Anniversary Celebration: Mercedes-Benz 350 SE

Fifty years ago, the new S-Class Mercedes-Benz set a higher standard for luxury saloons. Mike Monk reviews the flagship 350 SE that when launched in South Africa was the country’s most expensive car…


Mercedes-Benz introduced the S-Class in mid-1973 with a five model line-up comprising four models with a new, twin-cam 2,8-litre engine, and a top of the range 350 SE automatic powered by a short-stroke, twin overhead-cam, fuel injected 3 499 cc V8. Company sales literature of the time stated “The letter S has always indicated Mercedes-Benz products which have reached peak development level”. In the 1960s and 1970s, Mercedes-Benz produced a series of 16 experimental vehicles with the code name C111. The company was experimenting with new powerplant technologies, including Wankel enginesdiesel engines and turbochargers. Other experimental features included multi-link rear suspensiongull-wing doors and a luxurious interior with leather trim and air-conditioning. And some of these developments were incorporated into the new S-Class. Naturally, such progress came at a price, and with a base price of over R11 000 (options were available), the 350 SE was by far the most expensive vehicle on sale in SA.

The S-Class featured an energy-absorbing bodyshell with a rigid passenger cell incorporating a framework acting as a safety cage, plus crumple zones front and rear. The large, 96-litre fuel tank was positioned behind the rear seat above the axle and protected by bulkheads. Mouldings were fitted to deflect rain water from the side and rear windows. Rectangular headlamps incorporated H4 quartz-halogen lights, while the rear lamp clusters featured the innovative horizontally-ribbed lenses to prevent dirt and dust accumulation.

FMM’s 1973 350 SE is one of the earliest models to have been built at Mercedes-Benz’s CDA (Car Distributors Assembly) plant in East London. It is still in excellent condition, its white paintwork somewhat unusual – the cars were more commonly seen painted a creamy-beige colour. It is a big car – 4 960 mm long, 1 865 mm wide and 1 425 mm high – and has a licensing mass of 1 675 kg. Stepping inside, the space available is immediately apparent, and the large glasshouse adds to the airy effect. The red leather interior is designed for four, although folding away the rear-seat centre armrest allows for a fifth passenger without sacrificing comfort. Through-flow ventilation was innovative at the time.

The broad front seats offer plenty of fore-aft, rake and height adjustment, facilitating a comfortable driving position for practically anyone. As already indicated, the view out is panoramic, and of course, looking along the bonnet to the radiator grille-topped three-pointed star is a Mercedes-Benz hallmark. Instrumentation is not overdone and incorporated in a hooded, three-dial housing easily viewed through the top half of the steering wheel. The single, multi-purpose column stalk is mounted on the right-had side. The facia includes a factory option Becker Europa all-wave radio with stereo control.

The engine fires up easily and the V8 proves to offer plenty of unruffled performance. Max power is 149 kW at 5 800 r/min and peak torque of 312 N.m occurs at 4 000. The action of the three-speed autobox is smooth enough, and helps deliver a 0-100 km/h time of 12,4 seconds and a top speed of 200 km/h. Power-assisted recirculating ball steering provides 3,0 turns lock to lock and a turning circle of 11,4 metres. Power-assisted dual-circuit disc brakes, ventilated up front, provide excellent retardation.

Wishbone front suspension came from the C111 and incorporates zero offset to aid directional stability along with anti-dive control and an anti-roll bar. Independent rear suspension features semi trailing arms, coil springs, double -jointed half shafts and an anti-roll bar.

Today, in motoring terms, little of the foregoing seems remarkable, but half a century ago it was quite radical. A Spring-time drive in the car highlighted why it was so popular. Comfortable, smooth, relaxed, quiet, effortless – the experience was instantly enjoyable. Little wonder that those affluent enough to afford it were buying 350 SEs at more than 100 a month.