I used to refer to Mercedes-Benz cars as the World’s best, which got me into trouble with those who were born with a silver lady on their radiator caps. The latest Mercedes had eluded me for far too long, but the other day Erik Johnson of Mercedes-Benz (GB) Ltd. telephoned to suggest that I should try a 280SE 3.5.
This happy opportunity coincided with a busy period of writing and home-moving, so that I had to cut out a luncheon date with Mr. Johnson during which I might have learned more about this notable product of modern Stuttgart and, far worse, I was unable to drive this fine, fast car as far and as fast as I would otherwise have done.
Even a limited and mainly traffic-encroached mileage in the car was, however, sufficient to convince me of its very great merit. One outstanding thing was evident almost immediately, namely, that in its interior arrangements, the layout of its controls, what the with-its call ergonomics, this 280SE differed very little, if at all, from much earlier Mercedes-Benz—the 220SE in which we drove from Germany to the Geneva Show, and back to Stuttgart, via Turin in 1952, or the 300SE which so impressed me as high-quality, high-speed transport in this country, in 1954, for instance. This means, quite simply, that Mercedes long ago found the best possible placing, styling and means of operating the minor services on their cars and have since seen no reason why they should alter a layout which is outstandingly effective and convenient.
The 280SE 3.5 is timeless in this important respect, but it has some outstanding special features of its own. As I have just explained, its overall interior layout, is as near as damn-it the same as other Mercedes models have been for many years. I wrote long descriptions of this at the time of earlier road-test reports, so we need not go into details again. The special items about the 280SE 3.5. which deserve to be mentioned are things like the driving seat which adjusts for height as well as in other directions, its unique vacuum central locking system, whereby all four doors, boot, and fuel tank cap can be locked with a single movement of the ignition key, its electrically-heated rear window and the electric window lifts, with console-located switches which give the driver over-riding command of them. These electric windows appear to be inoperable if the ignition is switched off—but the criticism I normally make of this arrangement does not apply to Mercedes, because those who know the car, on opening any door, can still raise or lower the windows, so that if madam does not like a draught or it comes on to rain, she has no need to lean over to operate the ignition switch, or go after a driver who has taken the key away with him, before the glass can be raised—another example of how the Mercedes-Benz engineers think of everything, cover every contingency.
Although I hadn’t intended to discuss the controls in detail, I cannot resist recalling the sensibly-shaped grip of the neat lamps’ switch and how it has to be pulled out to bring in the fog-lamps, so that one does not drive with these alight inadvertently, of how heater distribution is so contrived that the front-seat passenger can have hot air, the driver cool air, or vice versa (will someone please tell me in how many other cars this is possible?), of how the stalk-controlled screenwipers first wipe slowly before they wipe fast no matter what the setting, to obviate smearing, of how they can be so easily activated momentarily, to clear instantly a dirty screen, of the top-tinted screen of the test-car which subdued glare, and the fine illumination provided by the new slim halogen high-beam headlamps.
This Mercedes-Benz 280SE is a big car without being oversize. It has the compact saloon dimensions of a 280S, so that, while it is sumptuously spacious within, its bonnet is comparatively short. It is dignified, but not obtrusively large. It has two very valuable aids to enjoyable driving. The first is excellent steering, the firmness and feel of which disguises the fact that it is power-assisted until one experiences the ease with which this 3,430 lb. car on its big radial-ply Continental tyres can be parked. The second aid to driver-enjoyment is the excellent M-B four-speed automatic gearbox. Here I must digress to remark that normally such automation is anathema to me. Indeed, I put Motor Sport off buying me a new car, in the form of a fine, accelerative British product, also a V8, until it became available with a manual gearbox. This stems not from wanting to keep my left leg and a left arm in decent working order but from my dislike of the sort of automatic transmission so many makers install. Politeness prevents me from naming it, but I sometimes think its initials must stand for B— Wearing, referring to how frequently the hidden gremlins change the ratio up and down in traffic, or for B— Wasteful, which such energetic and unnecessary operation must surely be of petrol?
Mercedes-Benz have a very good automatic gearbox, four-speed with a fluid coupling instead of a torque converter which always starts the car in bottom gear. It holds onto a low ratio in traffic even when you feel that it might be about to change up—you can feel the retarding effect of this—and when it does elect to change up or down the action is smooth, and efficient, even under kick-down. Moreover it absorbs only 4% of engine power. There are the customary “hold” controls in the clever nylon-faced gate of the floor lever for those who want them, and the gear locations are now lettered instead of numbered, P.N.D.S.L., “S” standing for “slope”, replacing the more formal PN432—is this a hint that Mercedes may be going over to a torque converter transmission? Their present excellent automatic box dates back to 1961, with subsequent improvements.
Anyway, this 280SE 3.5 is splendid to steer, it changes its gears itself in the nicest possible way, and its safety is ensured by light, very powerful and delightfully progressive ventilated disc brakes. The road-holding and cornering, too, are of an accompanying high standard, the 280SE having the low-pivot, compensating swing-axle coil-spring i.r.s.
Finally, there is the engine—the magic which “3.5” implies.
Under the bonnet of what externally could be one of the well-established six-in-line cars, there is a V8 65.8 x 92 mm., 3,499-c.c. power unit of very sophisticated design and construction. It has an overhead camshaft for each bank of cylinders, “computerised” electronic fuel injection and transistorised ignition, an oil-cooler, a visco-driven cooling fan, and a 770-watt three-phase alternator. It complies with the forthcoming European emission control requirements but still develops 200 (DIN) b.h.p.
I had no time to take performance figures, but top speed is put at 127 m.p.h.; which is adequate in a country where the transport leaders of two Government parties put 70 m.p.h. as quite fast enough. Acceleration from a standstill to 60 m.p.h. is said to occupy 9 seconds, which should be sufficient for the fastest of duchesses. I didn’t even have a chance to check petrol consumption, but in lots of traffic driving the tank was far from empty after 250 miles—it holds over 18 gallons and M-B claim nearly 22 m.p.g. This great V8 engine, which weighs only 33 lb. more than the six-cylinder propellant in the best-selling 280SE, transforms the car—the tremendous flow of smooth powerful pick-up, never tailing off, is superb. (What the 6.3-litre version of the 300SEL is like even my vivid imagination finds it hard to conceive…)
The remarkable thing about this splendid Mercedes-Benz 280SE 3.5 is its price—£5,158. As it is a fast car in the luxury rather than the sporting sense it is bound to be compared to our Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. The Crewe car beats it on ride and quietness and I hear that the once too delicate power steering of the Royce has recently been much improved. The velvet refinement of the Rolls-Royce is unsurpassable; like a pair of perfectly-fitting ballet shoes, against which the Mercedes is as a hand-cobbled pair of high-class brogues. But the least-expensive Silver Shadow costs £2,719 more than this very adequate Mercedes. (That Rolls-Royce are selling more cars than ever, production running at some 50 a week, of which about half are exported, home market customers having to wait some 14 months for delivery, proves that the World has not so far plunged into universal poverty).
We hear rumours these days about BMW closing in on the formerly unassailable Mercedes-Benz domain but anyone who has experienced the enormous performance, the luxury, the dignity, the impeccable controls and manners of this “little” Mercedes will perhaps not thereafter be altogether satisfied with a BMW six-cylinder. In my opinion the modern Mercedes-Benz is one of the best-engineered cars in the World and in V8 form it is a delightful car to drive. The 280SE 3.5 must be regarded as a bargain at just over £5,000.—W. B.