Forty years ago, there was only one model range in the Mercedes brochure. David Wilkins looks back to the age of the 'fintail Merc'

Next year, Mercedes will introduce two completely new cars as part of its relentless drive to offer a model for every tiny market niche.

Next year, Mercedes will introduce two completely new cars as part of its relentless drive to offer a model for every tiny market niche.

The first, the CLS, is a sleeker, Jag-like alternative to the German manufacturer's mid-range E-class saloon. The second, the R-class, is a cross-over SUV/estate car for those who want something practical with a three-pointed star on the bonnet but can't find what they want among Mercedes's existing estates, four-wheel-drives and people-carriers.

By my reckoning, the CLS and R-class will take the number of distinct Mercedes model ranges to 14 -- not including the Smart and Maybach brands.

But there was a time when Mercedes tried to cater for the needs of most of its customers with just one model range. That car was the famous Heckflosse, or fintail Mercedes. In its day, the Heckflosse covered most of the market territory covered by today's E-class and S-class using a single bodyshell.

Far from apologising for this lack of choice, the company claimed it as a virtue -- all of its customers, whether stinking rich or merely very comfortably off, were entitled to the same standards of comfort and space.

Specialist estate versions were used mainly as ambulances, and the underpinnings of the contemporary pillarless coupé models were taken from the Heckflosse as well.

It is impossible to understand the place the Heckflosse holds in German motoring history without also understanding the conditions in which it was launched in 1959. The German economy at the time was an economic miracle, far removed from the basket-case it has become today in the minds of Anglo-Saxon economists.

Millions of families celebrated important milestones of personal consumption: the first foreign holiday, the first TV set or the first fridge. And, of course, the first new car.

For most, that car wasn't a Mercedes. It was more likely to be an Opel, a VW Beetle or a Taunus from the German arm of Ford.

But for large numbers of hard-working citizens, the Heckflosse wasn't completely out of reach. Only captains of industry could stretch to the top model, the chrome-laden 300SEL, with its air suspension and six cylinder, fuel-injected engine. But thousands of taxi drivers could buy the slowest model, the 190 diesel, at around a third of the price.

Bankers and headmasters might hope to buy the petrol-engined 200 in late middle-age as a reward for years of hard work. These four-cylinder models made do with less chrome and were better for it, although their simple, round headlights gave them rather a blank face.

The multi-faceted appeal of the Heckflosse is seen most clearly in the stylishly shot 1966 German film Vier Schlüssel ("Four Keys"). The keys of the film's title, each held by a different person, are required to open the safe at a Hamburg bank. A gang of robbers try to kidnap the four key-holders to get at the bank's millions of marks. The star of the film is the Heckflosse, the car of choice for bankers and robbers.

Heckflossen are also seen on taxi duty, while the Rolling Stones make a brief appearance getting into the model on arrival at Hamburg airport. In the closing scenes, the police arrive in Heckflossen to surround the bank for the final shoot-out.

For me, the Heckflosse is the most attractive of Mercs, although not all agree. Doubters disapprove of its swanky "American" styling details, like the outlandish vertical speedometer and, of course, the tailfins that give the car its nickname.

And I would have to agree that the curvy Heckflosse certainly looked dated by the time production ended in 1968, when crisp, boxy shapes were coming into fashion.

But the CLS and R-class will still be doing well if they have one-tenth of its style.

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