1983 Mercedes-Benz 280SE: Just because it’s tubby doesn’t mean it’s not FUN!

Regular visitors to TotallyThatStupid – and yes, there are some – have surely figured out that we are fans of big German cars. Well, we’re fans of the small ones too, but we definitely have a soft spot for Bahn-storming panzerwagens. All the more so if they come from the 1970s or 1980s, when you could easily spot the differences among German cars, Japanese cars, and American cars. Apart from a few cars that trickled-in from the U.K., those were the only places cars came from in those days, and they all had their own nationalistic character. Nowadays you can hardly tell a Kia from an Audi (ask me how I know), which is really a shame, unless of course you bought one of the former like I did. But I digress.


We’ve covered a number of 1980s-vintage Mercedes W126-chassis S-Class cars here on TTS, all of them grey-market imports. This car, in Nebraska but listed here on the Denver Craigslist for $6,000 (and erroneously as a 380SE), is no different in that respect: it’s basically another short-wheelbase Euro-spec Benz tank, but with one fundamental difference: a manual transmission. Yes, folks, that is a real, honest-to-God stick shift poking out of the console enabling (forcing?) the driver to row through his own cogs – all five of them (plus reverse). Mated to the durable (but remarkably thirsty) Euro-spec M110 dual overhead cam inline-6, the manual transmission was an unusual option in Europe, but you do see them from time to time. On these shores it’s virtually unheard of.

In Euro-spec, the 2.8 litre is good for 185bhp, putting it in-between the contemporary BMW 2.8 and 3.2 litre motors as applied to the 7-series sedans. This car is somewhat an attempt to take those cars on in their own element. Strictly speaking, as “driver’s” cars, I would opine that those cars still win. If, however, you value build quality, durability, and you crave that Mercedes vault-like solidity, but you want to play with the gearshift at the same time, then this could be your car. It is also remarkably well-equipped, with air conditioning (yet not the more problematic automatic climate control), heated front seats, and the sunroof the size of Rhode Island. Interestingly, in true Euro style the back windows are manual. Let them eat cake!

Cosmetically, the only thing that would make this oddity more appealing to us would be liberal application of Mercedes vintage velour. The leather is fine, especially in this condition and coupled with the seat heaters, but ahh, velour. With remarkably low miles, the interior appears to be in good, clean condition and even still wearing it’s original factory floormats. The outside looks equally clean, although may be a repaint. In the light provided it’s hard to tell if it’s a repaint. Usually you can see a slight color difference between anthracite grey and grey plastic lower cladding, but even if it has been repainted, assuming that the new paint is not hiding any major sins it has a pretty modern appearance. The little bumpers are great, and if it doesn’t have them already, smooth-faced European headlights would be a must. It even still has its trunklid-mounted safety triangle. Worth the asking price? Hmmm.. You’d definitely have the only one in your neighborhood, and possibly your county, state, or country. What price, exclusivity?

~Reed

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3 responses to “1983 Mercedes-Benz 280SE: Just because it’s tubby doesn’t mean it’s not FUN!

  • Ricky

    Nice read… i have one and restored it somewhat, very nice now sitting in my garage… don’t know if to sell it or when I have more money to fix it up and have the rare vintage exclusivity your article talks about. It was nice to find your piece… I guess the car enthusiasts and mercedes followers know about this car… it is very hard to find info on this 280se…

  • John

    As an european (I am swedish) this is so fun to read! I have a blue 1984 280 SE, which is in fine order. I actually have rear power windows! The thing is (what you americans might not know) Mercedes was incredibly cheap on the options those days. You had to pay extra for almost everything. It’s quite remarkable. Even on eurospec 500sel:s, leather came as an option!! Haha. Anyway…I absolutely adore the w126. I never get tired of the way she looks. Such a beautiful machine. Best wishes, John

  • Michael Roberts

    I used to have a 1986 300E with a 5 speed manual. Very rare and cool car!

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