, we exit toward Marina del Rey and meander along the Pacific Coast Highway through seaside towns to the colossal new Mercedes Classic Center, which opened to much fanfare last week. Some of the finest classic cars on the planet are on display. . . many of which also lacked air conditioning. But when a car is beautiful, who cares? A look at the sparkling automotive jewels on the polished concrete floors gives the opportunity to rejoice in the immaculate paintwork and the profile of a butterfly wing or a pagoda, a reminder that elegant design is never outdated. .
The C111 time machine we took here was one of a series of experimental automobiles created by Mercedes-Benz during the fertile design decade of the 1960s. It served as a platform to try a a number of mid-rear engine configurations using Wankel engines – promising at the time – and diesels, for which the company was famous. All but three of the cars built were powered by a Wankel, starting with a three-rotor unit. In 1970, a second-generation car used a 2.4-liter four-rotor version, which developed 289 lb-ft of torque between 4,000 rpm and 5,500 rpm and 345 hp at 7,000 rpm. Reported as capable of reaching over 186mph, it had a fiberglass body bonded to a steel frame and featured Mercedes-branded gullwing doors, giving fans hope it would become the replacement for the 300 SL then 15 years old.
The engine, patented by Felix Wankel in 1929, proved impractical. In the end, the high emissions and poor fuel economy inherent in the design, compounded by insurmountable reliability issues, ultimately sent the Wankel engine to pasture. Subsequent iterations of the C111 included two examples powered by diesel engines and one fitted with a twin-turbo V-8.
Our C111 was fitted with a Mercedes-Benz 3.5-liter gasoline V8, which performed admirably throughout our drive. A few cars, developed expressly to set speed records, easily proved that diesel engines were uncompetitive. Here, aerodynamics played a role. The C111’s project manager was Bruno Sacco, the Italian-born designer who became Mercedes-Benz’s styling chief in 1975 and shaped the company’s aesthetic until his retirement in 1999.
Sacco believed that a designer should look 30 years ahead. If so, he really went over the top with his C111, because it still looks fresh today, with its shapely lines, low drag coefficient and low height of 44 inches, which is only 4 inches more than a Ford GT40. Thirteen of the original copies survive, all in the possession of the maker. Which begs the question: how many scholarships could a single C111 endow?
Click here to view all photos of the experimental 1970 Mercedes-Benz C111.