Don Garlits, the legendary "King of the Dragsters," meets the Mercedes-Benz 300 SEL 6.3 -- a car that is establishing its own legend as "King of the Road"

by Brock Yates


It is sitting beside a lake and the hood is up. A wiry man with dark, probing eyes and enormous hands is rummaging through the labyrinth of aluminum castings, wires, hydraulic hoses, switches, pulleys and pumps. His fingers, moving with a surgeon's deftness, remove the cap of the brake fluid reservoir, revealing a complex of exquisitely machined pieces while he says, "I love to take things apart." He extracts a tiny switch assembly used to activate a warning light on the instrument panel should the brake fluid get too low, and holds it up to the sunlight. It is ingenious, functional, flawless, and he says quietly, "Can you imagine telling those guys in Detroit to make that?"

Don Garlits, alias "Big Daddy," alias "Swamp Rat," alias "Tampa Don," the legendary superman of drag racing, is forming an acquaintance with the Mercedes-Benz 300 SEL 6.3 - a legendary supermachine. He has driven the car several hundreds of miles over winding, back country roads at effortless speeds up to 120 miles per hour, and has discussed his initial impressions of it over a lunch where his conversation ranged from geology to archaeology to extra-terrestrial life to the international monetary system. But now his insatiable curiosity for machines has overcome him and he is exploring the Mercedes with his mind crackling away like a digital computer. A set of exploded drawings in hand, he traces the intricate plumbing of the Bosch fuel injection, mentally unbolts the gigantic single-overhead cam V-8 engine and analyzes the workings of the 4-speed automatic transmission.

Then he stumbles on a switch. It sits innocently on the edge of the inner fender panel, obviously designed to activate when the hood opens, like the light switch on a refrigerator door. Garlits is troubled. The switch makes no sense to him and he plunges into the engine compartment to trace the source of its wiring. At first his search reveals nothing more than a metric feeler gauge, left on board by a mechanic named "Thiel" who has etched his name on its case. Minutes pass in silence and then he rises up, a satisfied smile crossing his tanned, raw-boned face. "Of course! I've got it! It's beautiful. They've thought of everything." He has determined that the switch is designed to turn off the thermostatic cooling fan that is mounted in front of the radiator, lest an unwitting mechanic injure himself in the blades while working under the hood with the engine running. But Garlits' pragmatic mind demands proof. The fan does not work all the time - only when rising engine temperatures demand it - and he must see his theory proven. The great engine is turned on and thumps away at idle, the curious, constricted resonance of its exhaust echoing across the hazy waters of Lake Seneca.

It is a stifling mid-summer day at Watkins Glen, New York and little time passes before the water temperature gauge rises to 190F. The fan begins to whir. Garlits leaps for the hood latch and lifts the vast expanse of silver-painted metal. The fan stops. He slams the hood shut. The fan starts again. Garlits is satisfied. He is beginning to understand the Mercedes and it pleases him greatly.

There are two Don Garlits. One, the best known, wears a tee-shirt and travels with an outlandish vehicle that produces 1500 horsepower and carries him up to 240 mph in short bursts. With it he has set himself apart in his chosen sport of drag racing -- a total champion, unchallenged for more than fleeting moments. The other Don Garlits, the private, off-track version, is a human being of depth and dimension. It is the opinion of many who have had the pleasure of witnessing his inquisitive, far-ranging mind at work that he is one of the most intelligent men ever to drive a racing car -- of any kind. An activist in life away from racing, he is capable of discoursing on a hundred subjects without once mentioning cars. And now that he has established genuine wealth from years of competition, night after night, at a thousand tank-town drag strips, his schedule is easing enough to expand his automotive horizons.

He had first seen the machine in an airport parking lot, where it was sitting in obscurity among a row of tired, sooty, workaday sedans. To the untrained eye it was just another Mercedes-Benz 4-door - an uncompromisingly functional box, painted silver. Only three visual elements set it off from any one of thousands of M-B foot soldiers: the substantial chrome numerals proclaiming "6.3" on the rear trunk lid, plus the wheels and tires. Presuming that we were planning to test the car under race track conditions, the people from Mercedes-Benz of North America had installed Dunlop 4.75/10.00 x 15 racing tires mounted on a set of their own rarely-seen high performance wheels. Fitted with turbine-like cooling fins and painted flat black, the wheels were designed for racing applications of the 6.3 and will appear on the machines Mercedes enters in future touring car events (an activity that should increase in the future). Our test car was also equipped with harder brake pads and heavy duty shocks, although special factory modifications that make the air suspension stone-stiff were omitted in the interest of highway comfort.

Garlits had been unfamiliar with the 6.3 until their encounter in the parking lot. He went immediately to the hood and lifted it. Peering into the glut of polished pipework that covered the engine, he exclaimed, "Oh my God, the poor mechanics!" That was perhaps the last remotely critical remark he had to make about the car. He leaped aboard, fingered the switches and dials which covered the typically Germanic instrument panel, and mumbled his surprise about why a fuel-injected, overhead camshaft engine like the 6.3's should be red-lined at 5500 rpm (a question, incidentally, that factory reps have some trouble answering, claiming the engine will rev considerably higher and attributing the low limit to be optimum in terms of torque and power curves and the factory's desire to prevent customers from breaking things).

He drove through the night for a while, the big tires whining along the pavement and the engine whirring with little sonic evidence that it was anything more than a standard Mercedes 6-cylinder. Heading south into the Finger Lakes country of upstate New York and toward a weekend of watching Can-Am and endurance racing at Watkins Glen, Garlits began to get the first inklings of the car's potential. The road was composed of long, sweeping curves and deserted. The machine was loafing, giving no evidence of effort. The radio was playing softly, the instrument lights glowing faintly. Otherwise it was dark and silent. Garlits said, "There are not many automobiles like this; the faster you go, the faster you want to go." At that point the car was easing through a long bend at 100 mph. To those in the car, it felt like no more than 60.


"I own cars that can cruise at 100mph,
but myself and my passengers don't feel at ease ...
with the Mercedes it's virtually effortless."

During the planning stages of the test, some had thought that Garlits and the 6.3 should meet at a drag strip, where "Big Daddy" could smoke the monster through a series of quarter-mile runs. But somehow this seemed inappropriate. Both man and car have too much dimension to limit them to that single venue. Despite his occupation, Garlits' appreciation of machinery prompts him to evaluate road automobiles on a broader basis than their simple ability to accelerate, and the Mercedes' broad capabilities are severely muted on a drag strip. That is not to say the car is inadequate in acceleration, but any near-4000-pound car using a 2.85-to-one final drive ratio is simply not in proper trim for drag racing. Despite this, the 6.3 is capable of turning quarter miles in the 14.2 to 14.6 second range, with speeds from 94 to 99 mph (depending on tires and track conditions). This compares favorably with most hot American super cars of the dim-bulb street racer variety, excepting such exotica as Street Hemis, 427 Corvettes and Boss 429 Mustangs, most of which have bigger engines, tighter gears and lighter bodies. Contrary to some euphoric reports from Europe, the 6.3 is hardly unbeatable in the United States stoplight G.P., but it is so strong and so stable in the upper speed ranges (80-mph and up) that comparison with all American hot stuff becomes a genuine travesty. The stability of the 6.3 at 130 mph is beyond the realm of comprehension for most drivers who have spent their time behind the wheels of domestic sedans. Even in the non pareil of American sports machinery, the Corvette, a ride in excess of 100 mph is a thrill -- knuckles whiten, eyeballs vibrate, mouths become parched -- but at similar velocities the 6.3 is merely cantering far below its limits.

In the sense that it can transport four people in speed, comfort and safety under all driving conditions, the 300 SEL 6.3 represents the absolute high water mark in automotive design. Garlits put it this way: "I own several cars that are capable of cruising at 100 mph, but myself and my passengers don't feel at ease in them at that speed. But with the Mercedes, 100 mph is virtually effortless. The car is just plain fast!."

It is impossible to describe this kind of performance to the uninitiated. Telling a traffic officer or a safety crusader like Ralph Nader that 100 mph can be safe is like reading the Constitution to a Maoist; it is a strange and hostile concept. Only after one has experienced the steadiness of the suspension, the precision of the incomparable Mercedes-Benz power steering and the massive deceleration of the 4-wheel disc brakes (.85 to .92g, depending on tires, drivers, brake balance and testing conditions), does such a level of vehicular excellence come into focus.

Is the Mercedes-Benz 300 SEL 6.3 perfect? No, it is not perfect, but it may approach perfection -- or more correctly, set higher standards -- over a broader area of measurements than any other 4-passenger car. As a compromise between comfort, handling, performance, braking, steering and space utilization, it is the present epitome. However, it does have drawbacks. Its air conditioning is noisy and not terribly efficient. After long periods of operation, it perspires around the instrument panel outlets and the blower noise is excessive. As a whole, the unit is considerably below par when compared with the thermostatically-controlled models available on top line American cars. For a car of this cost (approximately $14,400 with no available options except an adjustable steering wheel) it seems inexcusable that power front seats are not included. The seats themselves are excellent, and are all 4-way adjustable, but manual operation is improper for a luxury automobile in this lofty price range.

Its 4-speed automatic transmission could be better. Not available with a manual unit, the 6.3, like all Mercedes, is slightly handicapped by its rather slow shifts (although better than other versions we have tested). The complicated device is also inclined to become confused in heavy traffic situations and run itself through a series of up-and-down changes, seeking equilibrium. In all, a workable automatic, but hardly a strong point of the automobile.

Like all Mercedes. the 6.3 seems diabolically complicated. Many critics have accused the rigid Stuttgart firm of over-engineering its automobiles, and this indictment could be leveled against the 6.3. However. this complication seems to be justifiable in the sense that the factory engineering department may unconsciously view simplicity as compromise -- that somehow they are shirking their duties unless each minuscule piece bears testimony to their search for perfection. It is difficult to demean such motives, although they ultimately boost costs for the Mercedes customer. All Mercedes-Benz are expensive to maintain, although they are generally so well fabricated and assembled that reliability levels are high. When reflecting on the hefty price of the 6.3, Garlits said, "Sure, it costs a lot of money, but don't forget, a man is buying himself pleasure and luxury for maybe 100,000 miles, not just the first 6000. What's more, it would be impossible to assemble a car like this with an air wrench (the basic tool used on assembly lines.)"

So perfection, Mercedes fashion, is expensive. But when one seriously examines the car, finding details like double-insulated doors, a Teflon lining on the gear lever gate for smoothness, a knock-off rear view mirror for safety, towing loops on the body, fore and aft, and on and on, ad infinitum, $14,400 comes into clearer perspective. Add to this the facts that Mercedes-Benz produces the car in very limited quantities and that 9% of its work force -- one man in eleven -- is an inspector, and the seemingly outrageous price becomes almost justifiable.

Almost. There is little question that Mercedes-Benz could produce the 6.3 for less money. However, the car is being marketed largely as a corporate image builder, with no intent to flood the world with super sedans. In the past several years, the traditional Mercedes-Benz high-speed domination of the autobahnen has suffered badly. The average Mercedes owner can count on being blown off by a number of cars these days, including some Opels and most BMWs, and the company's reputation for building the fastest road cars in the home market has sagged seriously. To bolster its performance image, Mercedes built the 6.3s and tacked on a huge price, figuring they wouldn't sell many even if they could produce them (as Europe's largest truck manufacturer and the biggest maker of high-priced cars, production facilities are strapped, and product demand far exceeds the supply). There is evidence that the factory was stunned at the demand for 6.3s (dozens are on order in the United States alone) and of course would be insane to drop the price in the face of such a thriving market.

The 6.3 should have great effect on the lower echelons of the Mercedes-Benz line-up. The factory has correctly read the response to the 6.3 to indicate a desire for more power in all of its cars, and has reportedly accelerated its program to install smaller 3.5- and 4.5-liter V-8s in the big-selling 250 and 280 series.

If the revolution does come, it is likely that the 300 SEL 6.3 will have helped trigger it, because, in the opinion of all but a few dunderheads who have driven it, the automobile is the most stimulating, desirable 4-door sedan to appear since the Model J Dusenberg. And yet, the car is not all bluster. While capable of going like the hammers of hell, the car is purposeful and utilitarian ("The most functional automobile I've ever driven," says Garlits).

"Big Daddy" is charging north now, heading along the shore of Lake Seneca toward an airplane and another weekend with his insanely powerful dragster -- an exercise in automotive functionalism in its own right. He is reflecting on the diverse philosophies that produce cars in the United States and those that produce cars like Mercedes-Benz. "Detroit spends so much money making annual die changes that it never gets a chance to perfect a given model. It's often change simply for the sake of change, and from a distance it looks like progress. But up close a lot of it's junk. With manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz, though, the models remain stable and some people confuse that for a lack of creativity. But you know what it really means -- it means they guessed right the first time!"

CAR and DRIVER - October 1969


Additional JPEG Photos:
"Big" in the title shot
"Big" under the 6.3's hood
"Big" and Yates with the test car


material supplied by:
Yeager Automotive Inc.