Stuttgart, Germany, Mar 08, 2010

Tradition: Cabriolets from Mercedes- Benz: Cavorting and cutting a caper

- Etymology: the French origins of the word 'cabriolet'
- Chronology: the Mercedes cabriolet alphabet in the pre-war years
- Genealogy: W111/112 and A 124 as direct ancestors of the E-Class

Like many other body forms, the cabriolet concept is derived from the age of the horse-drawn carriage: 'cabriolet' was the word used to describe a lightweight, open carriage pulled by two horses. This 2-hp vehicle was reserved primarily for pleasure rides in good weather. This is also where the name comes from: in French, the verb 'cabrioler' means 'to cavort' or 'to cut a caper'. However, in the early years of the automobile, a special body form was not needed in order to enjoy open-top driving, since practically all cars built in the period from 1886 to 1920 were open-top models.

The onset of the closed body form in the first third of the 20th century lead to the development of the landaulet (in which only the driver sits under the roof) alongside the saloon and coupé – and the cabriolet with a soft top that could be opened in its entirety. Even back in the 1920s, this type of car boasted a sporty and elegant silhouette. And it could be opened fully above the upper edges of the doors.

From A to F: the cabriolet alphabet

It wasn't long before numerous different types of cabriolet model were developed. To make the range of options easier to understand, Daimler-Benz introduced a classification system for six common cabriolet types using the letters A to F:

- Cabriolet A is a two-door car, generally with two seats. Its soft top actually touches the doors.
- Cabriolet B also has two doors; however, it has four seats and side windows for the rear passengers.
- Cabriolet C has the same number of doors and seats as Cabriolet B, the only difference being the absence of the rear side windows.
- Cabriolet D is a four-door car with four or five seats and a heavier soft top.
- The rare Cabriolet E has six seats and the heavier soft top.
- Cabriolet F is similar to Cabriolet E; however it has additional side windows behind the rear doors. Both these types have four doors.

Open-top models at the time of the merger

Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft had already introduced the 15/70/100 hp and 24/100/140 hp Mercedes models from 1924 as four-seater cabriolets and open-top touring cars. These models continued to be offered as Mercedes-Benz models following the merger with Benz & Cie. – leading to the formation of Daimler-Benz AG – in 1926. With their steep windscreens, they did not yet exude the charm of elegant sportiness. In fact, the only differences between them and the pure touring-car versions were the voluminous folds of the soft top at the rear.

However, the cabriolet versions of the 8/38 hp (W 02) model had already started to develop their own design idiom – above all the two-seater Cabriolet A, which combined stylish sportiness with practicality, the latter thanks to its good weather protection. Whereas this model was also available as a two-door cabriolet with four seats, Mercedes-Benz offered the 12/55 hp (W 03) model and its direct successors with a choice of three different cabriolet body shapes straight from the factory.

The legendary S, SS and SSK models were touring sports cars. Mercedes-Benz
itself offered the S and SS models as two-door, four-seater sports cabriolets between 1926 and 1934. Were it not for the breathtakingly long bonnet that distinguished this car from its contemporaries, it would have been easy to talk about a Cabriolet C version of this model series, which was custom-designed for motorsport and sporty refinement. The open-top-touring-car segment was covered by the 15/70/100, 24/100/140 and K models.

Cabriolets in all dimensions

In the years leading up to World War II, Mercedes-Benz offered a cabriolet variant for practically all of its model series. The Stuttgart 200 model was available in A, B or C format, while the Stuttgart 260 model was additionally available in Cabriolet D guise. The Mannheim model could be purchased as a Cabriolet C or D variant, while the extremely sporty two-seater Cabriolet A was offered as a 'sports cabriolet'.

Mercedes-Benz chronicler Werner Oswald highlights the aesthetics in his history of the brand: "These cars were in no way particularly fast or powerful, and getting into them when the roof was closed required acrobatic dexterity, But the lines were so captivatingly beautiful that a great many people were happily prepared to forego this and many other comforts."

Even the "large Mercedes" 770 (W 07) models were available in Cabriolet B, C, D or F guise. Then there were special versions such as the two-seater cabriolet by Auer. In the case of the 150 model series, the second version of the 770 model, Mercedes-Benz then restricted itself to the purely prestigious variants in the shape of Cabriolets D and F in the years from 1938 onwards. The latter was the most expensive version of the W 150 – with a price tag of 47,500 reichsmarks.

The cabriolet enters the era of the economic miracle

From 1936 onwards, the Stuttgart manufacturer also offered the 170 V (W 136) model as a Cabriolet A or B version, as well as a cabriolet-saloon and a roadster. No further 170 V cabriolets were produced in Sindelfingen, however, when production of this largely unchanged model recommenced after the end of World War II. This body shape had ultimately become the special version, while the saloon became the standard version.

From 1949 onwards, only the 170 S (W 136 IV) model was available in Cabriolet A or B guise. These open-top cars with a new body were the epitome of sporty, luxurious driving in the fledgling FRG. Looking back today, their elegant lines were like a sneak preview of the economic miracle of the 1950s. After just two years, however, the 170 S was superseded by the cabriolet versions of the 220 (W 187) model. Even at this time, the prestige associated with these exceptional, luxurious cars was clearly reflected in the pricing: Mercedes-‑Benz offered the saloon for 11,935 marks, while the Cabriolet B cost 15,150 marks and the fine two-seater model (Cabriolet A) was available for 18,850 marks. The classic cabriolet culture of the pre-war years returned once again when Mercedes-‑Benz introduced its new prestigious saloon – the 300 model – in 1951. This model was also available with a soft top, namely as a Cabriolet D, and it was an extremely imposing vehicle. The 300 S (W 188) model, meanwhile, was available in Coupé, Cabriolet A or Roadster format.

The cabriolet concept in the 20th century

The W 180 model series saw the Mercedes-Benz cabriolets enter a new era from 1954 onwards: the self-supporting body signalled the end of the need to offer numerous different cabriolet versions. Instead, the designers aimed to create an open-top touring car with an elegant design, able to compete with its saloon counterparts in this model series in terms of both comfort and vehicle safety.

Above all, this shift in emphasis required design measures in order to improve the stiffness of the 220 S (W 180) and 220 SE (W 128) cabriolet bodies, whose floor assembly was 120 millimetres shorter than that of their saloon counterparts. The design of the folding soft top was also new: whereas the first post-war cabriolet versions of the 170 S, 220, 300 and 300 S models still had the typical, exterior landau bars, the Cabriolet A/C unveiled at the 1955 International Motor Show (IAA) in Frankfurt am Main featured a soft top with a smooth exterior; it was designed to cover two body variants, hence the designation A/C. On the outside, the cabriolet roof therefore looked similar to the roadster roof. The once so clear distinction between the two body types still existed to an extent, but the two variants were growing closer together.

Luxury cabriolets

The cabriolet's position as an exclusive body form was further underlined when Mercedes-‑Benz introduced the 111 and 112 model series between 1961 and 1971: the 220 SEb and 300 SE models were based on the coupé body and generated huge excitement with their interpretation of a luxury cabriolet. The lines of this open-top model, a precursor to the S-‑Class, were such a success that the cabriolets continued to be built on the basis of the W 111 and W 112, even after the launch of the W 108 model series.

In this ten-year production period, Mercedes-Benz offered five different cabriolet models in these model series – 220 SEb, 250 SE, 300 SE, 280 SE and 280 SE 3.5 – with a total of 7013 of these five cabriolet models being built in Sindelfingen during this time. Initially, there was no luxury open-top model to follow this generation in the Mercedes-Benz line-up. Rather, it was the new SL – the 107 model series – which came to represent the culture of open-top driving for the Stuttgart manufacturer from 1971 onwards.

The classic fabric soft top lives on

The next classic cabriolet did not appear until September 1991 – after an intermission of some 20 years – when an open-top four-seater based on the coupé from the 124 model series was launched. As well as having to be reinforced for the open-top version, the original coupé body also featured a complex series of design measures to enhance protection against vibrations.

The result was a classic cabriolet in the best sense of the word, which succeeded in appealing to a new audience outside of the target group for the open-top SL‑sports car. The A 124 model series has long been in demand among enthusiasts of more recent classic cars. The tradition of this E-Class‑Cabriolet continued after production of the 124 model series ceased, in the shape of the open-top versions of the CLK-Class – the A 208 (1998 to 2003) and the A 209 (2003 to 2009).

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