Anjani’s 280SE/C (Honolulu)

The Passion and Peril of Bella
(My 1970 Mercedes-Benz 280SE Low Grill Coupe)
Listen to Anjani's Music

"Any car of this vintage is a restoration project in progress."
- Todd Gambling

Why didn't that statement give me pause for concern? Because I was posessed, that's why. How I could've gone through life without a care for automobiles is beyond me now. All it took was a glance at a powder blue '71 280SE coupe in the parking lot of a bank (it figures) to change my perception about cars forever. "What a beautiful car!" I thought...and kept on marveling as I strolled around it, admiring its sleek, classic lines. Expensive. Elegant. Exclusive. This vehicle wasn't even in cherry condition and it still screamed posh, from the abundance of gleaming chrome, to the burlwood dash and navy leather seats.

"Out of my league," I sighed, and returned to the depressing reality of a '96 Nissan Altima, a perfectly acceptable though boring pod, on the level of Tupperware versus Wedgewood.

As I drove to the recording studio to lay some vocals on a new song, I coudn't get that car out of my mind. I even told my sound engineer Ed, about it. To my surprise, he knew exactly which car I was talking about.

"Oh, Anjani, that is my favorite Mercedes. I've been wanting to get one for years!"

He told me about the history of the car and most importantly, that they were relatively affordable at the moment, from 5k for a 4dr sedan, to 30k for a coupe in mint condition.

That seemed perfectly reasonable for a piece of art and history, no less.It didn't take much to get me interested in checking a few of them out, so we picked up a Recycler and started the hunt in September 2000. Ed had been tracking prices of the Coupes enough to know that they held their value, and that they were very likely to start appreciating, due to their rareity and undeniably appealing design. With a budget of $12,500, what I needed was a dependable "great-but-not-mint condition" car that I could make the daily 15 mile trek to work in. Although I was adamant on exterior color (no chocolate brown, red, black, or flesh tone) and no sunroof (being from Hawaii, I view them as a magnet for rust and rain leakage), I managed to find a mint condition white 69 280sec, advertised for 11k, and made an appointment to look at it. Imagine my disappointment as it turned out to be a '64 220 SE with a cancerous floorboard.

This strange phenomenon of sellers not knowing their wares repeated itself with such frequency that I ran through a checklist before making any more appointments. The most commom overstatement had to do with condition of the vehicle:

"You advertise it's in MINT condition?"

"Yes, it is."

"By mint, do you mean showroom condition, which would be close to brand new--or just good condition?"

Seller starts to hedge, "Well, I think it's in pretty good condition."

And so it goes from "mint" to, "well, the windshield has a crack in it, and the tires might need replacing, and the a/c blows--but not cold air, and there's some rust but not much." in seven seconds flat.

Around this time I surfed the net and came upon Todd Gambling's site, which is MBZ nirvana for the novice buyer. Todd had poignant descriptions of his automobiles, and was quite encouraging that others take the leap into one of the last handmade cars. I emailed him a barrage of questions, and he kindly answered each and every one with the thoroughness of a researcher, which he is in real life. Todd also saw me through a brief foray into alternatives to the pricier Coupe. Somewhere along the way I got sidetracked by a '83 380SL, but I thought it might pose a problem when I have guests. Nevermind that I havenšt actually entertained more than one guest in the last five years...there's always a first time. And to be honest, the 380SL was a bit daunting--just too much power for me. Some of our discussion follows:

hi todd, i'm a little confused here as to the various types of MBZs (clearly, a woman was not in charge of naming new MBZ models)

Anjani: You are probably correct that women were not consulted for suggestions on MBZ model names - the exception is Mercedes herself. Mercedes was the daughter of an Austrian businessman named Emile Jellinek. Around 1901, Diamler became disillusioned with racing his motorcars after one of his early models flipped and killed the driver. Jellinek believed in the Diamler design and offered to buy out Diamler's supply of the racecars if Diamler would grant Jellinek exclusive future distribution rights in France, England and the USA, plus one other provision: the Diamler cars would henceforth be named Mercedes, after Emile Jellinek's very attractive daughter...the marque has been retained for nearly 100 years. The model numbers refer to the engine size in liters (actually decaliters since 280 is 2.8 liters) with no regard to body style. However if the number is followed by an "s" that means the large top of the line model, or an "sl" meaning the sports light or sports car version. The "e" is the first letter of german word for fuel injection and natuarally "d" means diesel. Traditionally, the number 600 appears to be reserved for the most expensive Mercedes.

todd-what are the best years for the 4.5 liter v8 280SE? and the 280 SEL?

Anjani - The 280SE 4.5 and the 280SEL 4.5 were 71-73, all good years as far as I know. The 4.5L versions are recommended over the 6 cylinder 280SE's. Since the 108 chassis 280SE and SEL's are 4 door sedans, as of 6-2001, there is no real "collector" premium on these cars as found on the older SL's and 2 door coupe Mercedes. For $6-9k you should be able to find a 280SE 4.5 sedan in virtually showroom condition - except for the gas milage, a fully restored 280SE 4.5 is a great car, some even come with sunroofs.

Eventually I returned to my original desire, the 280 SE Coupe. The SEL was too long and cumbersome to park for everyday LA city driving. No SLC either, as I disliked the weird fan-like afterthought of a back window. After a few more local disappointments, I began a nationwide search through Hemings Motor News, AutoTraders, and Todd was optimistic, reminding me that if I clearly knew what I wanted, somewhere in the universe it was already mine. Lo and behold, last October an ad for a rare low grille 280SE Coupe 2.8 liter 6cyl engine appeared, and this was the reply to my inquiry:

Dear Anjani, the year is 1970...the official name of color is sand gray with black leather. 110,000 original miles. I understand your concerns regarding 30years old car...but this one is not restoration project in progress. it has always been garaged and regularly maintained in Arizona by the original owner until his death when I bought the car. If you look at any other coupe of this vintage you will find that due to sunshine and moisture, leather in the back and wood on the front are in poor condition...this car looks new. carpet is perfect, it always had mats over the original carpet. There is no sunroof, no rust. 30 years old chrome usually has some pitting or dents...there is nothing on this chrome, it looks new. rubber guard on the bumper is like new. There is no oil leaks of any kind. The age of this car is not relevant when it comes to driving, but when it comes to looks that is different story. This low grille being one of 600 made I do not think you can see one on the road but maybe once every year if you live in Beverly Hills.

Thus began a flurry of emails with photos. As with all admirers of classic design, the European seller was a touchingly sentimental:
Dear Anjani, (regarding my appreciation for) the was 1972 and I was on the street - Koening Strasse in Stuttgart. Poor student from Yugoslavia whose parents never owned a car...and one of 280 SE coupes was parked in front of a store. I told my friends that I will drive this car one day, since it is the most beautiful car regardless from what angle one is looking at it. This is the fourth coupe I have owned but having 2 small children makes it very impractical to have as a family car. But in my heart there is no other car to drive and when my kids grow up, I will hopefully be able to find the coupe in nice condition and have it as my daily driver.

This was it, my search was over. As the car was stored in Oregon, it took some time to plan the shipping arrangements, but I kept Todd updated on the progress:

todd, the big news is my car arrives this monday. I've named her Bella. according to the mechanic in OR, it is very clean inside--you could eat off the engine. the car is a beauty, as good-looking as its pics indicate. i'm sure i am going to be one of those drivers that really pisses people off--you know, actually obeying the speed limit...taking no chances. I figure i've taken so many with this Japanese pod, that I better slow down and be a responsible adult on the road. If only i could approach the rest of my life with similar maturity. hope springs eternal anjani

Anjani I'm so pleased to hear of Bella's safe delivery. Congrats! You now possess one of the most beautiful cars ever made. I'm glad to have been able to help you out in this.

Then after one short week of ownership, while in the left lane on Highland near Wilshire during Friday 5:30 rush hour traffic, Bellašs engine coughed, belched, and died. Todd warned me not to trust a vintage model to any young mechanic with a MBZ sign on his door, as they would very likely ruin the car. Noting that good can evolve from the bad, this dire predicament led me to Shant Barseghian at Beverly Laurel Automotive. Shant was a mechanic at the Santa Monica Benz dealership for twelve years, during a time when there were only three MBZ repair shops in LA. He opened his own establishment in 1983. When I bought Bella, a friend of mine pressed Shant's business card conspiratorially in my hand and whispered, "don't go anywhere else." Now I do the same for others pondering the slew of shops listed in the LA phonebook. Išm not paid to do this, and I might regret the increased traffic that occurs; but fellow MBZ owners are a unique, passionate, and appreciative crowd...I figure there's always room for more.

Todd- yesterday AAA towed Bella to Beverly Laurel Automotive, which i cannot say enough good things about. The owner Shant, gave her a new battery, new alternator, and spent quite a bit of time tightening things up. now she runs beautifully...the engine sounds more like a sewing machine instead of a asthmatic cougher. this was a brutal awakening to the reality of classic car maintenance. but now i have one heck of a mechanic who said to me, "This is the LAST of the hand made have VERY good taste. Don't worry, we will fix her up fine." 3 hours, one ketel martini and $372.00 later, i don't feel quite so forlorn.

Todd was very consoling, explaining that normally after about 100-150k miles, the "Big 4" happens: almost all cars need to have the fuel pump, alternator, starter and water pump replaced. Just one month later, Bella put me through the paces again:
hey todd- i spent Saturday at Shant's from 9-3, with an hour trek to purchase 4 new tires (Bella blew one on the freeway last night, and i was so concerned about it happening again i replaced them all) he replaced the malfunctioning odometer/speedometer cable, changed the tires, fixed the door handle lock, replaced the overhead dome light, and did a valve adjustment which cut down the engine ticking noise. the funniest thing was, there were 3 other women there, and we all started talking shop about our beloved cars. they knew the MBZ models as well as I did, and we commiserated on repairs and bills--whether it was a one hankie or a two hankie was pretty hilarious...none of us could dream of driving any other car, or taking it to any other shop. Customers were walking in with offerings for Shant--a fine vintage bottle of French Petit Syrah...i myself bestowed 24.00 worth of Armenian pastry on the desk of the Great Mechanic. i told him if he installed a donation-only bar on one of the shelves in the office, he'd have enough money in two months to buy the boat he's dreaming of. the best thing was, these girls calmed me down. after this tire blow out i was considering selling Bella and returning to mindless, maintenance-free pod-dom. they had all been through the same ritual and decided it was a small price to pay for a well built, safe car, in addition to peace of mind, beauty/esthetics/cache, and really, wasn't it a joy just to sit in the darn thing? couldn't refute that. one by one they left as their cars were done, cheerfully resigned to meeting again in Shant's office at some point in the future. still, i keep saying nobody should love a car this much.

Three months into ownership, I am still beguiled by the heady experience of driving a classic car. This is a major turnaround for a woman who never gave a second thought to her vehicle, as long as it got from point A to B with no trouble. Suddenly I went from bi-annual visits to Jiffy Lube, to monthly visits to Shant. The girls I met at his shop were serious when they said we'd meet again. Vintage MBZ owners are resigned to the demands of maintenance; one of those girls schedules two Saturdays off a month just in case she needs to get her 450SL in by 9am.

There is always something to do for Bella. She came with four non-original aftermarket chrome spoked wheels that were replaced with the standard Mercedes issue wheels with matching painted hubcaps. She has been detailed and had repairs ranging from the major--a new fuel pump/hoses/clamps/belts, and left rear brake hose, to the minor--lube job, tune up, valve adjustment, new dome light (the old one kept popping out), and new windshield seal (rainwater was seeping under the old seal, over a small section of the zebrano wood inlay) and tires. Total cost of repair bills since purchasing the car is now in excess of $2000. Of course that does not include my trip to Restoration Hardware for chrome polish, leather conditioner and wood lotion (all products factory approved for use by MBZ owners! I'm a sucker for packaging!), carwash liquid soap, dust brush, chamois sponge and diamond encrusted seat covers (just kidding). Next, I'll remove the back windshield tinting (part of returning her to a completely original state), and eventually gear up for the estimated 4k paint job she requires. I don't treat my own body this well. It's a testament to the pleasure I get from carressing the zebrano wood detailing, inhaling the scent of leather (didya know that Mercedes, with meticulous attention to detail, breeds its own cows? There is no barbed wire fencing, so if a flea bites they can't scratch their hides, which will ultimately become your unblemished car seat), and gripping the large (by modern standards) steering wheel of a finely tuned carriage. Not to mention the fact that Bella is a great ice breaker for the socially challenged, as strangers with a discerning eye will approach me with high accolades for her! If you own a classic MBZ, you'll empathize with my newfound passion. If you're pondering the purchase, do it soon, before they appreciate to the point of nobles/ affordability. Considering the amount of time one spends in a  vehicle, life is too short for anything but such exemplary European craftsmanship.