Vintage Review: 1977 Mercedes-Benz 280E – Teutonic Triumph

This is it.  This is the generation of sedans that firmly cemented Mercedes-Benz’s hold on the American luxury market.  Fully redesigned and reengineered, the “volume series” applied all the latest technology Mercedes could muster, and wrapped it in styling reminiscent of the larger, pricier S-Class sedans.  A range of power plants was offered, including the recently introduced 5-cylinder diesel, but the flagship of the E-Class range was the gas-powered 280E.  Car and Driver couldn’t wait to get behind the wheel of this one.

After all, the “International-Sized” luxury market was white hot in 1977.  The Arab Oil Embargo had shocked even the most affluent customers, and suddenly “smaller” was in style across all market segments, including luxury cars.

The benchmark that many makers used to establish size and styling parameters for smaller, more pragmatic but still pricey cars was the Mercedes-Benz W114 Series that had been introduced in 1968.  Makers from Cadillac with the Seville to Ford with the Granada sought to emulate the style, if not the substance, of these Mercedes sedans.  By 1977, the premium “International-Sized” segment really heating up, with the arrival of the Lincoln Versailles and Chrysler LeBaron, both introduced to challenge the Cadillac Seville, which of course had itself been introduced to challenge the Mercedes.

But then Mercedes moved the target, and in a big way, with the introduction of the W123 Series.  Car and Driver was delighted to sample a 6-cylinder 280E in March 1977.

For the car enthusiasts, the arrival of the W123 was indeed a big event, as the car represented Mercedes-Benz’s continual quest to make the best possible car with the newest available technologies.

Efficient packaging and safety engineering were naturally improved.

Solidity was enhanced, and a sophisticated new fully-independent suspension was deployed, along with better 4-wheel disc brakes–all familiar Mercedes attributes enhanced with the W123.  Also classically Mercedes-Benz was the well made, but strictly functional interior.  Ergonomics were excellent, materials were top notch, but there wasn’t a “loose cushion” or ersatz wood panel anywhere in sight, much to the chagrin of many a middle American luxury buyer.

At least from an interior styling standpoint, Detroit products could still tailor a traditionally hedonistic American luxury environment to woo traditional buyers repelled by the austere Benz.  But Motown’s finest didn’t stand a chance with buyers seeking the latest in high tech, efficient power-trains.

Perhaps reading articles like this one in my formative years is one reason why I love cars that are meant to be driven.  Each of the counterpoints praises Mercedes for building an outstanding machine, not some sort of rolling isolation chamber.  Of course nowadays the pendulum has swung in the polar opposite direction–driver engagement is “out” while automation and detachment are “in.”  One carryover: in 1977 Mercedes were critiqued for being “cold” machines, just as today’s pricy, trendy steeds like Tesla are now channeling the icy electronic style of soulless robot dominance.

Interestingly, the 280E didn’t handily beat the competition against key performance metrics.  In fact, braking performance was the worst of the bunch.  But unaccounted for on the charts was the totality of the new design that gave the Mercedes an unbeatable combination of overall attributes.  And it was priced accordingly: the as-tested 280E listed for $16,290 ($68,688 adjusted), which was a princely sum back in 1977, especially for a rather spartan mid-sized sedan.  Target buyers, however, didn’t care at all and were happy to snap up as many W123s as Mercedes would send stateside.  Mercedes-Benz U.S. sales surged 25% compared with 1976, rising to 53,818.  Plus, this was for a line of cars that started at $11,573 ($48,798 adjusted) for the cheapest 240D, which was higher than the base price of all Cadillacs except for the Seville and Fleetwood Limousine.

Ironically, even as highly desirable customers (e.g. younger, better educated and more affluent) began to show a marked preference for the sophistication, engagement, quality and snob appeal of the Mercedes, Detroit still couldn’t fathom that “International” luxury was more than a boxy design and upright grill.  This W123 was the car that truly caused the tectonic shift in the U.S. luxury market, introducing new standards of excellence and redefining “stealth status” for affluent Americans.  Motown is playing luxury league catch-up to this day.