Destined to be the best car in the world – Mercedes-Benz 280 S (1970) vintage test

Quality, reliability and elegance: the Mercedes W108/109 series set the standard in the upper category, the limousine designed by Paul Bracq featured many interesting technical solutions, and it was not unknown in Hungary back then either – this was how the important cadres raved about it. This time, we present the history and driving characteristics of the direct predecessor of the S-class in a well-preserved 280 S basic version.

1965 was the year when Daimler-Benz showed the world its latest concept of luxury. Chief designer Paul Bracq and his team carried over many styling cues (the standing lamps, the monumental radiator grille, the double-decker bumpers) from its predecessor, the W111/112 “Swallowtail”. Since the fins had by then gone out of fashion, they were removed from the rear fenders, and the bodywork was made lower and flatter, and the glass surfaces were increased, which resulted in a simpler appearance, better suited to the age.

A total of 330,495 W108s were produced, the most popular models of the series were the 280 S and the 280 SE, in Europe in this “pumpkin lamp” design. Click on the picture for the gallery!Source: Retro Mobile

Two versions were produced, the smaller W108 was “only” 4.9 meters long, and the luxurious W109 was around 5 (there was some overlap between the series, the SEL versions of the base model also ran with the longer body). Front-rear independent chassis guarantees excellent ride comfort, the rear swing axle has a central compensating spring, and the four disc brakes were standard. At the same time, there were no new developments in the entire technical arsenal, the six-cylinders, for example, were only updated: the 2.5-liter basic engine was created by boring out the previous 2.2 and, depending on the version, produced 130-150 horsepower.

The window surfaces are 15% larger than its predecessor, and in Germany it was nicknamed the “greenhouse”. The 280 S is subtly understeer when corneringSource: Retro Mobile

Above it was the 3.0-liter with injection, which was upgraded from the W189 Adenauer of the 1950s to 170 horsepower; this machine was also used by the W108 and W109. The two types were introduced at the same time in 1965, the smaller ones in 250 S, 250 SE and 300 SEb versions (the E stood for injection), of the larger ones with air suspension, only the 300 SEL existed at first. They were equipped with a four-speed manual transmission as standard, but a five-speed manual could be ordered for an additional fee, and a four-speed automatic was also a popular option, with a pre-selector lever that could be placed on the steering column instead of the floor.

A lever-operated butterfly window is a rare solution, it greatly improves ventilationSource: Retro Mobile

With two types of headlights and even a V8 engine

Then, in 1966, engineer Erich Waxenberg had the idea to put the 6.3-liter V8 engine of the 600 luxury car, which is popular even among dictators, into his W109, thus creating a new category: “unreasonably powerful limousines”. The prototype for the management was that it was also put into series production in a very limited number of copies. The 300 SEL 6.3 with 250 horsepower and huge torque became a big hit on the American market, so the factory later added two smaller V8s available to a wider range of customers, in 1969 the 3.5, and two years later (in the USA) the 4.5 liter.

The interior has a simple but pleasant atmosphere, with artificial leather upholstery, real wood and soft carpets. Instead of the expensive Becker, a Blaupunkt radio was subsequently installedSource: Retro Mobile

The now-legendary 6.3 was not the only special version: within the Stuttgart plant (Mercedes did not outsource this work to an external specialist workshop) from the 3.5 liter armored versions were also made, specifically for German diplomatic missions operating in countries considered dangerous. At the beginning of the seventies, 28 such rolling fortresses were in service in South America. As for the production models, in 1967 the 2.5 engine was converted to a 2.8 with a bore increase and other modifications, it was also produced with a carburettor (280 S) and Bosch injection (280 SE/SEL) with 140 and 150 horsepower respectively .

This modernized engine with factory code M130 has bearings in seven places, and its control is driven by a double chain. By default, it is fed by a nebulizerSource: Retro Mobile

The W108/109 duo set the bar high, none of the competitors could reach its level, even though a particularly modern and sporty challenger arrived in the form of the BMW E3. Among its technical innovations were the electronic injection that retired the mechanical one (for the 3.5 and 4.5 liter models), the transition to the automatic transmissions that are common today (P-gear above) and several safety improvements by Béla Barényi. Its basic versions were made with “pumpkin lamps”, the American-made and more expensive European models with halogen lamps were given a noble character by round twin headlights above each other.

The small side indexes of the front fenders reveal that they were exported from Italy. The passenger side mirror was not standard; the elegant plate rims polished to match the body color are characteristicSource: Retro Mobile

Refined and comfortable even as a basic model

Our test example is the most modest representative of the second edition of the W108 series (1967-1972), with a 280 engine, two twin-throat carburetors and a four-speed manual transmission. European version with a speedometer showing km/h, few extras, with the characteristic metal rims instead of alloy rims. Nicely preserved, never restored copy from Italy, near Venice. It is worth its weight in gold if you have a dedicated support team on site to find the desired model – negotiate the price on occasion – and deliver it home, which is how this model ended up in the garage of Viktor Zentai, along with several other veterans.

Two people can sit here very comfortably, the seat is soft and it comes with armrests. Taxis like this were rarely used, mid-range Mercedes were used for thatSource: Retro Mobile

Discreet elegance and practicality characterize the interior, it is not ostentatious at all. The dashboard consists of just a few switches embedded in real wood and a trio of clocks peeking out from under the dome, with a large steering wheel with a flashy chrome horn ring in front of them. The seats without headrests are adequately sized and comfortable, and there is plenty of legroom for passengers of average body size in the front and back. At idle, the in-line six-cylinder engine purrs decently, as the speed and revs increase, its sound becomes louder, but it never becomes noisy, in fact, it can’t be accused of drinking for its age: it consumes an average of 13 liters of gasoline.

The luggage compartment is huge, it is difficult to fish out the things shoved under the hat rackSource: Retro Mobile

The precise gearbox is a good design, it was used in several models of the brand, and you can operate with four long gears: in one, the Mercedes can be pushed up to 60 km/h, and in the third, the limit is 140. Of course, it’s a shame to force this regularly, the engine is not really fast, but it is torquey. It can easily pick up highway cruising speed and keep it comfortably even with a full load, while the ride comfort and straight-line driving are also convincing. The 280 S leans only slightly when cornering, it glides smoothly on good asphalt, and it performs well on broken roads, but it cannot eliminate all road defects.

The rear chassis is swing-axle, trailing-arm, with a central compensating springSource: Retro Mobile

There were some of them in the party garage of the Kádár elite

Its steering gear is ball-track, so it naturally has more backlash than rack and pinion. It’s hard to believe today, but servo assistance was not standard, and it doesn’t have it either, so you need a little muscle work to turn the steering wheel. A strong brake takes care of deceleration, supported by a power assist – the four-disc system was not only a privilege of the top series, Mercedes always gave safety, the smaller W114s introduced three years later (Stoplights) were also made in this way. Overall
the W108 was one of the best limousines of its time, comfortable and enjoyable to drive even as a basic model.

The VDO instrument cluster consists of a speedometer, fuel gauge, oil pressure gauge, water temperature gauge and clockSource: Retro Mobile

W108s also served in Hungary during socialism, they either carried high-ranking state functionaries, including János Kádár, who was not a particular fan of Soviet limousines, or they escorted delegations at the BRFK with blue and white paintwork and flashing lights (more on this in the gallery showing police cars of the time you can find a picture). Its successor, the W116, referred to as the Jockey-Merci based on the TV series, had an even more sophisticated structure and was the first to bear the S-class name, but many veterans are fans of the rarer W108 for its classic sixties feel.

The direction indicator and the fog light also fit under the big hood, the W108/109 was the last Mercedes series with parking lights. Many people subsequently convert it to twin headlightsSource: Retro Mobile

Technical data – Mercedes-Benz 280 S (W108)

Engine: OHC-controlled in-line six-cylinder gasoline engine, installed longitudinally at the front. Cylinder volume: 2778 cm. Bore x stroke: 86.5 x 78.8 mm. Compression ratio: 9.0:1. Performance: 140 hp at 4200 rpm. Torque: 223 Nm at 3,600 rpm.

Power transmission: four-speed manual transmission, rear-wheel drive.

Suspension: front with double wishbone anti-roll bar, rear with longitudinal guide arm, horizontal auxiliary spring. Front and rear coil springs and hydraulic shock absorbers. Dual circuit brake system with disc brakes and servo.

Superstructure: four-door, five-seat, self-supporting steel body. Length x width x height: 4900 x 1810 x 1440 mm. Wheelbase: 2750 mm. Luggage compartment: 610 l. Tank: 82 l. Own weight: 1495 kg.

Top speed: 185 km/h. Acceleration (0-100 km/h): 12.5 s.

Read more in the October issue of Retro Mobil: