Curbside Classic: 1976 Mercedes 280C (W114) – Pricey Hardware

(first posted 12/18/2014)    In 1976, the base price of this Mercedes 280C was $13,520 ($55k adjusted), $1041 more than the new 1976 Cadillac Seville. It had a 2.8L six that only managed to crank out a feeble 120 hp, thanks in part to lack of fuel injection. It took some 15 seconds to trundle from zero to sixty. The Seville’s fuel injected 5.7 L V8 made 180 hp, had almost twice the torque, and made the sprint to sixty in some 12-13 seconds. Where’s the true value in that?

Well, the answer isn’t going to be found in facts, statistics and numbers alone, although they certainly play a part. Isn’t that commonly the case with luxury cars?

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Obviously, tradition, prestige, and exclusivity are major factors. Despite certain objective shortcomings, including the unfortunate five mile bumpers, this 280C embodied the tradition of Mercedes coupes, which always sold in much smaller quantities than the pedestrian/taxi cab four door sedans, and as such were intrinsically more exclusive and prestigious.

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Although there were Mercedes coupes going much further back, including the exquisite 300S coupe of the fifties, the modern lineage of Mercedes hardtop coupes that has gone unbroken to the present started with the exceptionally graceful W111 coupe that first appeared in 1961. We’ve covered the cabrio here, but not yet the coupe. It was based on the “fintail” sedan, but minus the fins, and a very tasteful coupe roof. In Germany, it was colloquially called “the Thunderbird Mercedes”.

The W111 coupe was highly regarded from day one, and it became semi-collectible already while it was still in production, which was all the way into 1971, by that time with the new 3.5 V8.

Mercedes 1970 _250_C

The all-new W114/W115 series of mid-range cars arrived in 1968. The low-pivot swing axle rear suspension was finally gone, replaced by semi-trailing arms, and a new ball-joint front suspension graced the front. These cars set the basic architecture for all subsequent Mercedes generations until the W201 and w124s in the early 80s.

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These cars were styled by Paul Bracq, but this coupe version clearly was not quite as attractive and graceful as the W108; these cars were designed as sedans in the most utilitarian definition, and adapting the boxy body to coupe just didn’t work all that well. They kept the same wheelbase as the sedan, but the roof is a bit lower, and the C-pillar is a bit further forward, resulting in a longer trunk. Its successor W123 used a shortened wheelbase, with a bit more flair in its coupe roof, for a better effect. These are Bauhaus coupes.

I had mixed feeling when I first saw it, and I still do a bit today, but undoubtedly, it has a certain appeal, in that most old-school Mercedes way. More like the Taxicab of coupes.

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The coupe arrived sometime in 1969, which meant that both the W111 and w114 250C (above) were on sale at the same time for some time, although the 250C was of course less expensive. The 250C didn’t arrive in the US until 1970, and then with the 2.8 L six, making its model designation confusing, something that would be happening ever more often until Mercedes switched to a clear “class” designation.

Why the 2.8? Well, let’s just say that these coupes were not very light, and combined with US emission regs, they all suffered from being somewhat (or substantially) underpowered. I have a Road & Track review of a 1970 250C in front of me, and as much as they loved its superb ride, handling, brakes and impeccable build quality, performance was tepid. In 1970, the older SOHC 2.8 M130 engine still had 157 hp, but the heavily-optioned test car (automatic, A/C, etc.) weighed a chunky 3800 lbs (and cost a lofty $8827; $52k adjusted).

The saunter from 0-60 took 13.6 seconds; at least the four-speed automatic allowed the engine to use its full powerband; but not every luxury car buyer was intrinsically enamored of hearing the six sing soprano scales to 6000rpm on full-throttle upshifts. The 1/4 mile took a leisurely 19.0 seconds, with 72 mph in the traps.

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That was in 1970. By 1976, things were even worse, performance wise. Even though the DOHC M110 2.8L six was now under the hood, power was down to that very paltry 120hp. European versions had up to 185 hp, a decent number for the time, with fuel injection, higher compression, and no smog controls.

The painful truth is that Mercedes seemed to struggle more with its gas engines during the malaise era than did BMW and Porsche, especially its sixes. Why it didn’t put the fuel injection on these coupes and the W114 250/280 sedan is highly questionable. But the old Mercedes mechanical fuel injection system was very expensive, just like the old Rochester unit in the Chevys.

Mercedes was in the midst of transitioning to its electronic D-Jetronic system, and presumably didn’t want to bother certifying it for the US just yet. Or something like that. But the 0-60 time was now down to around 15 seconds. The same 120hp engine in the big W116 280S was even worse; rather dreadfully underpowered for a gasoline DOHC six.

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By 1977, the new W123 cars appeared, and the 280E now had fuel injection and a whopping 142 hp. But by then, diesels had become the most popular choice on US-bound Mercedes, and most of these coupes are 300CDs, like this one. So obviously, performance was not the driving force that was propelling Mercedes sales ever upwards in the 70s and 80s; at least not until 1985, when the new 140 mph W124 300E appeared.

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In addition to Mercedes Mania, which was sweeping through major metropolitan areas on the coasts, it was the Mercedes reputation and prestige factor, as well as their impeccable build and material quality. That attracted buyers, although there’s no doubt that many would have been better served with a plusher-riding Cadillac or Lincoln. You might be surprised, but at the time I as much as said so to some prospective buyers considering their first Mercedes at the time. Do you have any idea how slow a 240D is? And how firm the ride can be at slow speed? These cars were not designed primarily for typical American drivers used to their isolation cocoons, wafting down the freeway at the double nickel, or stuck in rush hour traffic. But they just had to have them.

Others knew what they were getting into, like the owner of this one, a one-owner car, with 280k miles on the odometer. It’s his keeper, and has had its engine rebuilt at 180k miles, and an exterior re-paint along the way. The interior obviously shows the decades of use, although the famously-durable old-school Mercedes thrones are still in very good condition.

Mercedes 1974 280C int

Here’s one that shows off the coupe’s ambiance, materials and handsome instrument binnacle to better advantage.

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So this coupe is a keeper in the truest sense of the word. And despite its limitations under the hood, which of course would be very easy to remediate now with some Euro-spec M110 engine tuning, it’s a fine specimen and one that has become rather rare on the streets, unlike the numerous 220Ds of the same vintage still to be found here. Its price/value equation might not have been very favorable at the time, but amortized over almost forty years and 300k miles, who cares?