The Mercedes 280 SE 3.5, a classic that continues to rise.
Put the words “Mercedes” and “convertible” together, and you’re all but guaranteed a highly desirable luxury automobile. Turn the clock back to the late 1960s, and you could only be talking about the 280 SE, the marque’s flagship image model at the time.
Today, many car enthusiasts tend to think first of the 280 SE 3.5 convertible, the V8-powered version that appeared in 1969 as a 1970 model. The six-cylinder models are still desirable, of course, but if you wanted the top Mercedes at the time, you got the V8. “Top” of course was relative to the Mercedes 600 sedan, a true flagship, including in size, but rarely ordered.
Crossing the $400,000 Threshold
What’s happened to the 280 SE 3.5 convertible is well known: fair auction prices exceeding $400,000 in some recent cases. Gooding has a 1971 model scheduled for its Pebble Beach auction, with a pre-sale estimate of $275,000-$350,000. The 280 SE 3.5 Coupe, too, has seen its values soar, with Hagerty pegging average at around $78,000 and recent auction sales bringing double that.
Much to Love
If you had not been paying attention to these classic Mercedes models, here’s why people love them: they’re beautiful, they’re rare and they’re enjoyable to drive. They were built to last, and many did.
When discussing heritage today, Mercedes-Benz draws a line from the new S-Class Cabriolet back to the 280 SE 3.5, and that is a legitimate claim. The evolution of luxury over 45+ years, of course, boggles the mind. The 280 SE 3.5 convertible didn’t even have a power top. The luxury of the Mercedes-Benz 280 SE 3.5 coupe and convertible was in its exclusivity, impeccable craftsmanship, design and sheer drivability.
Great Design Never Goes Out of Style
Today, Mercedes-Benz has made coupes and convertibles a critical part of its business. In the 1960s, the W111 coupes and convertibles were top-line models originally derived from the “fin tail” sedans. Designer Paul Braqc created one of the most elegant coupe silhouettes from that foundation. The pillarless profile – a hardtop in the American vernacular – gave it a graceful air.
The design evolved in the mid-1960s as Mercedes updated the sedan platform to become the W108, and the W111 coupes and cabriolets picked up the improvements, including 14-inch wheels replacing the 13-inchers. (Try to picture 13-inch wheels on any Mercedes today.)
At first, the top-line model was the 300 SE, which used a 3.0-liter inline six and air suspension. By 1968, the 280 SE, with a new, lighter six, replaced both the 250 and 300. The following year, Mercedes installed its new 3.5-liter V8, an aluminum gem that made 200 horsepower. The air suspension was gone, a boon for maintenance then and restoration today. A lower and wider grille gave a more youthful appearance.
Now, About That Top
It’s true, you had to raise and lower the convertible top of this $15,000 automobile by hand, even when a $3,000 Camaro convertible offered a power top as a $52 option. The Benz’s the air conditioning was both loud and subpar compared to American units. “Mercedes luxury” certainly had a different meaning 45 years ago.
The impeccably made cabin featured elegant chrome and wood trim, and the Mercedes leather seemed tailored to last forever. Such classic Mercedes attention to quality made up for any perceived lack of coddling amenities. While a zero-to-60 time of about 10 seconds seems slow today, Car & Driver proved the V8’s mettle by driving a 280 SE 3.5 coupe flat-out to 125 mph and holding it there through the Nevada desert at a Mercedes-Benz media preview.
Mercedes made 1,200 280 SE 3.5 convertibles and 3,300 coupes from 1969 into 1971, many coming to the U.S. The six-cylinder versions were slightly more prolific. Depending on the zip code, sighting one back in the day was more of an event than seeing a modern Mercedes coupe or convertible is today. Many coupes were cut down into convertibles, but fakes are easy to spot.
One of the most drivable classics from this period, the Mercedes-Benz 280 SE 3.5 coupe and convertible deserve all the attention they’re getting.
Written by Jim Koscs, Audamotive Communications
For Premier Financial Services