A pair of compact, sporting Mercedes

A special 280E Manual and the 280CE Automatic

The last 12 months have seen a subtle and almost) unofficial intrusion into the tough world of rallying by Mercedes-Benz, the marque in which years ago Eugen Bohringer put up some staggering rally performances with unlikely saloon versions. Last year’s first venture, prompted by the enthusiasm of Mercedes-Benz in Great Britain, ended in an outstanding 1-2 victory on the 15,000-mile Singapore Airlines Rally from London to Australia. Over-ambitiously, Mercedes then decided to have a crack at the Safari Rally (again unofficially, you understand …) with disastrous results from which valuable lessons were learned. The tool for both these rigorous tasks was the 280E version of the W123 compact saloon range, in rather closer to standard guise than most rally cars.

Thanks to the involvement of Mercedes-Benz (United Kingdom) Ltd. in the Singapore Airlines Rally, I was able to try one of the most enjoyable big saloons I can recall, more than a match in its sporting demeanour to “Unbeatable BMW”. I had been well-pleased with the standard 280E automatic, road-tested in the March, 1977 issue of Motor Sport, adding the rider that “the splendid handling should be even more responsive under manual gearbox influence”. Although a four-speed manual gearbox was available abroad, UK imports could be had with four-speed automatic gearboxes only. The rally cars all had manual gearboxes, as did an otherwise standard UK specification 280E saloon brought to Britain for testing tyres for the rally cars. It was this car, fitted additionally with stiffer coil springs and Bilstein gas-filled dampers, that I had on test after it had served its useful development process. In fact the springs and dampers were the only items on the car that you or I could not order on a new car straight from a dealer’s salesman: the manual gearbox car is available to special order at no extra (and no less!) cost. Though the Stuttgart computer would have to be programmed specially to churn out a manual gearbox r.h.d. 280E to UK specification, the special order should not prolong the delivery time, which is about six months anyhow.

That SLF 266R had spent most of its 6,000mile life on special stages was confirmed by the stone-spattered sills and rear wheelarches, the holes in the front carpet and rear parcel shelf where a full roll-cage had been located, brackets on the chassis rails for a stout sumpguard, an automatic boot lock which didn’t and country horns which had expired, though town horns kept things legal. Unfair punishment had been meted out to it right from the beginning of its life, when brand-new, Mercedes’ Jonathan Ashman used it as course car on the Avon National Forest Rally in which I was competing with Tony Fowkes in a rather less pristine 450SLC. Afterwards it spent most of its mileage on Bagshot stages, testing tyres for the six Singapore Airlines Rally cars of Cowan, Fowkes, Kling, Kleint, Warmbold and Mauch. For my test, SLF had returned to the standard wear of 195/70 HR14 Pirellis, on steel wheels complete with nave-plates. It says much for Mercedes’ engineering strength that the only give-away to its hard life other than the aforementioned details was a rattle from an exhaust heat shield, from whence a bolt had escaped. Elsewhere in this issue, you will read of the toll that only 190 or so stage miles took on the rather more specialised cars in the International Welsh Rally, which must give some sort of reverse reflection on the Mercedes’ inbuilt strength and pedigree.

This hard-used test car had its original standard production engine attached to the manual gearbox. This sweet, oversquare, twin-overhead camshaft straight-six has a capacity of 2,746 c.c. (86 mm. X 78.8 mm.) and develops 177 b.h.p. at 6,000 r.p.m., with 172 ft. lb. torque at 4,500 r.p.m. It has a cast-iron cylinder block, an alloy cylinder head, has an 8.7-to-1 compression ratio and is fitted with Bosch K-Jetronic mechanical fuel-injection equipment. The manual gearbox car shares the same 3.55-toI final drive ratio as the automatic car, which gives 60-m.p.h. cruising at 2,966 r.p.m. I assume the weight of the manual car won’t be far removed from the 28.7 cwt. I quoted for the automatic version.

A couple of years ago M-B offered an Executive version of the old-style W114 series 280E with a five-speed ZF gearbox, but now the only manual option is M-B’s own well-proven “four-speeder”, with ratios of: 1st, 3.9 to 1; 2nd, 2.3 to 1; 3rd, 1.41 to 1; 4th, 1 to 1 and reverse, 3.66 to 1. No tachometer is fitted, nor does one feel necessary, for this so-smooth, free-revving and flexible engine feels practically unburstable, has a cut-out to prevent it going “over-the-top” and doesn’t feel to need the use of maximum revs to give of its best. Less sensitive drivers can be guided by recommended maximum speed markings on the speedometer of 34 m.p.h., 55 m.p.h. and 90 m.p.h. in the gears. Theoretically this sporting semi-limousine should pull about 124 m.p.h. which it probably will, given a long enough run. Certainly 120 m.p.h. was readily attainable by the test car.

The “golf club” knob of the nicely-placed gear-lever controlled a light and smooth gearchange and the clutch too was light and progressive. Heel-and-toeing was difficult and most of the time I changed my usual double-declutch downward change style to one of lightly stroking the lever into the lower notch; the gearbox’s tough early life had failed to kill the perfect synchromesh. Apart from the pedal layout drawback a very good manual arrangement indeed, which made light work of town driving too. Reverse was over and up (with a lift of the lever) to the left.

I could not help likening this 280E to the marvellous little VW Scirocco GLi (tested last December) in its sewing-machine sweetness of power delivery through only four gears. This twin-cam six’s crispness became even more obvious without a “sludge-pump” to soften its power delivery to the rear wheels. The gearbox ratios matched the engine characteristics perfectly, as did the final drive ratio for highspeed cruising, so there was never the temptation to search for a fifth gear as I tend to do in undergeared BMWs.

With the crisp six wound up, this manual car had splendid performance, with a 0-60 m.p.h. time around the 9.5 sec. bracket. Although very flexible, it didn’t have the torque of the big BMW six-cylinder engine, but achieved its performance less fussily, more quietly and the gearbox was quiet too. Stiff springs and dampers made for a hard, though not too uncomfortable ride. But the loss of comfort was a small price to pay for a resultant precision of handling and reduction in roll which made this heavy, four-door, five-seater such a delightful and easy car to drive very quickly indeed. The standard car is surprisingly agile and easy to place, thanks to its direct and lively, sensibly geared Mercedes power steering and neat, square shape; the stiffer suspension endowed it with extraordinarily good handling manners and cut down roll. Although biased towards gentle understeer on dry tarmac, it responded quickly to changes of direction and turned into corners well, very confidenceinspiring chassis behaviour. I thought perhaps the understeer must have been a problem on loose surfaces, although on dry tarmac the front wheels couldn’t be made to break away,. but perhaps this wasn’t the case, for in wet and slippery conditions the back broke away very controllably before the front. As this was a Mercedes, I need hardly mention that the all-disc brakes, which were unmodified, were simply admirable, totally consistent in their behaviour, however hard-pressed.

The stiffer suspension increased suspension thump and general road noise, and wind noise levels were none too low. The hard life had left its mark with a few extraneous noises too, yet this silver saloon felt to have lost nothing of its Mercedes engineering integrity. Mercedes-Benz may retain conservative styling, but here in this car was proof that the sporting identity has not been lost. I would dearly have liked to own it. – C.R.

The Mercedes-Benz 280CE

If I would like to own the road test 280E manual, I would like even more to own a 280CE coupe model prepared to the same specification of gearbox and suspension. I have a penchant for coupe versions of big saloons like BMWs, Jaguars and now the Mercedes W123C series. Why carry around two extra doors and a higher roof line if, like myself, you don’t need them? Coupes always seem neater in styling, less cumbersome in aPPearance and the 280CE is no exception. I don’t propose to dwell too much on the red 280CE automatic which followed the 280E manual on my road test schedule, for I wrote an introduction to the model in the May 1977 issue of Motor Sport, after driving left-hand drive examples in Germany. As I said then, most of its virtues and the mechanical description parallel the 280E automatic tested in the March 1977 issue.

The coupe is 8.5 cm. shorter and 4 cm. lower than the saloon W123, weighs a little less and shares the same nose and tail sections. It is Powered by the same 2,746 c.c., straight-six engine detailed in the 280E manual report above and sits on similar double wishbone front suspension with anti-dive geometry and zerooffset steering, and diagonal swing axle rear suspension with brake torque compensation. The spring and damper rates are revised to compensate for the variance in weight and wheelbase. A four-speed automatic gearbox is standard, but the manual ‘box detailed above can be ordered specially at the same price. A coupe customer pays dearly for the improved styling: £10,990 against £9,995 for the saloon. However, the coupe’s standard specification does include such luxuries as electric door windows and four headrests, all extras on the saloon. Extras on the test 280CE included alloy wheels and an electric sun roof, which can be added to the saloon too, but I missed the useful headlamp wash/wipe system fitted to the test saloon.

Both front and rear side Windows retract fully in this pillarless coupe. The rear windows are mechanically operated, so cannot be opened by the driver when on the move. Headroom is barely adequate for tall drivers and front scat passengers, even with the height adjustment of the seats at their lowest settings. By coupe standards, rear seat headroom is not too bad, though again, tall occupants suffer. The rear seats are contoured for two, but a removable cushion is provided to slip into the centre oddments tray should there be a third rear scat occupant. The front seats feel to have slightly more lateral support than those of the saloon and have an ingenious vacuum device for locking and unlocking the backrests for access to the rear. I thought the corded velour seat and door trimmings of the 280E manual more tasteful and comfortable than the patterned, smooth cloth inserts of the coupe, but I did like the genuine walnut root veneer panelling which is standard wear on the centre console and along the facia strip of the coupe.

Like the saloons, the coupe is ergonomically functional by virtue of simplicity. All the major electrical functions are controlled positively by one stalk on the right of the steering column, the thick-rimmed, softly-padded steering wheel has no adjustment because Mercedes engineers put it where it ought to be for practically any driver, the turn-knob heater controls with separate heat control for each side of the car would be understood even by an imbecile and the instrumentation cocooned in its tidy nacelle is the epitomy of clarity. The left hand dial holds gauges for the 80-litre fuel tank, water temperature and oil pressure, the last named sticking on 45 p.s.i. maximum if all is well, in the centre is a large 150 m.p.h. speedometer and on the right an accurate clock to keep the discerning businessman on schedule. There is a capacious, lockable cubby-hole, nets in the front seat backrests and a vast boot. A first-aid kit is part and parcel of all Mercedes.

After the stiffly-suspended semi-rally car, the standard coupe felt soft, though certainly not sloppy. I retuned myself to standard Mercedes suspension tautness after a few miles and thoroughly enjoyed the handling which, while not so good as that of the modified car, was a shade better than that of the standard saloon, with less roll. Nose dive and squat was minimal and all the disc-brakes again superb. This particular injection engine was mechanically noisier than that of the modified saloon, a question, I think of tappet re-adjustment at its next service, which, through demonstration demands, was well overdue. Nevertheless, it returned 19.1 m.p.g.

The four-speed Mercedes-Benz automatic gearbox with torque converter has always been a first-class unit and felt to chop little off the performance. In fact it put about a second on the o-6o time, but didn’t give the driver the same direct feeling of inflence upon the handling.

Now that Jaguar have ceased production of XJ coupes, Mercedes have a niche all to themselves in this section of the quality market with this elegant, superbly engineered coupe. The BMW 633CSi is £4,000 dearer and more comparable with the 450SLC and XJ-S. A splendid car. —C.R.