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The Carchive: The 1975 Mercedes 280 SE

Chris Haining March 23, 2018 Cars You Should Know, The Carchive 11 Comments

It’s nearly midnight on a Friday in the UK, and high time to let the watery moonlight of curiosity illuminate the creased pages of the past, as we once more peer at the forgotten relics of a time long since gone.

Last week we spent a bit of time with the late ’70s Honda Accord, a car that built on the Civic’s principles and turned the brand into a real global heavyweight. This time around we’re sticking with the same decade, but moving to a marque that couldn’t really have been better established if it wanted to.

This is Mercedes, as it did things back in 1975. Welcome back to The Carchive.

“Responsible car designers can contribute, through superior engineering, by building vehicles that lighten the driver’s workload.”

This is a thought that has never really gone out of fashion. Mercedes has always been on the very forefront of innovation, creating automotive technologies that really do make the driver’s life easier. Easier and safer, if not necessarily more rewarding. It’s fair to take the sentence highlighted above and project its implications to the present day, where Mercedes is knee deep in autonomous tech development with the theoretical aim of making it safer and more convenient to drive a car than ever before. Theoretically.

It’s fascinating to see the 1975 280 SE as a snapshot of Mercedes at the time. Never was there a car more traditionally Mercedes than this one. It was the cheapest version of the most upscale car the brand produced at the time, yet was anything but flashy. This was no Rolls Royce or Cadillac – the windows were wound manually, the radio was optional. A big car, an exceptionally well-engineered car, but not an opulent one. Everybody knew it was expensive, and everybody knew why it was expensive.

Back then, far more than now, you chose an S Class because you understand quality, and didn’t mind onlookers knowing it.

“When you are seated, take a look around. The 87% all-round field of vision in a Mercedes-Benz affords a commanding view of traffic”.

One thing you won’t find in this brochure is any mention of style, image or fashion. There’s nothing that hints towards how others will perceive you in your S Class, no suggestion that it’ll somehow unlock some sybaritic lifestyle or confirm your belonging to an elite sector of society.

In fact, the brochure format is little different to that of Mercedes’ 0.303 Touring Coach, and speaks only of those features that its creators are most proud of. In the case of the coach, this meant those features that made it fit for purpose when it came to carrying passengers. For the car, it showcases how the S-Class separates itself from other production cars. Mercedes clearly saw both as mere products, but presented everything in their portfolio with equal pride.

“Some cars make it difficult for their drivers to be civil…”

The lack of courtesy displayed on our roads every day indicates that this could be even more true today than it was forty-three years ago. Has to be said, though, cars bearing the three-pointed-star certainly don’t seem to be immune from having inconsiderate owners.

“…their designers might have solved the problem of getting up to 180 as fast as possible…”

Perhaps it’s a result of the increased stresses of daily life, but driving these days does seem to have an increasingly pedal-to-the-metal nature. Nobody seems to want to do anything gently any more. It’s all about getting to the head of the queue and avoiding being held back by slower traffic.

“…but not the problem of how to remain fresh after a six hour trip at 130 kmph”

Cruising at a constant, high-ish speed was always the S-Class’ forte. Continents shrank beneath their wheels, but sustaining a cruise at any speed requires a certain amount of restraint and discipline. Adopting a fairly sensible 130 km/h (81mph) cruise means having to allow faster traffic past rather than satisfying your ego by being the fastest vehicle on the road. In a car like a 280 SE, despite being only the entry-level W116, its claimed 121mph top speed meant there was 40mph in reserve at that speed. Mercedes would imply that as a safety feature. Reassurance that the S-Class was nowhere near its operational limit.

No mention of fun or thrill was necessary.

“Dependability creates satisfaction”

Perhaps it still does to some, but Mercedes seems to have rather sidelined that message. Dependability ceased to be a marketable commodity a long time ago. Today, an S-Class needs, more than anything else, to be good to be seen in. It’s loaded to the gunwales with technology, not so much to further the science of ‘the car’, but to satisfy the S-Class reputation as ‘the most sophisticated machine on the road’.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Mercedes badge is probably no less desirable today than it was in 1975. In fact, with CLA’s offered at bargain lease prices, even young folk are becoming drawn to a brand that was once the province of the almost-retired. And still, despite evidence that the CLA is intended to turn finance profit rather more than to be a shining beacon of everything the brand represents, the three-pointed star is still highly coveted.

But that’s no longer because the product is good. Only a fool would deny that today’s W222 S-Class is anything less than excellent, but dazzling competence is no longer enough to ensure that a car sells. These days, cachet is far more important than built-in class. Cars like the W116 truly earned the top-rung reputation the brand has today, and did it without glitzy features, celebrity endorsement and passive-aggressive AMG body styling. It seems a shame that those who buy into the brand today are even more likely to be hungry for image, prestige and the appearance of success, than they are motivated by quality and prowess.

Of course, there’s always the chance that the same was true in ’75, but at least the brochure does a good job of convincing us otherwise.

(All images are of original manufacturer’s publicity material, photographed by me. Of course, there was the 450 SEL 6.9, too, but even that was remarkably low key for all its outrageous incredibleness)

  • max

    3 years ago I bought All original W116 1979 Mercedes 450SEL 6.9 has 61K original miles black exterior with tan leather interior. with all documentation and original manuals. I paid 36K for it. Beautiful 70s Mercedes

  • Rover 1

    The W116, worthy successor to the 108 and an advanced preview of the 126 and it’s tech.
    I’d own one of these 116s if I could find one without rust. A friend has a 280S without the E, so no fuel injection and less power. The doors still close like a bank vault, the condition helped by the fact that it’s only done 45000 miles. And quantifiably more modern feeling than the W108 3.5 his neighbour has.

    Of course he kids himself that it’s ‘nearly’ a 6.9 which we all want after we saw one in ‘Ronin’
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZYDRZ09B5oo
    Or you might like an S8, 605, or XM.

  • tonyola

    Just out of curiosity, what market was this brochure intended for? It’s in English but the car is a left-hand-drive model with Euro headlights and small bumpers, so it’s not for the US or the UK.

    • It is a UK market brochure, but contains photos of several different other market’s cars. The shots of UK cars show a car with a 1975 ‘N’ registration, and French, German and Dutch license plates also feature in its pages.

  • Look at that lovely orange, red and brown. I suspect today’s brochures, if Mercedes still made brochures, would be all silvers and grays. Sigh.

  • JayP

    My dad had a ’76 280S in the 80’s.
    Straight 6 was smooth enough. Tomato red, painted hubcaps. But had the US spec 4 eyes lights and bench bumpers.

    Only one MB dealer in town, the shop rates were a little high.
    We met an ind shop owner named Rudy who came over with VWs push for techs. A redneck German. He always had cool stuff – 6.9L he was working on was always in pieces.