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Feature: Testing the Waters

Gregory Anderson

The sun is shining, a breeze is blowing, and the top is down as I navigate a dark blue 1960 Mercedes-Benz 300D onto a scenic road overlooking Newport Beach in Southern California. "In postwar Germany, things were not so great," says my passenger, Mike Kunz, who manages the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in the nearby city of Irvine. His voice barely exceeds normal decibel levels, yet it is perfectly audible over the wind. "After the war, the factories were flattened to the ground—there was nothing left—so to regain the brand significance, [Mercedes-Benz] chose to build an over-the-top car like this."

 

That car was commonly referred to as the Adenauer, after Konrad Adenauer, the first postwar chancellor of West Germany, who used a 300-series auto as his official government vehicle. In its final year of production, in 1962, the four-door Mercedes-Benz 300D cabriolet retailed for nearly eight times the price of the average German car. "To build such an opulent car was symbolic of the country’s rebirth," says Kunz.

As far as Germany has come since the end of World War II, it still cannot compete with Orange County as a setting for a ride in a drop-top, whether the car is a classic or a new prototype. The region’s warm weather and coastal views partly explain why Mercedes-Benz chose it as the site for the development of the Ocean Drive concept car, a project that may result in the company’s first four-door convertible since the 300D.

 

As we crest a hill and roll toward a stop sign, the 1960 300D’s chassis seems to float. "Remember to slow down early," advises Kunz while I apply the spongy left pedal and bring the behemoth to a halt. "The brakes on these old cars are not so great."

Production of the 300D, as well as other four-door luxury convertibles, came to a halt because of a lack of demand. In America, five years after Mercedes stopped building the Adenauer, Ford ceased production of the Lincoln Continental convertible, the last of which rolled off the assembly line when Lyndon Johnson occupied the White House. (Ford sold only about 3,600 of the convertibles annually during a seven-year production run from 1961 through 1967.) The Continental continued as a hardtop sedan, but not since Lincoln dropped its topless sibling from the model line has a four-door convertible graced a luxury car showroom.

The advent of the Mercedes-Benz Ocean Drive, a design concept based on the S600 platform, is a strong indication that a new drop-top sedan might once again navigate boardwalk boulevards and avenues in flashy resort towns like Atlantic City, Myrtle Beach, and Miami Beach—each with its own Ocean Drive—where scenic views are an inherent part of the motoring experience. Mercedes invited us to test the Ocean Drive concept car just a few miles down the Pacific Coast Highway from the company’s design center in Irvine. "Los Angeles is a very car-centric society—you can’t get anywhere without your car—and people here love their cars," says Gorden Wagener, president of Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design of North America.

Southern Californians’ infatuation with their vehicles may be one reason so many manufacturers base their design facilities here, but Wagener offers a practical explanation as well: "Away from the headquarters you don’t have the phone ringing all day long, so you have a bit more time to concentrate." Lately, the designer has been focusing his efforts on the concept car, which is rooted in Mercedes-Benz heritage. "We were one of the few companies in the world to build these ultraluxury four-door convertibles," says Wagener, who also served as lead exterior designer for Mercedes’ SLR supercar. For the Ocean Drive project, Wagener’s design directive from Germany was remarkably simple: Revitalize this Mercedes-Benz tradition. Accordingly, he took a less-is-more approach. "These days you see a lot of over-styled cars," he says, "which to me convey cheapness, because valuable things are clean. This is our philosophy as well: We create high-class luxury products, and we want to convey the same cleanness and timelessness as a Chanel handbag."

The Ocean Drive’s timeless presence begins with its face. The V-shaped grille is 30 percent larger than that on the current S-Class, standing upright à la the Rolls-Royce Phantom’s. Double C–shaped headlights not only echo Chanel’s streamlined aesthetic, they nearly replicate the French couturier’s logo. LED technology, also used in the taillights, makes this design possible and consumes less energy than other lighting alternatives. Even the door handles are unobtrusively flush with the body; they pop out electronically, activated by the touch of a finger.

In profile, the Ocean Drive’s strong character lines—long at the front, short at the rear—reference the sweeping fenders of 1930s-era Mercedes limousines without being cartoonish. "We took this element from the past and treated it in a modern way," Wagener says. A full-length chrome strip delineates the bronze and gold in the two-tone paint scheme that is another nod to Mercedes-Benz history. "It’s a very subtle contrast," he says, noting that nuanced variation in color continues into the cabin with the muted hue of the bird’s-eye maple wood. "We also combined the leather with fabric—something our designers picked up in Milano. You see it in the latest handbags, which we transferred into car design."

With a 128-inch wheelbase—20 inches longer than the Bentley Continental GTC’s and about 5 inches longer than the Bentley Arnage’s—the Ocean Drive provides ample legroom for four adult passengers. From within, the vehicle appears to be as wide as it is long, and, like the old 300 cabriolets, it does not lend itself to slalom driving. The front and rear corners drop away from the driver’s perspective, making wide berths a necessity.

While comparisons between the Ocean Drive and the Bentley Continental GTC are inevitable, Wagener claims such assessments are misguided. "The sedan is a totally different pair of shoes," he says. Indeed, the Continental GTC is the approximate size of the Mercedes-Benz CL-Class, so an open two-door CL would be more of a direct competitor to the Bentley than the four-door Ocean Drive might be. Still, the cars’ similarities—from their broad proportions to subtle details such as the wood trim that surrounds the hard tonneau cover of the Ocean Drive’s canvas roof—are apparent. Like the GTC, the Ocean Drive is endowed with a 12-cylinder engine and copious torque.

The Ocean Drive also exhibits Mercedes’ state-of-the-art electronics. Most of the vehicle’s functional systems—including the Comand screen with GPS navigation, and the digital audio controls—derive from the S-Class sedan. The car’s rear seats may be the best in the house, with abundant legroom and access to a DVD entertainment system. To ensure that cold air does not bother passengers or driver when the top is down, the Ocean Drive is equipped with the Airscarf system from the SLK roadster, which circulates warm air throughout the cabin.

For Wagener, borrowing the S-Class chassis and electronic systems was the easy part. The challenge was making a long, open car with no B-pillar structurally sound and aesthetically pleasing. "It’s a long roof, but you still have to make it look good," he says.

Wagener determined that the car would look better as a soft top. "[With a hardtop], the trunk would have been edgier and blockier, and we didn’t want that," he explains. "We wanted this elegant drop in the rear that gives it a nice silhouette, and the soft top allowed us to do that. We also chose the soft top because it’s more luxurious." Hardtops cover many smaller, cheaper modern cars—from Chrysler Sebrings to Volkswagen Eoses—and, as Wagener says, "They never give a nice line to the roof."

A metallic thread in the soft top’s fabric adds a shimmer when the sunlight hits it, although one presumes most drivers would retract the roof at the first sight of sun. The fabric is made primarily of cotton and linen, as is that of the car’s interior, which was conceived and constructed at Mercedes-Benz’s studio in Como, Italy, a half hour’s drive from Milan.

The Ocean Drive concept car could evolve into the first Mercedes four-door convertible since the 300D cabriolet (1960 model shown).

A few minutes’ drive from Mercedes’ Irvine design center, I test the concept car on smoothly paved residential roads. Despite a 5.5-liter twin-turbo V-12 engine that produces 510 hp and 612 ft lbs of torque through a 7-speed automatic transmission, the Ocean Drive—as is often the case with concept cars—is far from production-smooth.

 

Somewhere in transit between the vehicle’s debut at the Detroit auto show and the test-drive in Southern California, the Ocean Drive’s air suspension was damaged. At a maximum speed of 20 mph, the car lives up to its name—it feels as though you are navigating the seas. Cigarette boats are more forgiving and offer better shock absorption. But even as it hobbles and bobbles over the pavement, the Ocean Drive recalls an illustrious era in Mercedes’ history.

If Mercedes-Benz decides to produce a model based on the Ocean Drive concept, would-be drivers will have to have patience. The earliest that an Ocean Drive model would appear would be for model year 2010, but the fact that Mercedes has invested $10 million in a running prototype means that the company is giving serious consideration to putting the car—or something very similar to it—into production. "The response has been great," Wagener says of the public’s reaction at auto shows, "but at the end of the day it’s a business decision."

Wagener would like to see the Ocean Drive become the flagship of the Mercedes portfolio. "We need cars like this to display our brand values," he says. "The production CLS is a designer’s car; it helps us make a statement with design, and the Ocean Drive would do a lot for this direction."

Mercedes-Benz, www.mbusa.com

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