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Driving a 1971 Mercedes-Benz 280SE 3.5 Cabriolet was stressful but sublime


By Daniel Golson, Roadshow

Look, I didn't mean to get the classic Mercedes-Benz 280SE cabriolet stuck in the mud. It was barely even mud, anyway, more like a thin layer of wet dirt. And I didn't know how much the car was worth at the time, to be fair. But still, it was owned by Mercedes, and it was now stuck.

I had been driving on some very narrow vineyard roads in the hills near the German town of Stetten, and needed to turn around to go back to the ruins of the Y-Burg castle I had just driven past that I thought would make for the perfect photo spot. So I swung the massive cabrio around to make a more-than-three-point turn, requiring me to back the car onto a runoff patch of dirt and grass to then be able to get back on the road pointed the direction I needed to go. Simple, right?


Not exactly. The road itself was ever-so-slightly raised up compared to the dirt surrounding it, forming a curb-like lip at the edge. As I had positioned it, the 280SE's front wheels were maybe a foot from that edge, and there wasn't enough low-end torque to ease the car back onto the road without flooring it. And I definitely didn't want to floor it, in fear of getting the car even more stuck.

"Why didn't you just back it up and get a running start," you ask? Well, I tried, but there was barely any space to actually back up and, again, I didn't want to risk spinning the tires. So my driving companion Marvin, an intern at the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center with a lot more experience driving these cars, hopped in the driver's seat as I spotted him from outside the car.


After a try or two and a lot of earth spat out from the rear tires, the 280SE finally made it all the way onto the road. Sure, there was some mud on the car now, but that was totally fine because at least the car hadn't fallen down the hill. (I forgot to mention that part of the equation.) I happily got back in the driver's seat to head toward that castle.

"Oh god," I said, noticing that the car was now at the base of an incline directly in front of us that was probably gonna prove to be tricky to get up from a complete stop. "Here we go again."


Hey now, you're an All Time Star

I've gotten ahead of myself, let me give some context. Last month I took a weeklong trip to Stuttgart, Germany, and the kind people at Mercedes-Benz Classic invited me to spend the morning with one of their All Time Stars cars, a 1971 280SE 3.5 Cabriolet. Started in 2015, the All Time Stars program provides classic cars for sale directly from Mercedes, some of which have even been restored by the Classic team. These cars undergo extensive quality and vehicle history checks, and each one comes with a 12-month warranty.


There are three tiers of All Time Star, the first of which is Drivers Edition. These cars are in above-average condition with clean bodywork and paint along with well-sorted mechanicals, making them perfect for regular driving. The top tier is Concours Edition cars, which are in supremely good condition and have typically been extensively restored or have super-low mileage.

This particular blue-over-beige 280SE is in the mid-tier Collectors Edition category, which consists of cars that have been restored (but not recently) or are in "exceptionally good original condition." Purchased from a collector, it had been fitted with a genuine remanufactured engine from Mercedes in 1990. When I got in it had just passed around 43,700 miles -- well, 70,400 kilometers -- and was in extremely good shape, having recently undergone a freshening-up. It was pretty loaded up for 1971, being optioned with leather, power windows, a Becker radio, a heated windshield and seat belts.

A predecessor to the S-Class , the W111 "Fintail" model range debuted as a sedan in 1959 with the stunning coupe and cabriolet following a couple years later. Not to be confused with the standard 280SE, which used a 2.8-liter inline-6 making 158 horsepower, the range-topping 280SE 3.5 was powered by a 3.5-liter V8 putting out 197 hp and 210 pound-feet of torque. The 3.5 was introduced in the final years of the W111's run, with only 1,232 cabriolets being produced between 1969 and 1971. That makes it rarer than a 300SL convertible. It was expensive as hell, too, starting at over $13,000 when new (around $83,000 today, adjusted for inflation).



Back to the driving

I picked up the car from the Mercedes-Benz Museum at around 10 a.m. on a rainy Monday and headed for the gorgeous municipality of Kernen, a distance of around a dozen miles if you take the more scenic route like I did. My first thought was, "Damn, this car is big," and I wasn't wrong. The W111 cabrio is a very big car, just over a foot shorter than a current S-Class sedan, and it's got massive front and rear overhangs.

Thankfully this 280SE was equipped with power steering and power brakes (but no ABS yet). I adored the gigantic, super-thin, Ivory-rimmed steering wheel, but I couldn't imagine steering that thing without a power rack. The power brakes were just as welcome because the 280SE 3.5 cabrio is also a very heavy car, weighing in at around 3,600 pounds. The brakes were fairly good, never making for a nervous moment even when I had to make a panic stop.

It's not a very quick car, either, with Mercedes quoting a 0-to-60-mph time of over 9 seconds. And as you probably guessed from the start of this story, it felt especially sluggish off the line despite its 210 lb-ft of torque. This specific car was optioned with a four-speed automatic transmission in place of the standard four-speed manual, which wasn't that slow to shift once the car actually got going. But at stop lights I basically had to floor the thing to keep up with city traffic.

Once driving at regular city speeds, though, the 280SE was pretty blissful. The V8 made a nice burble, the leather bucket seats were nice and cushy, the view out the front more worthy of the word "commanding" than any heavy-duty pickup being reviewed in 2020. That power steering I mentioned was nice and light while the ride was extraordinary, floaty in a good way without leaning like a boat in the corners.


It felt most at home cruising on the highway. Many of the larger roads and highways had speed limits of around 50 mph, but I hit some where I could get up to around 80. It was quieter at those speeds than I expected for being such an old car, and a convertible at that. Once past second gear, the 280SE felt a lot quicker, too, with more than enough passing power to get around diesel-powered, late-1990s Opels sitting in the right lane. And to its credit, the 280SE 3.5 was fast for its day, able to hit a top speed of nearly 130 mph. But I did not attempt that. Sorry.

Set in a valley east of Stuttgart, the town of Stetten im Remstal is known for its wine and is surrounded by hills and vineyards with amazing views and surprisingly incredible roads. Like, Initial D-level twisty mountainous roads, which were on the route I took into town. Going downhill. Now, these downhill roads were where those power brakes and steering especially came in handy. Sure, the 280SE drove like a pig compared to the Mercedes-AMG CLA45 Shooting Brake I took back to the same roads later that afternoon (I'll tell you about that car in an upcoming story), but it was hilarious fun to wheel the old cabrio around nonetheless.

Snaking off of the main twisty road were dozens of very nice, very smooth, very narrow roads connecting all of the vineyards in the hills. That's where the mud came in. After getting unstuck I went back to the castle I had driven past, which was constructed in the 14th century but torn down in the 18th century. It's on a plot of land with a gorgeous view of the valley and the town, and more importantly the overlook had no mud around it. The whole time I felt like a supporting character in an old Bond film.


Classic cars just hit different

After driving around the town for a while and coincidentally filling up next to a matte green AMG GT R at a gas station, I pointed the 280SE's long nose back in the direction of the Mercedes Museum and headed off. The car itself had been absolutely fabulous, but for a moment I was unsure if I had loved the experience of driving it, and that gave me pause.


I'm all about flashy cars and fashion statements and status symbols, so I absolutely loved how much attention the Benz was getting. The blue cabrio stood out on a gloomy grey day, and people were complimenting the car and taking photos. Those people appreciating the car weren't the problem, as they're pretty predictable. It was everything else around me that was stressful and unpredictable, all the other drivers and pedestrians and weird road signs. That the car was big, slow, lacking in safety features and a bit hard to see out of didn't help.

But like, of course I was nervous driving the 280SE around at first. I was in a foreign country, I was driving a classic car I had never experienced before, I didn't own it and definitely couldn't afford it. And it was raining. I had to put myself more in the shoes of someone actually buying one of these All Time Stars cars, I had to imagine it was just a part of my collection and something that I could regularly drive without worrying no matter how nice or valuable it is.

While driving back into Stuttgart in some stop-and-go traffic I realized my nerves were gone. I had gotten used to the car, fallen in love with it even, and now I was really smiling. I shouldn't have been surprised by this, as I was similarly stressed when I first bought my own personal 1984 Mercedes 300TD but quickly turned that stress into confidence. There's just something special about driving a classic car, any classic car, around a city in the modern era we live in. They feel different, they smell different, they act different. It's refreshing, like being in your own little zen time capsule. That appeal was cemented when I arrived back at the Mercedes Museum, which looks like a massive metal spaceship sticking out of the ground.

Classic cars should be appreciated, but more than that they deserve to be used. All Time Stars isn't the only manufacturer-run classic car restoration division out there; Ferrari has Classiche and Lamborghini has Polo Storico, for instance. But Mercedes is one of the only companies that's also selling cars that it has restored, and I hope more brands start doing that soon. You can tell that the people at Mercedes Classic really care about what they do, and the manufacturer backing helps get the cars into ideal shape while providing a comprehensive history to go with it. It's keeping the love for these cars alive.

After dropping the car off I drove around in my CLA45 for a bit, went back to my hotel for a nap before walking to get Italian food for dinner, ending the night by spying a 911 prototype. It wasn't until late in the evening while scrolling through my laptop in bed that I found out how exactly much Mercedes was asking for the 280SE I drove: 454,890 Euro, or just under $500,000.

I picked up my phone to message a friend. "OK, now I'm really glad I didn't get it fully stuck in the mud."

See more at: Roadshow

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