The perennial Merc – the pinnacle of proclivity
All in all, this car provided me with a semblance of what normal is supposed to be.
The day has dawned. Arrangements have been made. The keys are in my hand. The owner bid me adieu with the very prolific statement, “Don’t worry about locking the car. No one will steal this f***** thing!” But I could not help but locking and unlocking the car just to make sure that I was awake, and not merely imagining the locking mechanism having cleped my name the first time.
The door closes with a fairly gracious clunk, and I cannot help but stare at the instrument binnacle, momentarily oblivious to the key in my hand guiding itself to the ignition. I turn. She starts. I shiver. She growls. In all its near perfect splendour, the last thing I was expecting was for her six cylinders to fire up after a very brief suggestion of the starter motor actually being under the bonnet. Then I remembered: this is a Mercedes Benz W108 280S; part of a generation of Mercs infamous for their workhorse attitude – never giving up, even when you do.
The W108 series was produced from 1965 to 1972, its predecessor being the W111 (although not replacing it) – a car we are very familiar with in South Africa, seeing as many people still use them as daily runners. New designer, Paul Bracq, decided that the W111 needed to change a little bit, therefore the W108 does not look too different, except for the noticeable absence of the iconic fins running along the back of the car. Although the departure from the fins was a tragedy on its own, Bracq did make some very useful changes to the structure of the car which we as car lovers can deem as being more “sporty”. A lower body waistline, a 60mm decrease in the ride height, but retaining the spacious interior by making the doors slightly wider. The result? One of the most comfortable automotive experiences I have ever had, but still reluctant to leave me in a state of complete ennui when I put my foot down. Therefore, one tends to forget about the fins, seeing as you will want to spend more time driving it than looking at it; although looking at it is still no punishment.
The heart of this beast takes the form of a 2.8 litre, dual carburetted straight-six engine. It produces 100 kW (140 hp) and propels the car from 0-100km/h in just over 12 seconds. I am very pleased to say that the particular rendition that I found myself in still has the same performance figures – which was an absolute delight in something that feels like it should move like a boat by its sheer size. Using the throttle is quite pleasant, because the power is very manageable. One does not need to stab at it with toes and shoe-rubber to get it going. It is very lady-like. Just politely ask her to go by gently touching the throttle, and she will oblige you without being too voracious in her petrol consuming endeavours. But, give her an ebullient incentive with your foot, and you can feel the haptic feedback of the six cylinders revving up through your foot, accompanied by a stentorian bellow urging its escape from underneath the bonnet. This experience will appeal to the six year old and the Casanova in you.
Driving this maroon boat through the busy and winding streets of the Northern Suburbs was like sailing through the calmest waters with the whole world at your feet. The steering wheel engages with you in loquacious discourse, telling you that whatever the tyres are touching is nothing too much for the car to handle, but not allowing you to stop listening for one moment, because you want to hear what she has to say. The feedback from the wheels through the steering wheel is odd. The steering itself feels way beyond its time, almost making one feel disjointed from the behemoth you are driving, but you still feel everything in the road. The handling and performance can only have something to do with the car’s dry weight of 1520 kg. To my primitive mind, at least.
The wonderful thing about the 280S is the way it makes you feel. You are sitting in arguably one of the most comfortable sofas to ever be installed in a car, whilst listening to a glorious, cantankerously gentle soundtrack, eloquently throwing around something that isn’t nearly as cumbersome as you initially thought, whilst people of all shapes, sizes and colours look at you in awesome jealousy. It doesn’t have any exuberant design features, nor is it face-melting fast, yet it excites the people who have the honour to have their oculars occupied by it. Through the open window I received so many cash offers on the car that I stopped counting after six. At this point, despite the owner’s initial advice, I decided to lock the door for in case one of the apparently-potential buyers became a bit too frisky.
In my little cocoon of happiness, I did find a few minor problems. Every now and again, the throttle would get stuck, requiring you to be briefly heavy-footed to resume normal throttle response (which admittedly was fun at times). The curves in the windows did obscure my view of certain angles that I didn’t really care for at the time. But motorcyclists – beware. Although the automatic gearbox’s gear-stalk being mounted on the steering column made me feel like a 1950s American gangster in a getaway car, it was frustrating to use at times, seeing as the linkages might have undergone some vehement abuse throughout its lifespan. The absence of a side mirror on the passenger’s side of the car made negotiating lanes in a vintage car that does not belong to me quite the nervous adventure.
All in all, this car provided me with a semblance of what normal is supposed to be. Or at least, what normal will be nice to be like every now and again. The good old days seeping through into the present. Something so engaging and understatedly beautiful merging with the modern day asphalt to negotiate you anywhere you want to go. A symbol that brings about smiles on the faces around you and uniting them in two possible endeavours: appreciating the vehicle for what it is whilst hating its driver, or trying to buy the car in obscene manners. Either way, I felt like a superhero for a day.