Please pardon some of the wonky shots – these were taken in motion, at the back of a motorbike. I have just been through a relatively acute Fintail binge (post to be published in the coming days), and was on the way to recovery when this latest manifestation of the CC Effect took place. Lo and behold, a superb ‘70s S-Class land yacht was navigating its chromed prow through the busy streets of my little corner of Asia. And to think I hadn’t caught a W116 yet.
Traffic is murder in this city. Literally. Thailand has one of the worst road safety records in the world. But traffic can make you waste a lot of time, it’s far too hot to walk and very unpleasant to cycle, so the motosai motorbike taxi (usually sans helmet for the customer), combined with public transport, is a solution favoured by many. The motosai (alternative spelling: motocy) is the only way to beat the Bangkok traffic and extremely handy for short distances. It’s also a good way to spot interesting cars in traffic, but it’s usually hard enough to get a single photo. In this case, I was lucky enough to spot that classic Merc shape ahead of us as we slowed down, giving me time to get my smartphone ready to snap away drive-by-style as we caught up with it.
The W116 saloon (Sept. 1972 – Sept. 1980) has been abundantly featured in CC over the years, but there’s been little regard for the lowest-spec 280 S – the 6-cyl. model, which appeared unimpressive in this R&T Vintage Review post by our Editor. It seems the US version, with its thyroid-eye sealed beams, botox bumpers and stifled engine was something of an abomination. Our Thai example, in contrast, looks the part and has 158 hp compared to its American sister’s meagre 120. Still, that didn’t make the “Global spec” 280 S a very agile car – it could barely crack 190 kph – but it’s no slouch.
I really like this car’s deep blue, which led me to this wonderful W116.org colour chart web page. I think this 280 S is the Blue Metallic #387, but it’s a tough call. I did not know these were exported to Thailand. I initially read that the 280 S was never sold in the UK, so I wondered if this right-hooker might be a rarity. It probably isn’t: it seems the RHD Solex-carbureted 280 S was sold in Australia and Indonesia as well as Thailand, which probably means these were available in other RHD markets in the Asia-Pacific region (such as Japan, Malaysia or New Zealand — hopefully someone in the CCommunity knows more), not to mention East and Southern Africa. In fact, I bet they made the 280 S with those markets in mind: back in the mid-‘70s, there were very few roads in most of these places where a fuel-injected V8 W116 would have been a better mode of transport.
This seems to be borne out by the overall production data per engine type. At almost 123,000 units made (Wikipedia dixit), our modest 280 S is the second only to its 280 SE sister ship (150,000 made) as the most popular flavour of W116. Pretty impressive since, in some important markets, one or the other was absent. There was also a long wheelbase 280 SEL added to the range in 1974, which only convinced 7000 punters. The three V8 models (normal / LWB 3.5L, 4.5L and LWB-only 6.9L) taken together add up to over 150,000 as well. The 1978-80 North American-only 300 SD (5-cyl. 3.0L, smoky Diesel flavour) adds an extra 28,000 cars, and we’re but a generous rounding error or two away from half a million units. And the 6-cyl. W116s hold a two-thirds majority.
Could it have been otherwise? Base models don’t necessarily always do well, but generally they do. And they did, especially in Europe and Asia, where the 280 S made a lot of sense as a status symbol. It didn’t seem to make much sense in its American form, however. But I have no idea how many were sold there – or, indeed, anywhere in particular. Why these were never sold in the UK is a bit puzzling, but the competition from Jaguar XJ6 was fierce there, so perhaps the 182 hp fuel-injected version was seen as a minimum requirement.
Got this last shot as we sped away. It’s the title pic, but uncropped. I often crop my pics – and I certainly did in this case. But somehow, this one also works pretty well like this. From the Fintail W111/112 to Bracq’s Finless W108/109, this W116 and the subsequent W126, one is spoilt for choice when it comes to Mercedes’ senior saloons. This was the subject of a QOTD by GN last year and the W116 got a lot of votes, including mine. It still does today.
COAL: 1978 Mercedes Benz 450SEL – Grey Market Special, by Importamation