Best known as Germany’s Taxi of choice, the Mercedes /8 has languished under the shadow of more celebrated siblings. Time for a fare hearing.
Prior to 1970, all licenced taxis within the Federal Republic of West Germany were painted black. They also for the most part consisted of the products of Stuttgart-Untertürkheim. During the wirtschaftswunder era, the diesel-powered Mercedes came to embody virtues of solid dependability, frugality and long-life, as endorsed by the huge, largely trouble-free mileages these vehicles amassed in the public hire trade.
When Mercedes-Benz launched what were termed the ‘new generation’ cars in 1968, perhaps unsurprisingly, the values they espoused were of a familiar, conservative nature. Yet in its own way, the /8 (or Strich Acht – a term employed to denote the model year), was itself something of a revolutionary.
Strich Acht, in W114 (six cylinder) and W115 (four cylinder form) would, in conjunction with the larger W108 saloons, spearhead Daimler-Benz’s renewed offering into a fast-approaching 1970s – a decade which would see the revitalised West Germany become an economic power to be reckoned with, not only within the nascent European Economic Community, but upon a Global stage.
Daimler engineers worked incrementally and with great care in those halcyon times, and while the modish 1959 Heckflosse (or Fintail) had become rather dated looking as the ’60s drew to a close, its essential concept remained sound. Headed by Sindelfingen’s legendary experimental chief, Béla Barényi, W114/115 was created by Mercedes engineers as a logical progression of essential Heckflosse themes.
The ‘new generation’ cars would sit upon a wholly new platform with modified wishbone front suspension and an entirely new semi-trailing arm rear suspension design, marking the end of Daimler-Benz’s long-held allegiance to the swing axle. The usual mix of durable in-line fours (petrol and diesel) and sixes coupled to Mercedes’ own manual or automatic transmissions provided motive power.
Styling, which closely reflected that of the proto-S-Class W108, was led by Paul Bracq, under the overall supervision of long-time Mercedes design chief, Friedrich Geiger; Bracq’s team producing a refined distillation of the larger saloon silhouette, which married a strict formality with an almost Calvinist rectitude. Eschewing the Fintail‘s mild flirtation with Americana, the new generation arrived with a resolutely Swabian bearing.
Pared to near-invisibility, the /8’s appeal chiefly lay in its fastidious detailing, supreme build integrity and peerless durability. Safety too – the W114 developing Barényi’s ‘safety cell’ theories further, with designated crumple zones, a collapsible steering column and deformable interior fittings.
While at first glance, Strich Acht appears ruthlessly shorn of its predecessor’s sober frivolities, yet not only is there an essential correctness to the car’s forms, but a richness in the relationships between the volumes, the subtle inflections upon the surfaces, the scribed from solid shutlines and the considered decorative garnishes.
Just as the XJ6 from the same year would become the definitive Jaguar stylistic testament, the new generation in its own way comes almost as close to perfection – there being nothing to add and nothing to take away which would in any measurable way improve upon it. For all its perceived visual blandness, it was, certainly by Mercedes’ standards, a tremendously accomplished piece of work.
The W114’s interior was also a step forward. Closely resembling that of the larger W108 series in conception, it marked a further shift from the Americana of the previous generation cars. A model of clarity, sound ergonomics and soft touch, indestructible plastics, the Strich Acht cabin was a richly austere place to travel.
The following year saw the introduction of a coupé version, powered exclusively by six-cylinder power units and incorporating the pillarless DLO which Daimler-Benz customers had become accustomed. While not entirely Sindelfingen’s finest stylistic hour; its canopy perhaps a little too severe for such an indulgent product, it was nevertheless an elegant shape.
While a number of estate versions of the Heckflosse were built by the factory, no official utility version of /8 was made. However, Daimler-affiliated coachbuilders, Binz, produced a number of estates, as did Crayford in the UK, illustrating to the management in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim that a market for such a vehicle existed – although it would take another generation for this to be made flesh.
In 1973, Strich Acht received its first and only facelift. In time-honoured Mercedes fashion, this would be the most perfunctory of visual massages, with few skin panel alterations taking place. A wider grille, repositioned headlights and the addition of ribbed tail lamp lenses being the most obvious changes, while the front quarter lights were deleted and a modern four spoke steering wheel was fitted.
Three years later, it gave way to its better-remembered, W123 successor, a car which faithfully reflected the /8 theme in modernised form, maintaining the same deeply conservative values in a more refined, even more durable fashion.
But its easy to forget how successful the W114 became at embedding Mercedes’ principles of quality and integrity amongst perhaps the toughest customer base of all. Because while it played the shrinking violet to perfection, this was a quality car in every respect, apart perhaps from rust protection.
And while it has since been comprehensively overshadowed by the later W123, /8 represents arguably, an ever greater achievement. Unlike the W123, which laboured under a slightly baroque aesthetic, the Strich Acht to this day carries with it a sense of modernity, owing one could argue to its more studied restraint.
Indomitable, steadfast, dependable, reassuringly expensive. These adjectives embody generations of mid-sized Mercedes. But with these virtues came also accusations of sterility; of cold competence, of a car to be respected, admired but not really loved. Certainly, history has not accorded W114 the warm embrace its descendants regularly receive, but in 1968’s ‘New Generation, we can see the beginnings of the vertical homogeneity, horizontal affinity principles which would serve Mercedes so well in the decades to follow.
In 1970, the West German Department of Transport ruled that all licenced taxis would henceforth be painted ivory (RAL-105 officially). By then, most of West Germany’s taxi stock consisted of W115 diesels and it is this shade of off-white (or beige) which possibly colours most people’s perception of the car.
Handily dismissed either as a ‘Berlin taxicab’ or the archetypical drearily Teutonic middle-class saloon, the /8 might have not have been exciting, but it was the car that cemented the three pointed star in the firmament as a car to take you to the moon and back again. Nowadays, not every German taxi carries the star of Sindelfingen upon its prow. It’s comparatively easy to understand why.
With grateful thanks to CB.
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