A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to spot a number of spectacular cars within a few minutes and meters in downtown Zurich, and made a post about it that you can find here if you missed it. One of those was in my eyes far above the rest in both elegance and rarity. To me, the legendary Mercedes-Benz 280 SE 3.5 Cabriolet is one of the most elegant cars ever built and as I said in my post, it certainly deserves a bit more attention than sharing a post with a number of other more “everyday” cars (that’s perhaps stretching it, but at least far more common). This week therefore, we’ll take a closer look at the car that is not only beautiful and incredibly elegant, but also historic in several ways!
The 280 SE (as I’ll call it from here on, given that saves loads of time writing…) is part of the W111/W112 range, the roots of which go back all the way to 1959 and which are today known as forerunners to what would later become the S-class. The W111/W112 (the difference being that the latter was a more luxurious version with notably air suspension and a more luxurious interior) was mostly sold as a four-door sedan, which became known as the “Heckflossen”-Mercedes (tail fin Merc) due to the shape of the rear “wings”. However a station wagon, a coupé and a convertible were also built in smaller numbers, all based on the same, non-modified platform. The body parts were different though and most of these were produced by hand, as many other cars at the time. The sedan wasn’t however, and this contributed to making the other versions prohibitively expensive in comparison. In spite of this and the resulting small production run, they are important as they are the last Mercedes cars that were in essence built by hand.
In the first half of the 60’s, the coupé and convertible had the designation 220 SE and were powered by a 2.2 litre, six-cylinder engine putting out a relatively modest 120 hp. Subsequent versions called the 250 SE, the 280 SE and the 300 SE (the most luxurious version, part of the W112 range) pushed that all the way to 170 hp, but it was in 1969 that things really changed, as that was the year the 280 SE got the brand new, 3.5 litre V8 engine internally called M116 with 200 hp, the first Mercedes engine post-WW2 that was larger than three litres. It came together with a modest facelift as the W111 was starting to age, notably including a flatter radiator grille and different rear lights. The new grille’s shape made the car known in Germany under the name “Flachkühler”, translating into “flat radiator”. Contrary to what is often believed it thus had nothing to do with making more room for the new engine, but was rather purely a styling measure. The price issue had been solved somewhat at least vs the coupé, as the convertible was only 10% more expensive towards the end of production. That is slightly different today, as we’ll see below.
The 280 SE comes from a time when Mercedes was shaking off the old post-war heritage and started developing more modern cars to take the brand into the future. Car building itself was however still traditional, panels were still in thick metal and weight considerations weren’t a major concern, neither on the outside, nor on the inside. What looks like wood is indeed wood, and of the finest quality, and quite a few cows must have lost their lives when the interior was sown. The doors are heavy and make the right sound when you close them and the leather-covered dash has another cow or two on its conscience. The engine is said to have power at all revs and the 280 SE was good for 210 km/h at the time, although most people would probably not think of going anywhere near that today. This very luxurious convertible was hence seen as the 300 SE’s successor, but it was actually part of the W111 range and most notably, had conventional rather than air suspension.
The 280 SE 3.5 Cabriolet was built 1232 times between 1969-1971, not a lot when you consider the total production run of the W111/W112 of around 400.000 cars. It would be the last four-seater convertible from Mercedes for more than 20 years until the far less special A124 / E-class convertible in the early 90’s. At the time of the launch it cost 35.000 D-mark, no doubt a lot of money but by far not as much as today’s value of around EUR 350.000 – 500.000 for perfect cars, most of which have of course been renovated. There’s not many around and it’s probably easier to find one in the US than in Europe, as that’s where most of them were sold. That’s certainly not cheap, then again 280 SE 3.5 Cabriolet has a solid place in automotive history and is perhaps the most elegant Mercedes-Benz ever built. There’s really no reason why it should be cheap!