They don’t build them like they used to. Really. I have yet to come across an car as solid as an old Mercedes, say pre-1998, before the Chrysler-DaimlerBenz AG “merger of equals.” If I had to choose one car to represent the pinnacle of—and benchmark for—Mercedes’ build quality, it would be the W116 S-Class. Hence my decision to restore a barn-found 1975 280S.
The W116 was the first Mercedes luxury sedan to be called the S-Class (the Sonderklasse or “special class”). From a design point-of-view, the 280S is old school, heavily inspired by the R107 450SL roadster and coupe that debuted several years earlier. Unlike the pretentious Rolls-Royce and Bentleys of its day, Mercedes’ three-box had both überholprestige and understated elegance. It’s sleek, refined and tasteful, with a broad shoulder line that gives it a masculine demeanor. At the same time, the big Benz’s wedge shape keeps the gargantuan sedan (17′ long) from looking overwhelmingly large.
Pulling the 280S’s protruding chrome door handle yields a suitably loud metallic clank. Nestling into in the S car’s therapeutic bucket seats, it’s easy to imagine the 280S as intercontinental transportation. Although the project car’s interior is a little warped from a year outdoors—not to mention the fact that it’s 34 years old—the cabin’s held up well. All materials and surfaces are soft to the touch, with brand-appropriate stolidity. Stoic, Teutonic, and dark. Check, check, check.
The 280S’s monstrous dash stretches across the entire width of the car; and there’s not much going on save a strip of wood lining the center. The climate and radio ergonomics are less than spectacular. While the switchgear maintains its tactile and firm feel, the main controls are virtually indistinguishable from one another.
In today’s day and age, the Mercedes Benz 280S seems woefully underpowered. Its carbureted 2.8-Liter DOHC straight six is rated at 160hp and 167 lb·ft of torque, peaking at 5,500 and 4,000 RPM respectively. Channeled through a short-ratio, four-speed automatic, the 280S’s acceleration is nothing more than adequate around town. Steep inclines and highway driving demand lots of wide open throttle and downshifting—just to keep up with traffic. No surprise: the M110 engine has to motivate about 3800 lbs worth of German steel.
The 280S [barely] achieved 12 mpg city/17 mpg highway. Back in the days of the fuel crisis and the newfangled lead-free fuel, these numbers and performance figures were . . . tolerable. The performance, not so much. Zero to sixty clocks in at about 11 seconds. The top speed lives in the vicinity of 120MPH. Again, that’s not bad for 1975. More importantly, the M110 engine’s smoothness rivals many modern straight sixes. Power delivery is wonderfully progressive. And, boy, does the 280S like to rev.
Handling is the 280S’s strong suit. The sedan tapped into technology from the famed C111 development test car. The 280S sports a double wishbone suspension with a torsion bar stabilizer up front, delivering zero offset and camber. The engineers added progressive anti-dive geometry to keep that big body stable under hard braking. They modified the once camber-change susceptible diagonal rear swing axle—the one that made the Chevrolet Corvair such a dangerous car to drive—with control arms that keep the camber change at bay (again, zero offset and camber).
The result: Mercedes’ traditional firm yet compliant ride quality. The Mercedes-Benz 280S will absorb potholes, dips, dives, imperfections without a care. Absolutely nothing can upset this car’s chassis. It has such a surefooted stance that it seems unstoppable.
Take the 280S on a long sweeping road, control the transmission via the shift gate, and it will negotiate a corner with swan-like grace. With its near-50/50 weight distribution, well thought out suspension tuning and a stiff chassis, the 280S is as neutral as Switzerland.
Mercedes designed the 280S’s handling limits to exceed the average driver’s skills, making the sedan easy and safe to drive—with plenty of potential for tire-squealing hoonery. The car’s wide track keeps lateral body motions well controlled. Its recirculating ball steering provides enough feel and feedback to tell you when the front wheels start to lose grip. And while the 280S doesn’t hide its massive size and bulk, it’s as easy to maneuver as a present day Honda Accord. At 2.7 turns lock-to-lock with a large diameter steering wheel, parallel parking the big Benz is a breeze.
Unlike BMWs of its day, the 280S is a perfect example of Mercedes-Benz’ ideology of blending safety, performance and comfort. The 280S is such a docile machine that it’s hard to imagine how far ahead of its time this car was, let alone its more expensive siblings (the 450SEL and the legendary 450SEL 6.9). If today’s Mercedes had continued to construct cars like the W116, rather than reaching downmarket, Mercedes would have maintained their reputation and a legitimate claim on producing the world’s best engineered cars.