Special Drive: 1971 Mercedes-Benz 280SE Convertible

Ancestor to today's E-Class, as redesigned for 2011, has aged with impressive grace

by James M. Flammang

1971 Mercedes-Benz 280SE convertible

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee - Whenever an opportunity to take the wheel of an early model comes along, we can't resist. All the more so when it's a Mercedes-Benz convertible.

For the media launch of the 2011 E-Class Cabriolet, Mercedes-Benz brought along a 1971 280SE convertible, making it available for short drives by visiting journalists.

Unlike many automobiles of that vintage, the 280SE doesn't really feel "old." Nor is it difficult to drive, whereas some vehicles of the late 1960s and early 1970s aren't necessarily as enjoyable to operate as people who lived through that era like to recall. Instead, this Mercedes rolled smartly through the gently curving two-lane pavement near Blackberry Farm, near the North Carolina border, where the German automaker was holding its media preview of the 2011 E-Class soft-tops.

Yes, by today's standards the suspension is sloppy. But unless you're determined to push the 280SE beyond the limits of a leisurely spring outing, it behaves quite nicely on the road. Naturally, performance falls well short of what would be considered normal nowadays; but the 280SE can easily keep up with traffic in any situations of ordinary driving.

Mainly, though, it's simply a sheer joy to whir along rural byways with the top down, in a luxury convertible that's nearly four decades old. For those of us who were driving in 1971, but seldom or never had the opportunity to slip behind the wheel of a German luxury convertible, the 280SE is a revelation.

Ancestors to the E-Class first debuted back in 1953. In 1968, a new 280 series (with a 2.8-liter six-cylinder engine) replaced the prior 250SE as well as the 300SE. In 1971, the five-passenger 280SE convertible was Mercedes-Benz's sole soft-top model.

280SE coupes and convertibles in 1971 had 213.5 cubic-inch (3.5-liter) V-8 engines, generating 230 horsepower. Carburetors were still common in those days, but Mercedes-Benz's V-8 used Bosch fuel injection. Mercedes-Benz had used fuel injection for certain engines as early as 1959. Sedans in the 280SE series were powered by six-cylinder engines, rated at 180 horsepower. A four-speed automatic transmission was standard in 280SE models.

In 1971, the Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) of a 280SE convertible was $14,509. During 1971, more than 35,000 Mercedes-Benz passenger cars were sold in the U.S.

Click here for review of the latest E-Class Cabriolet, as redesigned for 2011.

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Text and photos by James M. Flammang