Mercedes Benz 220SE Fintail In Competition
Three-car 220SE works team at the 1963 Acropolis Rally, which it dominated in the early 1960s. (Image from: Mercedes-Benz Classic)
Return to News

Mercedes Benz 220SE Fintail In Competition

3.9K Views
By MarkOastler - 25 September 2012
Three-car 220SE works team at the 1963 Acropolis Rally, which it dominated in the early 1960s. (Image from: Mercedes-Benz Classic)

The Mercedes Benz 220SE Fintail may not seem like an obvious candidate for a story on the three-pointed star's greatest competition cars, given the marque's glorious pre and post-war 'Silver Arrow' grand prix and sports cars.

However, this humble 2.2 litre six cylinder sedan proved to be a formidable works rally car and circuit racer in the early 1960s - both in Europe and Australia.

The reason it was thrust into the motor racing spotlight can be traced back to 1955. The dominant Mercedes Benz works team withdrew from Formula One and the World Sports Car Championship at the end of that tragic season, in which one of its cars was involved in a fiery crash at the Le Mans 24 Hour race that killed 83 spectators.

Obviously rattled, Daimler-Benz's board of directors imposed a blanket ban on all employees getting involved in any form of motor sport. However, given its rich competition heritage, petrol continued to flow through the corporate veins.

It wasn't long before the ban was lifted, but rather than return to the race track the famous Stuttgart firm changed course for 1956 and decided to concentrate on rallying as its new competitive outlet.

The emphasis would be on using standard production cars, to show the world how Mercedes Benz design and engineering could conquer some of the worst roads and conditions imaginable.

The brilliant Alfred Neubauer, who had announced his retirement after masterminding the Mercedes Benz post-war assault on motor racing, was replaced as sporting director of the company's rallying activities by former F1 and sports car driver Karl Kling.

Kling was joined initially by rally aces Walter Schock and co-driver Rolf Moll. This talented duo competed under the Motorsportclub Stuttgart banner and received full works support from Mercedes Benz.

Together with 1957 signing, Eugen Bohringer, the team enjoyed considerable success from 1956 to 1959 using a variety of 220 'Ponton' sedans (predecessor of the 220SE Fintail) and the mighty 300 SL 'Gullwing' sports cars.

To get maximum marketing and sales leverage from these victories, Mercedes Benz boasted that its winning rally cars were the same production line cars that the public could buy off the showroom floor.

This certainly rang true, even though the competition cars had to be mildly modified depending on the events they were competing in.

These mods included extra chassis strengthening in vulnerable areas, fitting larger fuel tanks when required, changing gearbox and final drive ratios and altering engine characteristics (ie lower compression ratios for countries with poor fuel quality) but they were all minor changes.

220SE was a natural for long distance rallying due largely to its strength and supple long travel suspension. (Image from: Mercedes-Benz Classic)

The fabulous 'Finny'
In August 1959, Mercedes Benz launched its new W111 220 'fintail' passenger car range in Europe, featuring three heavily revised six cylinder models to replace the much loved 1950s 'Ponton' sedan range.

Although the W111's 2.2 litre OHC inline six cylinder engines with their aluminium heads were basically carried over from the previous Ponton sedans, upgrades to the valve train, camshaft profiles and inlet manifolds boosted power.

This left the 'top shelf' 220SE with all the makings of a great endurance rally car, equipped with Bosch manifold fuel injection and outstanding engine efficiency that produced around 130 bhp.

It was also blessed with an excellent four-speed manual transmission and a superb column-shift mechanism that had one of the finest shifting actions you could wish for.

Chassis design was another Fintail strong point for rallying, with long travel twin-wishbone coil-sprung front suspension and recirculating ball steering configured for a fine blend of precise driver control with enduring comfort.

The supple, long travel rear suspension was an improvement on the earlier Ponton swing-axle design. The pivoting axle tubes were linked together by a large 'compensating' coil spring mounted east-west beneath the rigidly-mounted diff housing, which ensured even distribution of loads between the two axles.

The ride quality and ruggedness of this rear-end design was outstanding and ideal for the long distance, safari-type rallies of the era.

In August 1961, the 2.2 litre 220 range was joined by a more powerful fuel injected 3.0 litre model called logically the 300SE (W112).

Although similar in appearance to the 220SE, the 300SE Fintail featured some wonderful new developments including a light aluminium cylinder block, power steering, dual circuit four-wheel disc brakes and for the first time full chassis airbag suspension.

Although launched with four-wheel drum brakes in 1959, all 220 Finny models featured a new dual-circuit safety brake system. In 1962 the 220S and 220SE models were upgraded with front disc brakes, adding to the armoury of the competition cars.

Works 220SE in action during the 1962 Gran Premio Argentina road rally. (Image from: Mercedes-Benz Classic)

The Rennflosse domination
With homologation of the new 220SE Fintail approved for the 1960 European Rally Championship, the works team added another top driver - a female this time - in the form of blonde-haired Swede Ewy Rosqvist von Korff.

It wasn't long before the works 220SE Fintail sedans and their talented unisex driver squad were being referred to as the 'Rennflosse' - a variant of the German word for 'tailfin' or in this case 'racing wings'.

From 1960 to 1963, the 220SE Finny put a stamp on the European and international rally scene with an almost arrogant mastery of the many daunting challenges that were placed before it.

Schock and Moll triggered the Rennflosse's trophy haul with the first of three European Rally Championships between 1960 and 1962, which included the first win by a German team in the famous Monte Carlo Rally when the mighty Mercs finished 1-2-3.

Ewy Rosqvist also proved her talents by winning consecutive women's European Rally Championship titles in '61 and '62.

The Rennflosse also scored four successive victories in the brutally tough Acropolis Rally, plus the gruelling 4,600 km Gran Premio Argentina road rally, Rally Poland, Liege-Sofia-Liege Rally, Algiers-Lagos-Algiers Rally in Africa, plus numerous other major international rally victories.

Once again, it had been a most convincing display of Mercedes Benz engineering and organisational firepower which reminded many of the marque's 'Silver Arrow' grand prix glory days.

During this remarkable period, the Rennflosse also spread its wings to encompass circuit racing again, but only with production sedans.

In 1964, Mercedes Benz chased the newly created European Touring Car Championship (ETCC) with its W112 300SE Fintails. In the first half of the season Bohringer scored three outright wins and five class victories, but couldn't maintain his winning momentum as new road rockets like Ford's Lotus Cortina and the new BMW 1800Ti started to outclass the larger and heavier 300SE.

Even so, another 300SE driven by Belgians Robert Crevits and Taf Gosselin claimed a magnificent outright victory for the Rennflosse in the prestigious 1964 Spa 24 Hour race.

By this stage the motor sport press was in overdrive, speculating that the three-pointed star's rallying and sedan racing programs were actually laying the groundwork for a long-awaited return to the top level of circuit racing competition - Formula One.

However, this was clearly not the direction the board of Daimler-Benz was headed in 1964. Having emphatically succeeded in what it set out to do in rallying over eight seasons, the firm moved quickly to hose down any more speculation about its future by winding back the Rennflosse's activities and disbanding the team at the end of the year.

The 'Racing Wings' may have gone, but the legacy of what the mighty 220SE and 300SE Fintails achieved in competition will never be forgotten.

Jane/Firth 220SE on its way to a great victory in the 1961 Armstrong 500. (Image from: autopics.com.au)

1961 Armstrong 500 winner: Bob Jane/Harry Firth Mercedes Benz 220SE
Given Philip Island's pot-holed and notoriously brittle track surface in the 1960s and '70s, the 220SE's natural attributes as a rally car would have made it the ideal choice for this famous Australian endurance racing event.

Legend has it that when the track was being built in 1956, the narrow wooden bridge that linked the picturesque Victorian island to the mainland at San Remo couldn't handle the weight of the heavy machinery required to lay the smooth and hard-wearing 'hot mix' bitumen ideal for racing circuits.

So a cold bitumen mix was used instead, with its major shortcoming being that if subjected to a lot of heavy traffic it tended to crack up and fall apart. Which is exactly what it did during the three Armstrong 500s held at Philip Island from 1960-62, which prompted a move to the race's spiritual home at Mount Panorama, Bathurst in 1963.

Bob Jane's decision to run a 220SE Finny in the 500 mile (800 km) event in 1961 would no doubt have been influenced by the runaway performance of a similar car in the inaugural 1960 Armstrong 500, driven by Tasmanian hot-shoes Gavin and John Youl.

Their family's 220SE was by far the fastest thing on the track in 1960, quickly building a two-lap lead in its class (and unofficial outright lead) before the track started to break up. Sadly the crumbling surface punctured one of its tyres at high speed and the 220SE speared off the circuit and rolled out of the race after 66 laps.

Jane lost two laps replacing a punctured tyre - but he and Firth staged a remarkable fight-back. (Image from: autopics.com.au)

For the 1961 Armstrong 500, the number of competing classes based an engine capacity had been reduced from five to four, comprising up to 1000cc, 1001-1600cc, 1601-2600cc and over 2601cc.

And there was no official outright winner in those days. It was only about class wins, with the chequered flag waved when the first car to complete 500 miles (800 kms) crossed the finish line. And no single driver could drive more than 300 miles (480 kms) of that distance, in a gruelling contest that typically ran for eight hours or more.

Bob Jane's Autoland car dealership, which for many years included a Mercedes Benz franchise, entered one 220SE for Bob Jane and Harry Firth in Class B and another for the returning John Youl and new co-driver Lyn Archer. However, only the Jane/Firth car would start the race (the second entry was a late withdrawal) and was clearly the Class B favourite.

Given the 220SE's successes in European rallying at the time with minimal modifications, the rugged German sedan was ideally suited to the Armstrong 500's emphasis on showroom standard vehicles.

Any competing car had to be manufactured or assembled in Australia and a minimum of 100 had to have been sold and registered for road use to be eligible.

All cars also had to complete the first 100 miles (160 kms) of the race without stopping for fuel, oil or a driver change. And if any mechanical trouble occurred during that time, the driver had to get out and fix it himself without any assistance from his pit crew.

It was hot and windy on Sunday November 19, 1961 when the meagre 26-car field departed the grid in four class groupings separated by 10 second intervals.

Firth and Jane enjoy the spoils after their win in the '61 Armstrong 500. (Image from: autopics.com.au)

The battle for the over 2601cc Class A honours (and unofficial outright honours) was expected to be fought out by the hot V8 Studebaker Larks driven by David McKay/Brian Foley and Fred Sutherland/Bill Graetz and the Vauxhall Velox of reigning champions Frank Coad and John Roxburgh.

True to form, the Class A hot-shots thundered into the distance as early Class B leader Jane pitted with a flat tyre on his 220SE after only two laps. Under the rules, he had to get out and change it himself which took more than five agonising minutes to complete and put him two laps behind the leading Studebaker Larks and Vauxhall.

However, during the next eight hours or so, Jane and Firth fought their way back into contention with a masterful display of driving that balanced high speeds with mechanical sympathy to preserve the car and its vulnerable tyres on such a treacherous track surface.

This tactic, combined with the fast and efficient pit stops that Firth teams would become renowned for at Bathurst in the years to come, resulted in the Mercedes pair not only gaining a stranglehold on Class B but also overhauling the Class A Larks and Vauxhall to be declared the unofficial outright winners, too!

It was a most impressive well-judged victory for Jane and Firth and another testament to the fine handling and durability of the 220SE Finny, which the Mercedes Benz works rally team was readily exploiting on the other side of world at the same time.

However, a year is an eternity in motor racing and things changed dramatically between the 1961 and 1962 Armstrong 500s. With Firth and Jane strengthening their ties with Ford Australia, the pair defended their '61 victory with a Falcon in 1962.

And with the race rules changing from classes based on engine capacity to retail price, there was not one Mercedes Benz entered for that last 500-mile race on the Island. But the famous marque's 1961 Armstrong 500 win will, like the Rennflosse, be an enduring legacy.

- Images from Autopics and Mercedes-Benz Classic