Germany doesn’t have a warm and balmy Riviera. There are no sun-drenched Mediterranean beaches, no bays or cays lined with palm trees and speedboat-studded jetties. It’s one of automotive history’s most entertaining quirks that German manufacturers, and Mercedes-Benz in particular, should have such a deeply ingrained and intuitive knowledge of what type of car should work on the Riviera, and perhaps no car has performed these high-roller boulevardier duties with quite as much panache as the W111-generation cabriolet.
This model code was bestowed upon a broad range of cars built between 1959-71, including cabriolets and coupes as well as four-door saloons, and it’s a range which has kept enthusiasts scurrying to double-check their notes for generations. The saloons were referred to internally as Heckflosse, or ‘fintail’, thanks to their overtly American-influenced styling and, as the name suggests, prominent tail fins. But the coupe and cabriolet were of a markedly different design – they have smoother and more clean-cut rears. The work of legendary designer Paul Bracq, the silhouette is one that was so adored by Mercedes top brass that its essence was carried through into future models for many years.
Designed in tandem, the coupe and cabriolet took the sensible four-door platform and reimagined it into something stylish and aspirational; luxury grand tourers for connoisseurs. The coupe launched first, with production beginning in 1960, but it was at the Frankfurt Auto Show the following year when the covers came off the 280 SE cabriolet that the world immediately changed for the better. The simple act of removing the roof entirely altered the car’s character; it was a beautifully engineered arrangement, with the soft-top folding neatly away behind the rear bench and concealing itself within a cover trimmed to match the seats, and the ability to enjoy the 280 SE’s family of straight-six engine choices with the wind in one’s hair opened up a whole new world of possibilities. The drop-top immediately became an icon, a classic, one for the ages.
But the engineers still had more to give. Indeed, they saved the best for last, debuting the rakish 280 SE 3.5 in August 1969. There was no straight-six here, but a full-fat 3.5-litre V8 – the first engine with a displacement above three-litres that Mercedes had seen fit to use in a post-war production car. Oh, and what a motor it was! The M116 V8 was an all-new design, producing an effervescent 200bhp and giving the cabriolet thoroughly modern 130mph potential. The top-tier spec level was distinguishable not just by the 3.5 boot badge, but by a larger and deeper front grille, and the facelift model came with all of the luxuries that a contemporary clubman boulevardier could expect – electric windows, power steering and automatic transmission as options, and a truly beautifully trimmed interior.
Just 1,232 examples of the 280 SE 3.5 were built, and what was impressive rarity in period translates to spectacular desirability today.
If rarity is what flicks your switch, then you’ll be pleased to note that the example we’re looking at here – XMD 339M – is rarer than most. Being a factory right-hand-drive example is what makes it particularly special, as only sixty-eight of these were built. And what’s most endearing of all is that the ingrained Riviera spirit has been lived out with gusto throughout the car’s life. This 280 SE 3.5 is a genuine globetrotter, an adventurer, a machine with more than a few tales to tell.
The car was built in April 1970, less than a year before the W111’s production run came to an end, and as soon as it rolled out of the assembly plant in Stuttgart it was packaged up and wrapped in the figurative bow, ready to be shipped to the sunny island nation of Malta. Here is where its first owner resided, the car being registered at Admiralty House, and we can now only imagine how perfectly suited the ineffably stylish cabriolet was to its virgin environs. The balmy climate, the fresh Mediterranean air, the sweeping stretches of coastline… and it’s also worth remembering that Malta is, of course, quite small. There’s only so much driving you can do on an island that’s only slightly larger than Stuttgart. So it was enjoyed as the designers intended, but only in moderation. No stratospheric mileage here, it was presumably just a case of gentle runs along the seafront between cocktail parties.
After four years, the Mercedes then made its way to the United Kingdom. This is why you see it wearing an M-suffix registration number, as the official date of UK registration was in January 1974. Here the car passed into a cherished and pampered lifestyle, used casually for high days and holidays before – in a shock twist – being shipped over to Hong Kong. This was another eminently appropriate move in the field of dream realisation; not only is Hong Kong a humid subtropical region, it’s got miles of fabulous coastline to enjoy with the top down and the endorphins up. Furthermore, it’s one of the comparatively few countries which, like the UK and Malta, drives on the left, so a right-hand-drive car fitted right into the lifestyle.
With the sovereignty of Hong Kong handed back to China in 1997, the 280 SE then took to the seas to wend its merry way to the UK once more. And again, the venerable cruiser found itself warmly embraced into a life of casual splendour; used sporadically for special trips and holidays, and yet always kept in fine mechanical fettle, always ready to be fired up and hit the open road. Its natural character has been retained throughout, the car remains a matching-numbers example and has been treated to only the most sympathetic work when the passage of time dictated – most recently of which being a full retrim of the interior, with the wood trim re-veneered and everything brought back to its 1970 verve. This isn’t just a car, it’s a time machine. And what’s more, it’s a timeless Riviera cruiser: it doesn’t matter whether it’s physically on the Riviera or not, this car oozes the very essence of Monaco or Valletta from every pore even if it’s just cruising down the high street to Waitrose. Such is its effortless style and panache, its poise and glamour, there’s no need for sun-drenched vistas and steamy bays – this Mercedes-Benz creates its own atmosphere.