1971 Mercedes-Benz 280SE 3.5 Cabriolet

Courtesy of RM Auctions
Courtesy of RM Auctions

In 1959, Mercedes broke with tradition by introducing the angular “Heckflosse,” or “Finback,” sedan on the W-111/W-112 chassis — itself revolutionary in having the first-ever crumple zones and roll-over integrity to protect the occupants from injury in the event of collisions — to replace the bulbous “ponton” built on the W-128 chassis.

Two years later, following the end of production for the stately W-128-chassis 220SE coupes and cabriolets, the Mercedes designers introduced 2-door coupe and cabriolet models aimed at the prestige buyer. These were built on the same W-111 chassis, but the styling was changed, with the rear fenders rounded off more gracefully than was the case with the sedans. The company would continue to build these lovely personal luxury cars for 10 years with little additional change in styling.

Engines did change over the years. Across the W-111 lineup, in both 4-door and 2-door models, Mercedes initially used the venerable overhead-cam straight six in several sizes, all the way up to 2,996 cc, and the cars’ nomenclatures were 250S, 250SE, and 300SE, depending on the engine. A 2,778-cc M13 engine in 1967 gave rise to 280S and 280SE model designations.

By 1969, though production of the finback sedans was finally ending, having been supplanted by the new W-108/109-chassis models several years earlier, the decision was made to continue producing the coupes and cabriolets on the W-111 chassis, although with a V8 engine to keep pace with competitors in the U.S. luxury market. A 3.5-liter powerplant, designated M116, was developed, using a cast-iron block for rigidity, economy, and better sound damping, with cross-flow wedge cylinder heads with rocker-operated valves that were driven by a single overhead camshaft per bank.

The cams were chain-driven for a long life. Bosch transistorized the ignition, and electronic fuel injection was utilized. The British magazine AutoCar called it “a copybook example of how experience plus careful design can create a simple-to-make high-output engine of considerable refinement.” American buyers just called it fast and fun.

In Mercedes’ sometimes confusing model nomenclature — usually but not always based on engine capacity — the new model was designated 280SE 3.5, to distinguish it from its 6-cylinder counterpart. Production of the model began in August of 1969 and continued through to July 1971. In 24 months, total production was 3,270 coupes and 1,232 cabriolets, making these not only one of the fastest and most interesting Mercedes of their era — but also one of the rarest and most expensive.

The Tobacco Brown example offered here is an original U.S.-specification example, with 25 years of single Southern California ownership and low mileage. It has been the recipient of what is reported as a no-expense-spared, ground-up restoration, and it presents beautifully in its rich color and Saddle leather interior. Numerous options and accessories found on the car include a sporty floor-shifted automatic transmission, power windows, a factory radio, and the very desirable factory air conditioning.

Gary Anderson

Gary Anderson - SCM Contributor

Gary is also Editor in Chief of The Star, the magazine for the Mercedes-Benz Club of America. He has been active for many years in the Austin-Healey Club USA and is co-author of MBI’s best-selling Austin-Healey Restoration Guide, as well as editor of the Austin-Healey Magazine. An avid vintage race driver, he ran his 1960 MGA in three Monterey Historics, four Wine Country Classics, and the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix. He is the author of Motoring: Getting the Maximum from Your New Mini, a comprehensive guide to the new MINI Cooper, available through Amazon.com.

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