Mercedes-Benz is perhaps best known for the stolid, bank-president demeanor of its S-Class executive sedan. But the brand has also built a stately, range-topping coupe since its earliest days. Rock-solid, comfortable, commodious, and packed with the latest engineering technologies and luxury options, these big, closed-bodied, two-door cars offered a sportier and more elegant alternative to the big four-doors.
With its perfect proportions and clean, rounded lines, the coupe pictured here—initially introduced in 1961 and known by the Mercedes designation W11—casually exudes understated, old-world, old-money poise.
According to Mike Kunz, the director of the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center—a Southern California subsidiary of MBUSA that supports, restores, and sells the brand’s most notable vintage vehicles—these cars possess “an understated, regal elegance.”
If a character in a film (or, say, a Ralph Lauren ad) is seen driving one of these cars, you know they are, and have long been, a success.
“There were lots of notable people that drove these automobiles when they were new,” says Pieter van Rossum, owner of Silver Star Restorations, a North Carolina shop that specializes in these vehicles. “It was a automobile targeted at the in crowd.”
The W11 was designed by Paul Bracq, the masterful—and French—head of design for Mercedes-Benz during the ’60s and ’70s. (Following his tenure there, Bracq went on to design his home country’s high-speed TGV train.) Bracq updated the car in 1969, and on these later vehicles, the traditional upright Mercedes grille was squared off and lowered for a more sporting appearance, and additional luxury trim—more leather, more wood veneer—was added inside.
But it was the change under the hood that was most compelling. In place of the typical inline, six-cylinder engine that had long been a Benz stalwart was a new 3.5 liter, V8 that had up to 66 percent more power than the engines it replaced, cutting acceleration times to 60 mph by up to nearly five seconds and increasing top speed by up to 20 mph.
This extra speed was combined with major advances in passenger protection. “The W111 coupe set the benchmark in passive safety-driven design for high-end luxury coupes,” Kunz says. It was among the first cars with a built-in passenger safety cell, where the front and rear of the car are designed to crumple upon impact—absorbing energy instead of transferring it to the cabin and its occupants. It also had grippier four wheel disc brakes to stop the car faster, and three-point seatbelts to stop occupants from becoming projectiles faster—an advance over the simple lap belts usually available during the era. Collapsible switches, a thickly padded instrument panel, and a fall-away windshield, lessened the likelihood of personal injury during a crash.
The car could thus do nearly everything well. It looked amazing. It accelerated and stopped with alacrity. And though it was a two door, it had room for four passengers and their luggage in luxurious appointments.
These same features have contributed to its recent rise in collectability. “There is certainly a general appeal to these models as they are everyday usable classics with high build quality and excellent support in the marketplace,” says Kunz. “In other words, it’s exotic, but not too exotic.” You can fix it up so it’s driveable on a regular basis, in other words.
Van Rossum concurs. “They make great drivers, once [they’re] sorted out, and will cruise at highway speeds all day.”
Prices for late-model W111 convertibles have soared in recent years, perhaps due in part to their prominence in such films as The Hangover. With excellent examples now trading for $150,000 to $200,000, they are out of the reach of many consumers. But hardtop coupes are still relatively affordable—though perhaps not for long. “There’s no doubt that the recent rapid increase in the prices attained for the cabriolets has pulled the coupe pricing to new heights,” Kunz says.
Our friends at Hagerty Insurance Company, publishers of the encyclopedic Hagerty Price Guide, tell us that values for late model 280SE coupes with the V8 engine (known as the 280SE 3.5) are up in value by nearly 70 percent in the past two years alone. But the average price now, for a model in good condition, is still an affordable $48,000—a fraction of the price of a contemporary S-Class coupe, or a vintage W111 convertible. (For real bargain hunters, prices on the similar, but less speedy, 1969-71, six-cylinder, low-grille 280 SE coupes are up just 25 percent, from $26,200 to $33,200.)
“We have seen a general increase of collectability and prices for classic Mercedes-Benz vehicles,” Kunz says. “There has been a clear market trend, especially in the past five years with the 300 SL, 190 SL, ‘Pagoda’ 230/280 SL, and 280SE cabriolets. Only recently did the W111 coupe—especially the 3.5 V8 variant—begin to follow this general trend.”
“The cabriolets have gotten out of reach for most people,” van Rossum says. “The coupe is the next best thing.”
In other words, with these cars suddenly following their contemporary Benz siblings in a stratospheric rise toward six and seven figures, the time to drop the hammer is probably right now.