This is a 1970 Mercedes Benz 280SEL. The first thing you need to know about it is that it’s another one of those cars that brings out in me a sense of general lawbreaking mischievousness. Not like the Dodge Charger from awhile back, though. No, this is a more… organized kind of crime. It’s sinister, this thing. It’s something the Corleone family would use as a company car. You know, if their loved ones weren’t busy being blown up in classic Alfa Romeos.
The 280SEL is also a decidedly more of a modern creation than the time period in which the Godfather is set, so perhaps that wasn’t the best metaphor. I’ll work on a new one. In the meantime, let’s talk about the car. Introduced in 1965, the W108 chassis (and its contemporary, the W109) underpinned a whole new line of big Mercedes sedans, and replaced the iconic “fintail” design of it’s predecessors, the W111 and W112. The 280SEL designation meant this car was smack in the middle of the range, with a inline six cylinder “Strich Acht” engine that we’ve seen before on this blog, actually, in the Mercedes 280c. It was all part of this “New Generation” business Mercedes had going on in the late sixties.
The Strich Acht was only displaced 2.8 liters too, which meant it was a busy little engine. More interesting engine stuff was happening a bit higher up the range, however. See, Merc had a car called the 300SEL (also built on this W109 platform), and that had a 6.3 liter V8 developing 247 horsepower, a 0 to 60 time of 6.3 seconds and a top speed of 142 miles per hour. Those are numbers that would worry sports cars of the day, and remember, this is all coming out of a huge German limousine. Wait a second, I got it: Cold War spies. That’s the metaphor I should’ve gone with. This is the type of car that shady Russian spies would’ve tailed you in if you were an American operative on a dangerous foreign mission.
Perhaps it’s best to think of the 280SEL as a stopgap between the lesser Mercedes and the 300SEL. See, the 280 never got the big V8 (which, incidentally, was also the engine that acted as the grandfather to Mercedes’ modern performance division, AMG). It also didn’t get the fancy pneumatic suspension of the flagship 300. So effectively, if you wanted the longer wheelbase car, but didn’t have the extra geld for the 300SEL, the 280SEL was your car. Nice of Mercedes to fill that incredibly tiny market niche for you, isn’t it?
I shouldn’t poke fun. It’s the incessant market-filling that makes Mercedes Benz such a profitable company, even today. They sold almost 400,000 of these things over its seven year lifespan. There’s even more to this car’s story, though. The 280SEL and the W108/9 platform were the start of something truly special, something landmark, even. Today’s Mercedes S-Class is a driving force in the car industry for luxury, comfort, efficiency, performance and safety. It’s a staggering machine, and I promise I’m not being an advertisement here, it really is. So much so, in fact, that if you want to see the features that will be on your normal, entry-level sedan fifteen-twenty years from now, you need only look as far as the technology that is on the S-Class today. And where did all this futurism come from? Right here. The 280SEL is one in a long line of S-Class forefathers, which makes it deeply significant in the history of Mercedes and indeed the history of the car world as a whole. Just watch out for those Soviets, agent.
- The W108/9 had a single stalk control that operated lights, indicators and wipers.
- I figured out why this car puts me in mind of being back in the USSR. Apparently, the Soviet State Automobile Inspectorate used a fleet of these for general duties in Moscow.
- You ever seen Octopussy? Remember when Roger Moore-era James Bond steals a car, blows out the tires, and then drives it on some railroad tracks in- where else, at this point- East Germany? That was this car.