Mid-Century Modern – 1969 Mercedes-Benz 280SE Cabriolet

Gary Anderson
Dave Gooley & Susan Morehouse
The 1968-1971 Mercedes-Benz 280SE offered the finest in luxury open-air motoring for four, with sporty performance handsomely wrapped in classically restrained modernist styling. This remarkable example was recently restored by the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Irvine, California.

Mid-Century Modern

Article Gary Anderson

Images David Gooley, Susan Morehouse

 

The 1968-1971 Mercedes-Benz 280SE offered the finest in luxury open-air motoring for four, with sporty performance handsomely wrapped in classically restrained modernist styling. This remarkable example was recently restored by the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Irvine, California.

 

 

Just for a moment, imagine yourself fortunate enough to drive every postwar classic produced by Mercedes-Benz. Then imagine that you’re able to pick only one to own, not as an investment, but as a potential heirloom. Which would you choose? A few years ago, this was the marvelous dilemma which Brad Fauvre, president of a company that sells Daimler’s Freightliner and Western Star trucks, faced while on a Classic Center-supported trip to key Daimler truck-engineering sites in Gaggenau and Mannheim, Germany, with side tours running through the Black Forest to Baden-Baden.

 

Choices, choices

 

Along with his clients, Fauvre was able to drive a range of classic postwar Mercedes-Benz vehicles on the German trip. He was impressed with every car that he drove and began speculating about which machine he might like to make his own. Living as he did in Southern California, Fauvre knew that he wanted a roadster or cabriolet, not a coupe or sedan. He also knew that his ideal classic must have room for four people so he could take friends out for the evening or for a weekend drive along the coast.

 

Excluding two-seat sports cars rapidly narrowed the field. By the end of the week, Fauvre was certain what he wanted: It had to be a W111 cabriolet. Paul Bracq designed these very special automobiles with rounded rear haunches; they were hand-built on the W111 chassis during the decade from 1961-1971.

 

Talking over his choice of model with the Classic Center specialists maintaining the cars on the tour, Fauvre learned he still had a range of options. Because of the extended production period of the W111 models, the engines that were installed in the big cars gradually improved in capacity and performance, going from 2,195cc capacity and 134 horsepower in 1961 to 2,496cc capacity and 170 horsepower in 1965, before ultimately reaching 2,778 cc and 180 horsepower in 1967.

 

That same year, an additional option joined the lineup with the introduction of a 3,499cc V-8 engine that produced 200 horsepower in the 280SE 3.5. Because the V-8 was slightly shorter than the inline-six, designers were able to shorten the car’s grille and hood line, providing a more rakish stance. But even with the distinctive styling change, the new model was dubbed the 280SE 3.5, and the high-grille 280SE continued to be available. Both of these exclusive models would be produced through 1971.

 

For Fauvre, the added power of the 3.5 model was not vital; performance was not his goal. The more he compared the two models, the more certain he became that a taller grille better suited the elegance of the four-seat cabriolet. Returning home, Fauvre began a quest for a 6-cylinder tall-grille 280SE in good condition.

 

A noted designer’s car

 

However, with very few examples of his dream car ever having been produced, it would be almost a decade before a suitable candidate would turn up. Fauvre remained patient. Finally, in 2014 he found and purchased his car through the Hemmings Motor News website. Liveried in Silver Metallic over a black interior, the 1969 280SE wasn’t the color scheme Fauvre had visualized, but it was in excellent condition. According to the seller, it had been owned since nearly new by noted interior designer Joseph Grusczak, who had carefully maintained it. Apparently, Grusczak had driven it only rarely in his later years.

 

An internet search soon uncovered the information that Grusczak was renowned for his designs of luxurious hotel lobbies and interiors in the 1960s. His work included a complete update of the lobby of Honolulu’s famous Royal Hawaiian Hotel – the “Pink Palace” – to the zenith of mid-century modernism, as well as creating the lobbies of several InterContinental hotels – including all furniture and fixtures – in far-flung places such as Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Tahiti.

 

Fauvre could see why Grusczak might have chosen the 280SE: Looking at the marvelous crescent shapes that define the car’s dashboard and so clearly evoke the geometric-form language of mid-century modern design, one can easily imagine that Grusczak would have felt completely at home whenever he was behind the wheel of his cabriolet.

 

When good enough isn’t

 

However, Fauvre wasn’t satisfied with just owning a classic 280SE in good original condition. Having been impressed with the quality of the cars from the Classic Center that had formed the fleet on that fondly remembered German tour, he contacted the Classic Center in Irvine, California, and added his name to the waiting list. Not deterred by a 12-month wait, he used the time to drive, enjoy and explore his new car; he decided that only the seatbelts needed updating. With the 280SE ’s huge, well-upholstered seats, Fauvre wanted the security of three-point belts, which weren’t offered when the car was built.

 

The Classic Center was at last ready for Fauvre’s 280SE in March 2017; upon close examination, staff found the cabriolet to be in excellent original condition, with all the correct trim and accessories present and fully operational. However, the Becker Europa TR pushbutton AM-FM radio and Frigiking air conditioning would need some modernizing to be used on an everyday basis.

Although Fauvre wanted the car restored to concours standards, he had a firm preference for switching the paint and trim colors to something warmer and more inviting than the original silver and black. Accordingly, Classic Center staff researched copies of original build cards in their files and offered him a choice of several combinations that could be documented as having been used on 280SE cabriolets produced in 1969. Fauvre selected a sophisticated Metallic Anthracite No. 172 exterior paint, an evocative contrast to the rich Cognac leather and carpeting he also settled on.

 

Changing the paint color was not an issue for Fauvre, who wanted this 280SE to be something more than a basic restoration: He wanted a vehicle that would be brand new in all respects. In his words, with the car totally stripped down and rebuilt in Mercedes-Benz workshops using Mercedes-Benz components, the proper adjective is “remanufactured.” Fauvre plans to drive the car regularly for the rest of his active days, and then to pass the 280SE on to his children, who have been in love with the car since it became the newest addition to the family.

 

An automotive heirloom

 

And a new car is just what Fauvre glimpsed when, along with the rest of the early-morning crowd at Legends of the Autobahn® 2018, he first saw the results of 18 months of the Classic Center’s hard work roll off the delivery truck at the Nicklaus golf course last August. As everyone who saw it that day will attest, the 280SE appeared as if fresh from a Mercedes-Benz showroom in 1969. The perfectly restored cabriolet was simply stunning, right down to the smallest detail. And the Mercedes-Benz Club of America concours judges agreed, naming it best in class among all the cabriolets, coupes and roadster built 1963-1971.

 

But a final task remained to complete the extraordinary 280SE. After Legends, the sparkling cabriolet was rolled back onto the truck and returned to the Classic Center for final testing and adjustments, as well as a retrofit. As seen on these pages and on the cover of this issue of The Star, the 280SE proudly displays European-specification headlights and fender trim rather than the U.S.-style headlamps that it wore when it was judged. The car that Fauvre saw and drove more than a decade before had European headlamps, perfectly echoing the end caps of the sleek rear fenders, just as designer Paul Bracq had intended; that’s the way Fauvre now enjoys it. He retains the U.S. conversion parts should he wish to enter the 280SE in another concours event.

 

But competition isn’t the point of ownership: Enjoyment and satisfaction are Fauvre’s goals. He is secure in the knowledge that, with careful stewardship, he will be able to pass this rare heirloom of automotive excellence on to his children to be preserved into an era when combustion-engined cars that are driven by their owners on public highways are a rapidly disappearing memory.

 

Worth the wait: Owner Brad Fauvre had to wait patiently for nearly a decade for a suitably original Mercedes-Benz W111 280SE Cabriolet to come on the market – and then an additional year before the Classic Center could begin the restoration.

 

 

This 280SE originally left the Sindelfingen plant in Silver Metallic over black leather; after consulting original color cards, Brad Fauvre chose a refined combination of Metallic Anthracite No. 172 over warm Cognac leather with matching carpeting.

 

Debuting in January 1968, the W111 280SE Cabriolet personifies the best of modern design on a grand scale.

 

A newly developed 2,778cc engine offered a more-than-respectable-for-the-era 180 horsepower and 193 pound-feet of torque.

 

 

 

An archetypal Mercedes-Benz 280SE cabriolet: Every detail of this newly restored W111 convertible is perfectly executed, offering a splendid visual feast to anyone fortunate enough to encounter this rare and exquisitely presented automobile.

 

 

 

1969 Mercedes-Benz 280SE Cabriolet (W111.025)

TYPE: Two-door, five-passenger cabriolet

ENGINE: M130.980 • 2,778cc, single overhead cam I-6 • mechanical fuel injection

TRANSMISSION: 4-speed automatic with center console selector

POWER: 180 hp at 5,750 rpm (SAE)  TORQUE: 193 lb-ft at 4,500 rpm

LENGTH: 192.1 in  CURB WEIGHT: 3,630 lb  FUEL EFFICIENCY: 19 mpg

PERFORMANCE: Zero-60 mph 11 sec  TOP SPEED: 117-120 mph

 

 

 

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