Five Classic Trials
This coupé is as beguiling today as it was in the 1970s – but not for the reasons you might think
Pick up The Big Book of Motoring Journalism Clichés and you’ll find plenty of references to classic cars feeling like buildings on wheels. But you won’t find one here because this Mercedes is unapologetically focused on simply moving you and three passengers about, albeit rather more sumptuously than most of its Seventies counterparts.
Pulling the driver’s door shut elicits a heavy thud, letting you know that you’re in something rather more substantial than a Morris Marina. You don’t sink into a leatherbound throne – this 280CE’s seats are clad in MB-Tex and they have a delightful springiness to them, but you definitely sit on them rather than in them, and they encourage you to take up a comfortable upright posture as you grasp the huge two-spoke steering wheel.
It’s the same story with the dashboard fittings. A lovely slab of wood veneer creeps across to the passenger air vent and the bank of instruments immediately in front of you are beautifully made, but otherwise it all feels decidedly austere. The three-dial affair up front has a speedometer on the right, a tiny VDO clock in the middle and a circular dial on the left neatly combining the fuel, water temperature and oil pressure readings; the fact that there’s no rev counter gives the first clue to this car’s character.
Flick the ignition key and you’re greeted with a discreet, distant murmur from the 2.8-litre straight-six. Slot the chunky gear selector into Drive, release the dash-mounted handbrake lever and you’re immediately made aware of the car’s heft as it creeps gently forward.
Once you’re on the move this W114generation two-door really begins to pile on the charm, with the plump seats working in tandem with the cosseting ride from the coil springs and gas filled dampers at each end. It won’t be remotely impressed if you try any press-on shenanigans, responding with a gentle amount of body roll and a touch of understeer to sternly remind you that you’re missing the point. But keep things at the ’Benz’s preferred pace and it handles road undulations effortlessly. Sail gracefully into a bend at sensible speed and let the feather-light power steering and the straight-six’s seamless mid-range torque do all the hard work, carrying you out the other end. Repeat as necessary. It’s uncannily smooth and relaxed.
Once you’ve got all this going-aroundbends malarkey out of your system – it definitely feels like a means to an end in the 280CE, rather than its raison d’être – you can concentrate on the genius of the W114’s packaging. Its interior was virtually as spacious as that of the contemporary S-Class, and while the Paul Bracq-penned shape has two inches lopped off its roofline it’s still roomy enough for four adults to lounge about inside in comfort.
Twist the strange levers mounted either side of the cabin – Mercedes liked to charge for extras like electric windows – and all four windows sink into the shell to reveal a pillarless vista onto the landscape around you. It’s enough to transform any British A-road into a bit of the Riveria, and for that the 280 CE completely wins you over.
This utterly beguiling two-door Benz isn’t a building – it’s a balcony.