Mercedes C111-I Concept

Rotary notion

Experimental Mercedes C-111 broke all the rules

I’VE been in some unusual cars in my time, among them a Badsey Bullet, an Icona Vulcano Titanium, a Lykon Hypersport, a Prato Orage, and back in 1969 I had the privilege of sitting in a Wankel rotary-engined Mercedes-Benz.

That’s right: a Merc with a rotary engine, just like the piston-less motors in many Mazdas from 1967 and also in the NSU Ro80 of the same year.

It was at the swank Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg in 1969 that Mercedes-Benz invited the motoring media to take a look at the latest creation to wear the three-pointed star.

It was a low-slung, supersleek experimental coupe, unlike any Merc the world had ever seen before.

It had gullwing doors, like the 300SL sports coupes and its mid-mounted Wankel motor had three rotors, as opposed to the twin rotors first used in the NSU.

The little motor produced a mighty 206kW, which gave the car a top speed of 260km/h.

But it really was a research vehicle for testing the radical new Wankel engines, new suspension components and to improve the aerodynamic efficiency of  road-going sports cars.

I squeezed in, had a feel of the various controls and suitably impressed, clambered out after a few minutes to interview the Stuttgart hierarchy.

Schuco Mercedes C111 battery operated model


When I left, they gave me a lovely Schuco-made 1/16th scale model of the C-111, which I still have in my model car collection.

More than just a shell, it has working head and tail lights and it runs on a pair of C-cell batteries – making it right up-to-date as an EV.

That particular C-111 I sat in was the one and only of its kind.

Five months later came the C 111-II with a four-rotor Wankel engine with an output of 258kW and a top speed of 300km/h.

It was introduced at the Geneva Motor Show in 1970 and despite not being for sale, some 700 people sent blank cheques to the company to buy one.

Next, Mercedes, unable to tame the rotary motor’s appetite for fuel and rotor seals, not to mention its generous emissions, replaced it with a diesel engine.

Dubbed the C-111-III, it  was even more aerodynamic, twin-finned  — and set  16 new speed records.

Not content with that, a few years later the engineers slotted a twin-turbo 4.8-litre V8 into C-111-IV and it zoomed along at up to 404km/h for yet another record. 

The German brand’s history in South Africa dates back to 1896 when John Percy Hess, of Pretoria, imported the nation’s first car, a Benz Velo.

It took another month for benzene fuel to arrive before old John could could take his two-seater for a spin, and he subsequently became the nation’s sole agent for Benz Motors.

Mercedes have been built in South Africa since 1958, with many models being exported to various world markets.

Apart from the C-111, other unusual machines I’ve either owned, driven or at least had my touches in, include a 1929 Willys Whippet, one of the Cannell Special racing cars, a one-off Nubiat, a Honda RA273 Formula 1 racer, an Autobianchi Bianchina, a 1931 Minerva, a DAF, a Moskvitch, a 1935 Riley 12/4, a D-B Panhard and a Bugatti Type 35.

Each of them had their own charms and/or peculiarities, but the C-111 was the sole experimental example — and I have a neat model of it to remind me of them good ol’ days.


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