1976 Mercedes-Benz 280C – Teutonic Hardtop

The final piece of the puzzle in Mercedes-Benz’s total revitalization of their lineup design-wise was the W114/W115 series of sedans and coupes. The ‘New Generation’ finalized the form of Mercedes’ new styling direction led by M-B designer Paul Bracq for the Sixties and well into the Seventies. This transformation of M-B’s look from slightly rounded Fifties full-fenderedness to sleek, smooth Sixties modernism began with the finless 220SEb coupe and cabriolet in The Year of Our Lord, 1961.

And it made sense to start with those models. The 220SE coupe and cabriolet were the top of the line. As many manufacturers have proved over the years, it is always better to introduce a new look on your top-of-the-line car. If you do it back-asswards, you will probably hear many a customer remarking loudly how the new Belchfire Eight Super looks suspiciously similar to the half-as-expensive Hiccup Custom Four.

1969 Mercedes-Benz 220

And so it was that the W114 and W115 were the final recipients of the look that started on the 220SEb, sporting 230SL and uber-fancy 600 earlier in the decade. However, despite the presence and popularity of the diesel 220D and 240D models (taxi luxury for Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight money!) you could get a very nice version of this car, if you ponied up for the 250 (later on, the 280), which featured real leather, real wood, and a straight six gasoline engine.

1961 Mercedes-Benz 300SE

But first, a bit of historical context. When the W111 fintail was introduced in 1959, replacing the venerable Ponton, the sedan versions sported some very un-Mercedeslike fins on the back. The coupe and cabriolet, however, had more modern, smoother styling, replacing the fins with a finless squared-off rear deck that would be used as a template for the W108 ‘Super’ that would replace the top-of-the-line W111 in 1965.

1965 Mercedes-Benz 300SEL

While the flossy 250S, 280S and 300SEs now wore the subtle, elegant lines of the W108 chassis (my favorite Mercedes-Benz sedan, bar none), the lower end gas and diesel fintails continued all the way through 1968. While some may consider these cars somewhat bland (I prefer the term ‘restrained’), they are one of my favorite Mercedes-Benz sedans.

 

1970 Mercedes-Benz 280SE

These understated yet elegant cars, with their bulletproof drivetrain and remarkable quality lured many Imperial, Cadillac and Lincoln owners into Mercedes dealerships in the late 1960s and early 1970s, despite their relatively smaller size and heftier price tag relative to Detroit Highland Park and Dearborn-built luxury cars. Of course, back then you didn’t have to get the most expensive Mercedes-Benz to experience their quality and quiet competence.

The New Generation class, or W114/W115, finally appeared in 1968, dispatching the final finned W110s once and for all. W114s had a variety of six-cylinder gasoline engines, while the W115 used four-cylinder diesels, five-cylinder diesels or four-cylinder gas engines. Diesel models initially included the 200D and 220D. The 220D was the fancier version of the diesel and had more standard features, though no one was going to mistake it for a 280SE 6.9. No leather, no genuine wood trim or air suspension. The 2197 cc OHC engine used Bosch 4-plunger fuel injection and a 5-main bearing crankshaft. Of course, they were very efficient, but for those with a lead foot, acceleration was definitely lacking. And in 1969, a hardtop coupe was added to the assortment of four-door sedans.

New safety features included a collapsible steering column, padded instrument panel, breakaway rear view mirror and locking seat backs, all standard. The 13″ wheels of the outgoing fintails were replaced with 14-inch units. Wheelbases increased by two inches to 108.3, while the track narrowed slightly. Dual-circuit four-wheel disc brakes (as introduced at about the same time on the Volvo 140) were an important new standard feature. And the rear swing axles, a Mercedes feature for years, were finally replaced with an all-new semi-trailing arm rear suspension.

While bank presidents and the idle rich were buying leather and wood-trimmed 300SEL 6.3s and 280SE 4.5s, European engineers, office managers and shopkeepers were perfectly content with a 230 or 220D with M-B Tex vinyl and matte plastic trim. These cars were also highly desirable for taxi service. 200D’s were common taxicabs in Germany in the late Sixties and Seventies, due to their quality components and long-lived drivetrains. But if you liked the look but wanted more power and more style, you could always check out the pillarless W114 280C coupe.

1973 280C

The 280C coupe first appeared in early 1972, and featured a DOHC six-cylinder engine with Solex dual compound downdraft carburetion. In Europe it produced 160 hp at 5500 rpm. U.S. models, with various and sundry emissions equipment, had 120 horses at 4800 rpm. These cars were not cheap in the U.S., either, especially the hardtop coupe. East coast pricing for the 280C in September 1972 was $9,518. By 1975 it was up to $14,639.

To put that in perspective, a 1975 Chevrolet Caprice Classic convertible was $5,113.

A 1975 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, with its long wheelbase and rear footrests and sumptuous interior, was also less expensive than the Mercedes, at $10,414. So basically, you could have gotten a Caprice convertible AND a Fleetwood Brougham for about a grand more than the Mercedes alone.

A Mercedes which, while carefully built with fine handling and quality components, was about the same size and shape as a 1975 Dodge Dart Swinger-which cost $3410 in Special Edition trim-and with V8 power to boot. Of course, all three of these Detroit cars had substantial differences from the M-B, and I don’t have to mention the quality and reliability issues with American iron in the Seventies.

My point is, you really had to want the Mercedes to pony up that kind of money. 1975 280C production amounted to 2,133 in 1975. But those who bought them were very satisfied with them, I’m sure!

And while 120 hp may not sound like a whole lot in 2018, it was a road rocket compared to the visually similar 220D and 240D sedans. In the mid-’70s, the 240D produced 67 horsepower. Ye gods! And keep in mind a high school kid driving a clapped out ’66 Chevelle with traction bars would absolutely stomp a 240D. Don’t pick one of these if you’re going to rob a bank! This was not a hot rod, and never meant to be one. Its function was comfort, good space and ergonomics, fuel economy and reliable service. And in that capacity, it more than delivered. But it must have hurt when a 240D owner got passed on the expressway by a Vega or Pinto or Plymouth Arrow. How embarrassing!

Changes to the W114/W115 were relatively minor between 1968 and 1976. Primary changes were simply due to advancing safety standards, and the equipment said standards required.

In 1972, the long-familiar two-spoke Mercedes steering wheel with gigantic chrome horn ring, was finally replaced with a smaller diameter, padded four-spoke ‘safety’ version.

Top of the heap was the 280 Series, which had a more luxurious interior and certainly more oomph under the hood than its diesel-powered stable mates. Its predecessor had been the 250. The original 250C coupe, which came out in ’68, used the 280 engine, interestingly enough.

A 1970 250C would have set you back $6,625 on the East Coast. Again, for comparison’s sake, a 1970 Mercury Marquis Brougham four-door hardtop was $4219.

And of course, you could get it in a coupe version, which was not available on the 200/220/240 Series models. A pillarless coupe was something on the way out by 1975-76 for many manufacturers, but Mercedes still had one. And in fact, retained at least one pillarless coupe from then all the way to the present day.

I spotted this coupe at the 2017 Des Moines Concours d’Elegance. held every year downtown, with hundreds of beautiful cars, from prewar Packards and Lincoln Continentals to Sixties Studebakers and Seventies Mazda Rotary-engined pickup trucks. I hadn’t seen one of these in a long time, and it appeared to be in showroom condition. As it was missing show identification and was adjacent to the local luxury car dealer’s display of new cars, I suspect it was from the dealership’s collection and not an actual show vehicle. It looked terrific!

The W108 and these W114/W115s led the way in Mercedes’ new look for the 1960s and beyond. In modified form, the styling would last all the way to the final W126 S-Classes in 1991. While the simple lines may have been somewhat bland when new when compared to the S-Class and SLs and 600, they proved to be just as timeless as those flossier M-Bs. And just as collectible today.

Jon’s 450SL at the Rizza Cadillac show, summer 2017.

This post is dedicated to a friend of mine in Chicagoland, Jon V. We lost him far too soon, but I’m a better man for knowing him. He was a MAJOR Mercedes-Benz nut, was a certified technician for them and worked at various dealerships in the past. He owned both a ’76 450SL and 300TD wagon. I will miss him. Godspeed Jon, wherever you are.

12 Replies to “1976 Mercedes-Benz 280C – Teutonic Hardtop”

  1. stingray65

    Another excellent piece, particularly interesting to compare the pricing with US cars of the time. More sophisticated MB engineering and higher build quality certainly came at a significant price premium, but I suspect most US MB buyers were primarily looking for something more individualistic with a prestige brand at a time with Cadillac was cranking out 300,000 deVilles per year of indifferent quality. Today the situation is almost reversed with MB going seriously down-market with a ‘starter’ CLA, that is arguably lower quality, less sophisticated, and lower priced than a ‘starter’ ATS, and MB greatly outselling Cadillac (and Lincoln) in US sales.

    Reply
  2. JustPassinThru

    Daimler-Benz had the world by the ‘nads in those years – unparalled quality and a loyal following.

    And, as we all saw, they took that headstart and that heritage and BLEW IT.

    They sharpened their focus on a single sector – the luxury market. Those who seek quiet understatement; quality over flash.

    That sort of buyer tends to be older; and over the years, without drawing new devotees, that market tends to get elderly.

    Prospects who once examined technical sheets; poured over reviews and statistics of resale and total miles on Mercedes-Benz vehicles sold…soon became reflex repeat purchasers. Set in their ways, retired…when the time came, or the whim hit, they just automatically chose Benz, and only Benz.

    As we have seen, that led to some sloppy habits. Issues, especially with Robert Bosch electronic equipment, were not addressed as throughly as needed. Engineering got sloppy. The vehicles were no longer engineered so much for longevity; or at least little work was put into improvement in that direction.

    Meantime, the Japanese were racing to catch up – in quality; in long life; and even in some cases, driving dynamics.

    The final step in the de-throning of D-B from their own pinnacle, was the board and management changes that was culminated in the naming of Jürgen Schrempp as CEO. There, was a man without scruples or morals or even a clear vision…and whose wreckage led to the destruction of Fokker and Chrysler, while LOSING, not gaining, shareholder value.

    The Schrempp era is long over; but a new generation of Peak Earners no longer regards Daimler, or other German brands, as pinnacles of engineering accomplishment. Many believe, with justification, the depreciation from predictable expensive repair early on in ownership, makes purchasing them a losing proposition.

    But history repeats. Already the Japanese monolith is crumbling. Nissan fell to the sway of the bookkeepers, long ago…and is now just a subsidiary. Toyota is now repeating Mercedes’ mistake in assuming repeat buyers – and is farming out small car construction to Mazda, a former rival with much less history of quality engineering than has Toyota.

    But it’s a fascinating look back, at where the greats and the now-fallen once were.

    Reply
  3. John C.

    I would have loved to see a comparison test between a 4 cylinder gas MB W114 and the other high quality euro sedans of the same size and engine class. The Volvo 140, the Peugeot 504, the Rover 2000, BMW 2000 and Audi 100LS. The Valiant of the time would be an interesting counterpoint, though slant 6. One of the great things that might come out is how different they are and how well the represent their countries of origin.

    The other site somehow gets away republishing long ago work by the car magazines, surely this test must have happened, though I only remember tests against incomparable cars closer in price.XJ6 Seville et all.

    Reply
    • Tom KlockauTom Klockau Post author

      I always wondered about that. “Hey! Let’s swipe classic road test articles from legitimate publications, add a few throwaway sentences, and present it as new!” You’d think R&T or Car and Driver’s legal departments would have an interest in that.

      Even barring any possible legal issues, it strikes me as the height of laziness.

      Reply
      • JustPassinThru

        C/D has been through about four changes in ownership; and there appears to be little institutional memory.

        So, perhaps between the legal fog of ownership, and that reviews of then-new cars now all-but-completely removed…they’ve just decided, fuggit.

        David E. Davis is long gone, now, and he was the elephant in the room. Most of the surviving buff books take an opposite, pro-regulation, pro-electric, pro-PC stance. I expect the young people, working for a tenth of what writers used to make at such publications…hate their past, reject the views of reviewers like Davis and Don Sherman and Larry Griffith…and want to move forward, into our SMART/Fiat/Tesla future as they’ve decreed it.

        Reply
      • John C.

        To be fair to the old site, and of course barring legal issues, it is a lot of work coming up with fresh material every day the way he does. I know where of I speak. I do a small stamp collecting site, the-philatelist.com, and doing a new circa 600 word article every business day is quite time consuming. I have the advantage that not many write about postage stamps. or collect them, which I am out to change. A lot of people write about cars.

        Reply
        • Tom KlockauTom Klockau Post author

          That is one thing I discussed with what’s-his-name years ago. What’s the point of posting 10-12 items per day? People do have jobs, families, and other commitments in their lives. The readers will still visit. And too many re-runs and schlocky, lame posts might actually repel readers. I was ignored. The funny thing is I was lectured around that time over re-posting a couple of articles that had a few years on them, and in the years since my departure the place has become Re-run Central.

          Reply
          • Paul In Las Vegas

            I see on what’s-his-names site he still posts your articles from 2013 as recent as 2/5/18 so definitely re-run central. (Also a testament to how good the articles are)

    • EMedPA

      Blah. My father had a ‘74 Dart with the Slant 6. That sorry excuse for a car was the definition of 70’s Detroit Automotive Malaise.

      Reply
  4. -Nate

    Very nice cars, especially the coupes .

    I very nearly pulled the trigger on a hard to find 250SE in /Chinese Red, the clear coat was just beginning to go but otherwise it was flawless . one owner, a nice Japanese fellow who I think was going to give up driving .

    The CE denotes Bosch D-Jetronic fuel injection, a very crude but decent system that’s great until you fool with it or allow dirty fuel into it .

    -Nate

    Reply
  5. Glenn Kramer

    Tom,

    Two posts in two days! Both excellent. I remember the Mercedes 250/280s as really slow and noisy, compared to the contemporary Caddys and Lincolns (and even the lesser Caprice, Marquis LTDs). My uncle had one of these as well as a 300 coupe in the mid 60s and I remember driving them, “hang on” A/C, noisy engines and hard seats…as a teenager I just didn’t get the hidden qualities, for me they were really “hidden”!

    Reply
  6. safe as milk

    tom, i always look forward to your articles. i never really understood how the mercedes product ladder was designed to work until now. i remember as a kid that all my wealthier relatives drove full size american cars except my godfather, uncle cherry (sheridan). he was the president of an s&l. he drove a red 200 series mercedes. he also wore a bow tie.

    Reply

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