Many fans of vintage German cars will be aware of the success of the 300SLR in the immediate postwar era. They will probably also be aware of the terrible crash at Le Mans in 1955. The 300SLR driven by Pierre Levegh lost control, left the course, plowed into the stands, and ignited, killing 83 spectators and Levegh himself. It remains the most devastating accident in motorsports history. Hours later, Mercedes withdrew its remaining cars which were running 1st and 2nd at the time, and the factory withdrew from racing. The hiatus lasted 5 years.
In 1960, the Mercedes factory returned to racing with an unlikely candidate, the W111 platform. It was an interesting choice because the new 220SE was a four-door sedan. Even more than that, it was one of the “Heckflosse” cars, or Fintails as they became known in English. Not only was this a relatively large sedan, but the cars were intended to serve an upscale luxury market, and to appeal to late 1950s American buyers in particular with the fins. The car was neither light weight, nor particularly fast. That hardly sounds like a recipe for a successful race car, but the whole idea was to show that a production car was tough enough to compete. Accordingly, in 1960, the factory decided to use this as their entry into the European Rally Championship.
The car was equipped with a 2.2 L six-cylinder engine which was fuel injected. The fuel injection was via a Bosch 2 plunger mechanical pump. The engine also featured a single overhead cam driven by a dual roller chain. This produced 120 HP at 4800 RPM. Walter Schock and Rolf Moll drove the car to overall victory in the famous Monte Carlo Rally. This was part of an incredible 1-2-3 finish for Mercedes. It excelled in the longer races, and Schock and Moll went on to win the Acropolis Rally and the Polish Rally. They complimented that with 3rd in the Tulip Rally and 4th in the German Rally. This allowed them to win the championship. A remarkable first year!
In 1961, Mercedes Motorsport director Karl Kling drove a 220SE to victory in the brutal Algiers-Lagos-Algiers Rally. Schock and Moll triumphed in the grueling 4600 KM (2860 miles) Grand Premio Argentina. Hans Hermann and Rainer Gunzler finished 2nd in another 220SE. In 1962, Eugen Bohringer piloted another 220SE to victory in the European Rally Championship, again winning the Acropolis Rally, the Polish Rally, and Liege-Sofia-Liege. They also repeated victory in the Argentine race. This three year run cemented the place of the 220SE in Mercedes Benz motorsports history.
It turns out that the secret weapon of the 220SE was reliability. What it lacked in speed and handling, the car made up for in stability and endurance. It finished races, and was usually in the top five. When the race was long or hard, it ended up on the top step of the podium, or close to it. In 1963, the new 230SL came along which was a lighter car on the same platform. The 220SE retired, but in 2011, the factory built a replica of the 220SE Rally car which competed in a vintage event at the Nurburgring.