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km : Hindsight

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3 June 2010

In contrast to most of the Kilometer staff, I didn’t take a post-birth ride home from the hospital in something hip and European, but instead a wood-sided Oldsmobile wagon. I drove a classic Chevrolet C-10 pickup in high school, and in fact no one in my family owned a non-GM car until the floodgates opened ten years ago with my mother buying an E46 325ci and my brother ditching his Cadillac for a pearlescent white Audi 90. It has been some number of years now since I saw the light when it comes to newer cars, but I continued forcing myself to believe that older American cars were still quite good. Much of this denial involved the fact that I owned and loved a one-owner, low mileage 1968 Cadillac Coupe Deville until I moved to Chicago three years ago and ran out of space for a 20-foot expanse of heavy, thirsty steel. Then a few weeks ago, Mercedes-Benz offered me a drive in a 1970 280SE 3.5. For the sake of my fond Cadillac memories, I should have walked away.



The 280SE is an unexpectedly modern-feeling cabriolet, especially considering that its W111/112 chassis code dates back to August of 1959, when the first “fintail” sedan appeared. A convertible debuted in 1961, and by the time the model evolved to our 3.5, the car’s sedan basis had moved on to another chassis. But the truth is, the W111 was a truly modern car. It was with these models that engineer Bela Barenyi first executed the concept of “crumple zones,” and new safety elements like a padded dashboard and safety door locks.



Despite the shared model code, the 220SE cabriolet that debuted in August of 1961 didn’t share a single body part with contemporary sedans, though it was identical to its coupe counterpart with the exception of the cloth roof and necessary body reinforcements. Luxuries like a four-speed automatic, power steering, four-wheel disc brakes, and air suspension (moving the cars to the W112 internal designation) were added as standard equipment a few years later with the debut of the 300SE.



By the time September of 1969 rolled around, famed designer Paul Bracq had taken his eraser to the car’s fintails and the prominent grille was pinched down and stretched a touch toward the headlights. The 280SE 3.5 debuted at this point, taking the “280” nomenclature of the 2.8-liter six-cylinder variant that debuted a year earlier, while the “3.5” indicated an upgrade to the 3.5-liter V8.



New for Mercedes-Benz for the 1970 model year, the 3.5-liter V8 used a cast-iron block but lightweight aluminum heads. Bosch fuel injection and overhead cams made it more efficient, responsive, and incredibly smooth, and also helped it produce 200 hp and 231 lb-ft of torque. At the time, only the smoking hot 300SEL 6.3 and the extravagant 600 limousine were more powerful. With the V8, air conditioning and a radio were added as standard equipment, and the car cost almost $12,000 in the US at a time when the 280SL roadster car cost just $6952 and a Cadillac DeVille Convertible cost just over $6000.



Production of the six-cylinder convertible halted in May of 1971 and two months later, V8s stopped rolling down the line as well. Only 7013 combined models were sold worldwide in the decade of production, explaining why these convertibles are so collectable today. Another Mercedes-Benz four-seat convertible didn’t debut until 20 years later, with the 1991 E-class.



My experience with the 280SE starts on a sunny spring afternoon in southeastern Tennessee. Based on my previous experience with seats from this era, I drop into the car and expect to be fully absorbed. An equal and opposite reaction bounces me up and down like a cartoon before I settle on the firmly sprung seat. The instruments are simple, legible, and straightforward, a contrast to the long sweeping rectangular speedometers that American companies were playing with at the time. This being a beautifully restored car from the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in California, the wood and leather are all as perfect as the day the car left Sindelfingen. The Becker Europa radio stays off; all I want to hear is the happy rumble of a small-displacement eight.



The whole car jumps up as I tap the eager throttle. This engine just wants to move. It doesn’t make the prodigious low-end torque of a monstrous American V8, but it also doesn’t want to spin one rear tire. The 3.5 delivers a strong launch and rides a rolling wave of momentum as the transmission moseys through the gears. I can carry more speed through the corners than I’m expecting, though at 3630 pounds this is actually a far lighter car than the 2011 E-class cabrio. Compared to the big Cadillacs I’m used to, the 280SE is 1000 pounds skinnier and at 192.9 inches long, it’s about two feet shorter as well. I chuckle as I make a quick motion with the big ropey steering wheel and the front end responds immediately. Trees go wizzing by overhead. This 280SE is a classic thrill ride, and I didn’t even have to put a tiger in mine like those guys in The Hangover.



It begs to be driven all day long through the rolling hills at the rim of the Great Smokey Mountains, but there’s a handler — likely a nervous one — waiting for the car back at Blackberry Farm, a must-see getaway for anyone who loves nature, great food and wine. I turn around by an abandoned barn and head back down the same fantastic road.



As I mash the confident disc brakes and turn in through an opening in a long white fence, a new E-class cabriolet exits. Visually, it’s easy to understand the length of time that has passed between the old car going away and this new one arriving, but dynamically, it’s hard to comprehend that 40 years have squeezed themselves between these cars. The 280SE 3.5 manages to be a true classic and a modern machine all at once. As for me, I hand the keys off and grab a rocking chair on Blackberry’s farmhouse porch, where I start drinking away the fact that I may never be able to buy a classic Caddy again.



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