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Mercedes Fintail vs Rover P5

Power with Pomp Published: 21st Mar 2014 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Mercedes Fintail vs Rover P5
Mercedes Fintail vs Rover P5
Mercedes Fintail vs Rover P5
Mercedes Fintail vs Rover P5
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It’s 1958, just a year after Harold McMillan told Britons they had never had it so good. With the benefit of hindsight, he was probably right; we still had something of an Empire, rationing was finally over and we had a thriving British-owned motor industry exporting all over the world and owning a foreign car was looked upon with disdain – even a Mercedes-Benz.

This month we’re pitching together two backwater prestige classics; Rover’s flagship P5 and the Fintail range of Mercs, which were a replacement for the Ponton and very much the entry level bargain Benz. Not on price mind, import duties really jacked up the cars from abroad and when launched in 1959 the cheapest 190 was still £200 dearer than a P5 – big money then. Value-wise today they are pretty similar.

WHICH ONE TO BUY? PRIM, PROPER AND PRESTIGIOUS

Rover was still an independent and in its golden era selling Land Rovers all over the globe and producing the high quality ‘Aunties’, code named P4 that would be snapped up by traditional bank managers, solicitors and hospital consultants – pillars of society in other words.The P5 was originally to be a small car to complement the P4 and Land Rover but chief engineer, Maurice Wilks suddenly realised that Jaguar had been making good profits with its large, luxurious MkVll, and decided to recommend a prestige car instead.

Wilks established a proper design department which included the highly talented David Bache who not only designed the P5 and P5B but also, the P6 and the evergreen Range Rover.

You wouldn’t think it, even back in the late ’50s but Rover bigwigs were horrified when they saw the P5 because it was deemed too daring by half but sense prevailed although mechanically a lot was carried over from the P4, including a rather ancient inlet-over-exhaust valve, straight-six albeit bored to a full three litres, for 115bhp giving a maximum of 96mph and 0-60 mph in some 16 seconds, hardly quick even back then.

It had been intended to launch a Coupé at the same time as the saloon but development costs had escalated and the rather swish Coupé had to be postponed for four years. The launch of the saloon itself wasn’t straightforward and was delayed by a strike at Pressed Steel.

By luxury car standards the P5 was highly successful with sales of 7500 by the end of 1960 against 10,000 P4s and so probably killed the Armstrong Siddeley brand.  Which P5 to buy? The later the better really. Disc brakes were standardised soon after launch and for ’62 a gas-flowed Weslake head liberating 123bhp, 108mph and 0-60 in around 15 seconds was welcomed. The P5 Coupé was also launched with the same specification but a sportier dashboard including a rev-counter and extra dials. The P5 MkIII followed in 1965 with 134bhp, some minor trim changes and individual rear seats but the biggest change occurred in late 1967 with the P5b. Rover had bought an old GM V8 and improved it for 160bhp and so good was this engine that it lasted into the next century under the bonnets of TVRs,

Morgans and numerous kit cars! For many the ultimate P5 is the V8 Coupé.

It may be that so soon after the War the idea of owning a German car didn’t resonate with British car buyers. Certainly, in the 1950s few Mercedes sold in the UK, BMWs were even rarer and Audi hadn’t even been invented in the form we now know it.

The ‘Fintail’ or ‘Heckflosse’ in German, was launched in 1959, in 220 six-cylinder form coded W111. It was a development of the Ponton and the new car’s name came from the tail fins incorporated to appeal in the American market, so important after the War.

While mechanically little different from its respected predecessor, the big revolution was in safety with padded dashboards, rigid central passenger zone, crumple zones and, for the first time in the industry, comprehensive crash testing making it a highly advanced car for its era. 

By the demise of the Fintail in 1968 there would have been three distinct ranges, all four door saloons. There were the short nose W110 four-cylinder diesel and petrol cars with round headlights, the stacked headlight W111 sixes (220, 220S, 220SE and 230S) and the lovely W112 luxury versions with lots of chrome, wood and leather.

With a choice of saloons and cabrios and a cluster of engines, which includes a rare diesel, there’s a lot more choice with the Mercedes – on paper at least because in reality it’s a case of what you can find. And you’d be very fortunate to unearth an estate Fintail, the 230S.

WHAT’S BEST TO DRIVE? SOLID RATHER THAN SPORTY

While these cars were developed in two different countries they aren’t really that much different. The Merc is the more sophisticated in its engineering with overhead cams and even the availability of self-levelling rear suspension in later cars and air suspension on the 300SE.

The Mercedes was obviously targeted at the American market judging by the umbrella handbrake, the column gear change fitted to the majority of cars and of course those tail fins.

These are both big cars and are more for restful cruising than thrashing. Having said that Fintail Mercs came first and second in the 1960 Monte Carlo rally so the potential for thrashing may well be there although not with the standard soft suspension. If you want to tear round corners on two wheels and beat your neighbour at the traffic lights neither of these cars is for you.

Try to avoid either car without disc brakes as they are both heavy and need all the stopping power they can get.

Of the two, the Rover, particularly the 3Litre is certainly the more refined and is quieter at speed which is down to sound deadening and the rather noisy overhead cam lump in the Fintail. The few 3Litre Rover manuals made also had overdrive which made them even quieter at motorway speeds. Speak to P5 aficionados and they’ll admit that the old IOE engine is somewhat smoother and sweeter than the V8 – something Silver Cloud owners heartily concur.

The performance range on both cars is similar apart from the very rare Merc Diesel which, even in its most powerful form, was barely capable of 80, which didn’t seem to worry thousands of taxi drivers in Germany.

Apart from that you are looking at somewhere between 90/95 and 60 in 16 seconds for the 3Litre P5 and the Merc 190/200 to around 115 and 60 in 11/12 seconds for the 3.5-litre Coupé and the 300SE.

These are all supremely comfortable cars although the Rovers are generally more luxurious except for the Mercedes 300SE which has the same wood and leather as the P5s but it is unlikely you will find one of those in this country. Fortunately, few Rovers were fitted with front drum brakes and unassisted steering which is not the case with the Merc which didn’t get disc front brakes until 1965 and power steering was only standard on the 300SE

OWNING AND RUNNING BRIT WINS WITHOUT EXTRA TIME?

No penalties required here, the Brit wins without extra time, as much as anything because Fintails are very difficult to find as they were never plentiful in Britain when new and, strangely, can suffer more from rust than even the rot trap Rover.

If you want a Fintail then you will certainly have a rare classic, but you cannot be too choosy over engines and specifications whereas the Rover is pretty good whether a straight six or V8, saloon or the Coupé.

All P5/5Bs have wood and leather while it was only an option on most Fintails. You do have to think of the 3Litre as a 2.4 Jag with similar smooth but limited performance and the 3.5 Litre as a 3.8, noisier but quicker. If you are happy with smooth and slow the 3Litre could be a great bargain as it is less in demand than the V8.

Surprisingly for a 50 year old foreign car, genuine Fintail mechanical parts are remarkably easy to get hold of and many are available direct from Mercedes-Benz main agents, which may sway you as P5 parts aren’t exactly Jag Mk2 plentiful (although there’s good specialist and club support).

Trim parts are difficult but the Merc’s rather functional interior is pretty rugged. It is relatively easy to price the P5 and P5B as there are usually a good number available. It just isn’t worth buying a basket case unless you’re a retired auto engineer or coachbuilder with a fat bank balance and nothing else to do. A decent 3Litre can be had for £5-6000 and a really nice car for £8-10,000 with the V8 cars going for two or three thousand more with concours V8s hitting £15,000 and over. While a Coupé tends to be more valuable than the

Saloon, it really comes down to condition and provenance. These Rovers don’t seem to have kept pace with general classic car appreciation and are actually bargains now. It may be they will at some point actually take off as some earlier Rovers have done.

The Mercedes on the other hand is difficult to value as so few are sold and saloons are as wanted as sports Mercs, but the few that have sold recently have fetched similar prices to the Rovers. A mint 300SE however, could fetch £20,000 while the convertibles can touch three times this.

And The Winner Is...

While some may value the view of that Three pointed star across the long bonnet there is really no contest here. The Rover is easier to buy, just as easy to service and repair with good parts and specialist back up and if you are looking for a big luxury classic, the Rover is better to drive and far more refined. However, if you can find a nicely maintained rust-free Fintail at a reasonable price, you will certainly have a very rare beast which should cause a lot of interest and hold its value over the years.



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