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.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1971 Mercedes-Benz 280SE 3.5 Cabriolet
Number Produced:1,232
Original List Price:$14,155
Tune Up Cost:$800
Chassis Number Location:Windshield pillar
Club Info:Mercedes-Benz Club of America
Alternatives:1971 Rolls-Royce Corniche, 1971 Cadillac Eldorado, 1962 Mercedes-Benz 220SEb
Investment Grade:B

This car, Lot 95, sold for $297,000, including buyer’s premium, at RM’s sale in Phoenix, AZ, on January 17, 2014.

When admiring any classic car, the avid enthusiast can easily paint a picture of where and how that car should be used. For some cars, owners might see themselves on a racetrack during a private track day or debarking under the porte-cochère of a luxurious European villa.

But when it comes to an example like this of the Mercedes-Benz 280SE 3.5, the picture is of departing from the Hotel Bel-Air (no one who is anyone would stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel, don’t you know?) for a spring drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to Carmel — complete with top down, wind in the hair and sunglasses to break the glare off the ocean. So very Cary Grant.

That’s why this beautifully restored example of the elegant V8 cabriolet (never call it a convertible) sold for $297,000. That’s all that needs to be said.

The car of its time

However, for the person who lives at least some of the time in the world of appraisals and provenance — rather than just in the fantasy world of automotive enjoyment — of course there are the nitty-gritty details. While being the world’s reliable producer of sturdy taxi cabs and reliable family sedans, Mercedes-Benz has always had a 2-door model to put in the front of the showroom to demonstrate its lock on the carriage-trade market.

During the 1960s, all the Hollywood stars drove these luxurious and distinctive 2-door models, built on the W-111 chassis that they shared with the staid 4-door finback, but with the smooth lines and rounded fenders that emulated the smaller two-seat sports roadsters.

Over the course of that decade, the company would produce just fewer than 36,000 units of the coupe and cabriolet, testifying to their prestige. But the rarest of the rare for collectors were the V8 versions. These were produced for only two years as a last desperate attempt to keep the model alive against competition from cars such as the Cadillac DeVille V8 that were selling for one-third the price of the Mercedes.

Even at that retail price, Mercedes was probably losing money on each unit, since each 280SE coupe and cabrio was assembled by hand off the assembly line, and the V8 versions required additional chassis modifications.

So, alas, as the world spiraled down into recession caused by the 1967 oil embargo, there were fewer affluent buyers. The combination of expensive supply and waning demand caused an end to production in July 1971.

Rarity, presence and performance

What all this means today is that the best examples of the 280SE 3.5 cabriolet are rapidly increasing in price. The V8 versions are perfectly suited to provide an appropriate driving experience for the person who is willing to pay whatever it takes to get a no-excuses example.

In September 2011, The Star, magazine of the Mercedes-Benz Club of America, valued an excellent example at $185,000. In January of 2014, $300,000 was required to purchase this comparable example, and who knows what the price might be in August in Monterey — or in Phoenix next January. ♦

(Introductory description courtesy of RM Auctions.)

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