The 108 chassis: The perfect entry level classic Mercedes?

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Spacious, refined and offering muscular long distance touring capabilities, the 4.5 liter sedans should not be overlooked as a rewarding classic MB.

Four doors and understated elegance
The case in favor of the 108 series sedans

October 2010

When you really think about it, what’s the big difference between a 1971 280SE 3.5 coupe and a 1972 280SE 4.5 sedan? Sit behind the wheel and you look out over a very similar dash layout and raising your eyes toward the road you peer over very similar hood and grille contours. The 4.5 is more powerful (225hp compared to 200hp), has more torque (278 ft/lb compared to 230 ft/lb) and while at 3,821 lbs the 4.5 is 180 lbs heavier, acceleration is essentially the same (9.5 sec 0-62mph) as a 3.5.

Overall build quality is similar. Panel fit and finish from the factory was superb on both cars so why is the 3.5 coupe four times the value of a similar condition 4.5 sedan? Well, of course the 4.5 is a sedan and a far less spectacular design than the sublime 3.5’s elegant pillarless shape. But it’s a very handsome, well proportioned design at that.

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The 108s crisp well balanced design is evident in this shot of a pastel grey 1972 280SE 4.5. It’s a study in horizontal design elements. Bumper alignment is important to maintain the symmetry. Long wheelbase SELs were about 4.5 ” longer in the rear door area. Most US models arrived with white wall tires.Clean, crisp lines define 108 series sedans. 4.5s were a US model only.

Not so rare

Oh, and there were only 3,025 LHD 3.5 coupes constructed (compared to 21,700 4.5 SWB/LWB sedans built). The 4.5 is also roomier, has more comfortable seats and is easier to enter and exit. Kids, dogs and dinner guests are nicely accommodated in the spacious rear seats (particularly in the long wheelbase examples). The lovely wood is there, leather was on option and sunroofs are fairly common. Both cars share massive trunks.

You’re probably getting the picture that we like the 108s. When well sorted, the fuel injected 108 sedans (250SE, 280SE/SEL, 280SE/SEL 4.5) in their six and eight cylinder variants and different wheelbases are satisfying road cars and respectable entry level MBCA club tour and event cars. I mention fuel injected as the carbureted cars can be infuriating to sort out and I’ve yet to drive a carbureted 108 that ran crisply through all ranges.

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A well sorted 108 is a joy on the road with smooth, supple handling and excellent visibility. V8s add an extra level of refinement and response. Amber turn signal lamps are unique to US models. Avoid the agony of massive reconditioning and buy a good one. With 359,522 108s constructed, there is bound to be an example out there for you. Injected six cylinders and V-8s are our favorites.

Find a good one

The parallels between the 108 sedans and 280SE 3.5 coupes (and cabriolets for that matter) also extend to costs to refurbish. This is where the risks of buying a 108 sedan enter the picture. Sorting out a tired sedan can quickly run well beyond the car’s market value so we encourage buyers to focus on the best example available. The $20k excellent condition 4.5 sedan is usually the better buy than a tired but running and driving example for $6k. Here are some things to look for during your 108 sedan hunt:

  • As with any Mercedes of this era, try to find the undamaged car. Many have had rear collision repairs and poorly installed/repaired rear ‘light’ panels as well as ugly wrinkled trunk floors. Check all the body panel gaps -they were all very precise when the car left Mercedes-Benz.
  • Find a car still fitted with the correct “hydro-compensator” mounted over the differential. Many have been fitted with a “fifth” spring which raises the rear ride height and changes the handling quality of the car. Hydro-compensators are now available from Mercedes-Benz Classic Center USA.
  • Look carefully at interior trim. Costs here for significant work can equal many a car’s total value. Most 108s were fitted with MB tex grained vinyl. Skip cars with significant leather/trim needs.
  • Dash pads are no longer available from Mercedes-Benz so try to avoid cars with split and deformed pads. We have re-covered deteriorated pads with leather (similar grain patter to the original molded pad) to good effect.
  • As always try to find a car with its original handbook and literature packet. And service history is always a bonus.
  • Check for tool rolls. The roll – a green cloth bag – for a 108 chassis should be hanging from its lug wrench on the rearmost vertical trunk panel.
  • Check all the switchgear. The upper left hand horizontal temperature slide control lever actuates the blower motor (the AC system has a separate blower motor). Make sure it runs the blower motor through all speeds. Dead blower motors are very time consuming to change.
  • Avoid car with significant chrome needs and skip any car with even moderate rust issues.
  • Both the V-8s and sixes are fundamentally strong engines. But check for smoke, timing chain noise and oil pressure (all have oil pressure gauges). Oil pressure below 20lbs at idle in gear and fully up to temperature should be investigated.
  • Under the hood, check fuel lines/injectors for leakage. Any raw fuel smell should be investigated. Steering gearboxes/hoses are prone to leakage as are cam covers. Ignition pieces are usually deteriorated and the injection “trigger points” (problems here cause surging at steady speeds) are no longer available.
  • Well, you get the idea – all the above are the reasons these cars are still very inexpensive. What we are suggesting here is to find Grandma’s 4.5 sedan that has been driven sparingly and never altered. They still exist.
  • Expect to pay $20k or more for a superb 4.5 sedan and maybe 20% less for a six cylinder. Extreme low mileage cars will be more.
  • Remember, a crisp 108 sedan is welcomed at any Mercedes-Benz Club of America event and always elicits a thumbs up from other motorists. We feel it’s one of the most rewarding entry level classic era Mercedes-Benz to own.

roy spencer/editor mercedesheritage
photograph/mercedesheritage

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  • This 31k miles survivor 280SE 4.5 exhibits all the classic design cues common to the sexy 111 coupes.
  • Tail design is taught and elegant. US models featured license plate light assemblies on either side of the plate.
  • Verticle headlamp layout, traditional grille topped by a flexible star and the horizontal bumper completing the design.
  • Checking fender bolts for disturbance is important on any Mercedes regardless of age.
  • Data plate contains valuable information including some option codes, and the color code.
  • Core support an important area to inspect for any irregularities. Note original decal
  • Another area to inspect to see how a 108 has been cared for. Look for overspray in this area.
  • Deck lid hinge bolts are worth inspected on any MB young/old timer. Disturbed bolts indicate removal and/or repairs.
  • Tool rolls were included with every Mercedes constructed.
  • Be sure to pull the rubber trunk mat up and look carefully at the floor for rust, deformation due to accident damage.
  • Original dash pads no longer available from Mercedes-Benz.
  • Rear seat area of an SE. Note fold down center arm rest. Long wheelbase SELs were extended about 4.5 inches.
  • Driver's footwell area is worth a look as well. Original heel pads have a part number and the star logo embossed on them.
  • Dash pads sensative to sun exposure and will develop ugly cracks. If you buy one, invest in a cheap dash cover to protected.
  • The intrinsic beauty of the jewel-like detail of this era of Mercedes-Benz is a large part of the appeal.
  • The hand books are critical to
  • Inner wheel arches were always body color over chip coat. Front arches have a satin black removable inspection cover.
  • A close look at the undercarriage is important on any MB of this era.

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