Welcome back to In Plain Sight, where I make myself late for things to stop and admire one of the many fascinating, Jalop-worthy cars parked right on the street amidst the hustle and bustle of New York City.
Between the terrible road conditions, dense street grid, abundance of pedestrians, and maniacal cabbies and panel vans, New York is not a friendly environment for cars. So it's always a pleasant surprise when you come upon something unique and unusual braving the conditions, and such is the case with this 1973 Mercedes-Benz W114 280 15 16 23 42.
I kid, I kid. But seriously, to the uninitiated, trying to decipher Mercedes’ complex naming system probably feels like taking a crack at one of the Zodiac Killer’s cryptograms. Unlike those puzzles, however, this one can usually be solved with a little bit of research and (gasp!) math. Let’s break it down, yo.
Prior to the classism MB officially introduced in 1994, the naming system was fairly straightforward. The first part of the name is the manufacturer’s works number (W for Wagen) for a single line of cars derived from the same chassis, encompassing a range of models over a number of years. The number after that, in this case 280, is the approximate engine displacement of the specific model multiplied by 100. And any extra bits after that describe the body and motor type – C for coupe or cabriolet, D for diesel (and desire?), E for Einspritzen (fuel injection), SL for Sport Leicht (Light),and the list goes on. On top of THAT, when engine updates for existing models made the x100 math unworkable, they’d slap the new engine displacement and other modifications onto the end of the old name. The system was so direct, so German, that it makes me want to do a pretzel jig, even if it resulted in awesome cars with silly names like the W201 190E 2.5-16.
Now, if you want to truly appreciate today’s subject, which thankfully only has two numbers in its name, I’m gonna need to drop a little more knowledge on you. In the immediate postwar period, Mercedes gained international fame for cars like the sublime 300SL, but in reality it was the sales of the dopey little W120 series that made up the bulk of their business. But with more manufacturers moving away from the ponton body style and unibody construction in the 1950s, Mercedes realized they needed to make a change, for once in their life. In 1956, work began on designing a new body that needed to appeal to European and North American tastes. The result was the flattened, squared-off, tail-finned W111, both the beginning of the “fintail” stable of cars that Mercedes ran with in the 1960s and origin of the distinctive fascia that would define the brand for two decades. It was followed in the next few years by the more bare-bones W110 and blinged-out W112, both excellent cars as well.
But despite how magnificent these Heckflosse models look today, at the time the fins at back were a source of minor ridicule, seen as a crass concession to an American tastes. Mercedes themselves even refused to call them tailfins, referring to them instead as “sight lines” that allegedly made it easier to see the corners of the car while driving. Right. And although the tailfin craze was at its peak when the car was designed and launched, it fizzled soon after, leaving Mercedes with something of a problem, as one does not simply remove an offending design element and leave everything else unchanged. For the two upscale models, they decided to slowly erode the fins over the decade, eventually spinning them off in 1965 into a separate, more modern model entirely, the W108/109 (which actually still had little vestigial ridges on the back fenders). But what to do with the little old W110, which held onto its fins throughout the whole decade like some sort of half-evolved fish? Mercedes recognized the importance of having an entire intermediate model range, not just cheap and expensive versions of the same car – and that, dear reader, is where today’s subject comes in.
The W114/115 series was launched in 1968, but in reality, work began back in 1961, soon after the first fintail hit the streets. Why so much time in development? It was the first postwar car that Mercedes designed from the ground up instead of borrowing and adapting and existing chassis. Gone was the stupid swing-axle system that sent so many stateside Corvairs spinning off into the trees, replaced by an updated semi-trailing rear arms system. Up top was a Paul Bracq-styled body, derivative of the W111 but with cleaner styling, crisper lines, and more modernized edges – the front was flattened slightly and the tailfin ridges were completely eliminated. On the inside, it was the first Mercedes to feature a center console running between the front seats. The only real difference between the two model numbers was engine size (W114s had six cylinders, W115s had four), although W114s were also fitted with the more attractive double front bumper and a fancier grill to subtly set them apart.
Around that time, Mercedes began to market all their recently launched or updated models as the “New Generation,” a term that would later come to mainly apply to the W114/115, as they were the only truly new cars in the bunch. And because Mercedes put “/8” on all the new cars’ ID plates, signifying the launch year, it wasn’t too long before you had a bunch of Germans running around calling them the Strich Acht models – the Stroke Eights. Sometimes, one nickname just isn’t enough. Just ask Connecticut.
So, armed with all that useless information, let’s dive right in. The W114 launched with the 230 and 250 (engine math) and the W115 had the 200 and 220, along with diesel versions. The W114 coupe and the option to swap out the carburetor for electronic fuel injection came along a year later. Unfortunately, Mercedes didn’t start making station wagons until the late 1970s, but a handful of coachbuilders could acquire partially-built cars from the company in the 1960s and complete the conversion themselves. You will probably never see one in real life. And oh yes, there was a pickup.
In 1972, Mercedes introduced the W114 280 and 280E. Today’s subject is a plain old 280, with a carbureted straight-six under the hood cranking out 160 horses… forty years ago (wow). They also added a wraparound back bumper to distinguish the models from their lesser brethren. Unfortunately, this one is sporting the American headlamps instead of the much cooler Euro ones, but other than that, I think this car is a timeless beauty. The lines are direct and purposeful, and the chrome accents are nicely restrained – it just has a classy presence, especially dressed in black. I also love how the dark color and chrome bumper make the trunk look much thinner than the rest of the body, giving it an interesting profile from multiple angles. And it’s commendable that this one is still riding on the stock wheels, color-matched and decked out with giant three-pointed stars.
Though the car looks pretty immaculate, it actually had a fair layer of dust on the hood and trunk, suggesting it spends a lot of time sitting around. It’s also not cosmetically perfect – you can see in the head on picture that the front passenger fender is a little off just a tiny bit, and there are a few small creases on some other panels. Still, it’s in amazing condition. The interior looks spotless, and I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that Mercedes’ red interiors have aged the better than most. It’s not a manual, but the column shifter leaves the center console looking clean.
Additionally, the interior is noteworthy because it’s where we find the reason this car is worth celebrating. In September of 1973, just a year after the launch of the 280, Mercedes gave the entire W114/115 model lineup a facelift. The hood now had a more pronounced slope, resulting in slightly lower-placed headlamps; the quarter glass was no more, replaced by a dirt-deflecting A-pillar trim; but most importantly, the iconic ribbed taillights were introduced, designed to keep grime from collecting. Tragically, new safety regulations introduced stateside in 1974 meant that the majority of these were imported with ugly, ugly plastic bumpers. Two side-view mirrors also became standard in the interest of safety, which explains why there’s only one on the driver’s side here. Inside, a new padded steering wheel replaced the old chrome-ringed one, which is what you see inside of this PRE-facelift model. Huh? Well, they actually introduced the new steering wheel to the existing models in the months before the facelift, meaning this is one of the last original W114s produced. I think that’s pretty neat.
These cars are also important because they’re basically the predecessor to today’s E-Class. True, there had been midsize Mercedes before, but this was the first model line to be designed from scratch with the goal of creating intermediate level cars. These old models in excellent stock condition are getting harder and harder to find in this country, though it’s worth noting that this was one durable Mercedes – they’ve been known to reach a million miles, and in 2004 a Greek taxi driver donated his 1976 240D with 2.86 million miles on the clock to the Mercedes-Benz Museum. This Benz will likely never travel that far, but it’s surviving all the same.