Curbside Classic: 1966 Mercedes 250SE Cabriolet (W111) – Class Before S-Class

(first posted 10/21/2012)     Is there a classier postwar Mercedes? The W111 Cabriolet became an instant classic from the day it arrived in 1961, and its image and status only grew greater during its eleven-year production lifespan. It commanded respect parked in front of the world’s ritziest hotels, casinos and restaurants. There were Mercedes that were sportier, Grosser and technically more impressive, but never one classier, at least in my book.

Paul Bracq gets credit for the styling of these handsome coupes and cabriolets. His approach, which essentially married the classic Benz front end to a softer-looking body and more graceful roofline, won out over other designs that ditched the Mercedes radiator for a stark, modern front similar to that of the later W113 SL “Pagoda”. Although such would be the case with this car’s much more recent successors, in 1960 this was the way to go.

Stylistically, the W111/112 coupes/convertibles are much closer to the W108/109 sedans that arrived in 1966 than with the Heckflossen” sedans with which they are so often associated with. The changes were quite significant; the whole body is lower, longer, and the dash design is totally different, also more like the W108/109s.

In the good old days of Mercedes, their essence always seemed to be a dance of traditional and modern–a graceful veneer  over the kind of constant and endless tug-of-war typified by the conflict over this car’s front-end design. Mercedes was able to synthesize those two seemingly contradictory forces into one potent amalgam that the W111 Cabriolet exuded from every pore of its steel, leather, wood and whatever those magnificent thrones were stuffed with.

In terms of Beverly Hills pecking order, this car gave up little to the Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible during its reign that lasted well into the ’80s…or has that reign yet ended?

For over twenty years, Mercedes didn’t even pretend to build a successor to the W111 Cabrio, prior to the W124-based 1993 CE300: A very nice car (like all W124s), but one that could never live quite up to the rep and status of the W111 Cabrio. It always remained in demand, and I suspect few cars ever had better resale value from the get-go, which in itself answers the question. And those resale values are still soaring; typically, those for the final version of the 280 SE 3.5 Cabrio are in six figures.

This example is a 250 SE, built about midway through the W111’s evolution. Only 2105 of these were ever built, at a rate of thirteen per week, and witha very large amount of handwork.

With seven main bearings and other improvements, its fuel-injected 2,496 cc, 150-hp SOHC M129 six had been revised substantially from the engine in the first-series 220SE. When teamed with a stick, as in this car, it can power the 250 SE to a top speed of 120 mph (193 kmh).

Given its Euro-style headlights and stick shift, this one undoubtedly was imported from Europe at some point in its life, after which the speedometer was converted from kilometers to miles. It has the fine Fuchs alloy wheels, which were first available in 1969 and thus obviously not original. But those whitewalls are not at all so fine; bad call there. And for some odd reason, this particular car is showing more positive camber than usual at the rear. Maybe it came to a stop there under severe braking? Not likely. The patented low-pivot swing axles were nearing the end of their life; although Mercedes had tamed most of the design’s vices, it was high time to move on. Tradition can become ossification.

The 280 SE version arrived for 1968. Also available in the final two years of 1970 and 1971 was a 280 SE 3.5, which had the new V8 as well as a substantially squatter “radiator” shell–in retrospect, the latter seems a somewhat unfortunate move. Still pretty classy, though.

Needless to say, all these convertibles had a very high-quality top with substantial padding between its inner and outer shells. But then, so did the VW Beetle Cabriolet; it’s a German thing, couldn’t just have a drafty, fluttery piece of fabric overhead, unless it was a real roadster.

How much tradition was invested in this? About as much as any automotive symbol, ever. During the Great Mercedification Era in the US, it represented the Holy Grail, which Detroit imitated blatantly. That only made the real thing even more desirable–and, quite possibly in the case of the Cabriolet, the most desirable of them all.