This Mercedes 280SE Lowrider Blends Period-Correct Options With Modern Modification
Photography by Shane Allen
My interest in cars goes back much further, but when I got my driver’s license I was mainly interested in Japanese imports, and the first car I started modifying myself wore the “H” of Honda. The Mercedes you see here may not seem like a natural progression from that point, but in many ways my experience with imports translated seamlessly into classics. I’ve never considered myself a devotee of any particular make or model, and soon after that first Honda of mine I began looking for a car to satisfy my want of something with some deeper history behind it.
The first classic car I owned was a 1964 Cadillac, and since that car my garage has been home to plenty of stuff from both Japan and the broader past. I don’t discriminate, I simply like what I like, and one car I’d always had an urge to own and build to my taste was an older Mercedes sedan. I wanted to fit a modern air suspension to the car, sort of like what the 300SELs came with from the factory, but far less maintenance intensive and wallet gouging.
I began my search for the right car back in 2009, and after a few crusty ones and some exorbitant asking prices, I found a W108 a little less than a year later. It was already restored, and I enjoyed daily driving that car for a few months before the fuel pump went at a light. I didn’t get around to replacing it, so I set it aside until I was ready. The experience did nothing to turn me off of the chassis though, and since that first Merc I’ve been a big proponent of the W108 and W109. This led to the car pictured. I’ve owned it for almost five years now, and coincidentally it is the same model year as the first that I bought, a 1972, only this is a right-hand drive model. Being into Hondas, I’d seen more than my fair share of left-to-right-hand drive conversions, but this car had never been cut into. It’s rare to find one set up from the factory like this at all, but more so when it’s already been brought to the US, so I called on the car and tried to not sound too excited.
I learned that this ’72 280SE 3.5 had been imported from Jamaica of all places, and its US owner acquired it sometime in the 1980s. Sometime along the way, he’d converted it to US-spec by adding the relevant pieces like headlights, taillights, side markers, gauge cluster, etc. Since I’d been into the W108s for a few years at this point, I’d amassed a small horde of OEM optional parts and accessories that I was eager to install on the right car. With this one being in decent shape and in such a rare configuration to see Stateside, I took a look at the car and not long afterwards, brought it home with me.
When I first acquired it, everything besides the lighting and consumables was original, but it was always going to be more of a project car that needed some restoring, so I had no qualms about what I planned to do with it in the future. Within the first few weeks of ownership I had gotten it running correctly, and the first thing I bought was a set of one-inch whitewalls. It’d come to me with solid black tires that were slightly oversized from stock diameter—common for those seeking a bit more comfort from the already stately ride—though I preferred the period-correct look and originality in terms of sidewall sizing. I suppose they weren’t the first items I’d purchased for it though, as back when my other one was running I’d asked a friend in the Netherlands who’d helped me source rare parts for my Hondas if he could find a set of RHD-spec European headlights with integrated fogs, some French-spec taillights, and a rear fog light. He found the heads and tails in less than a month, and soon after I sourced the fog light—I had my “kit” so to speak.
Before installing the lighting that I’d tucked away years ago, I wanted to get the car on modern air suspension, and it’s made the car exactly as I’d envisioned. It can do everything now; at driving height it’s compliant but planted, it easily dodges potholes and absorbs the inevitable ones, and you’d be none the wiser thinking it wasn’t all OEM. With a few button pushes, the same car can also put its frame rails on the pavement and fit in amongst any lowrider crowd. If you’ve seen what happens to the original Mercedes adjustable suspension that the top models were fitted with when the system is neglected, you might mistake mine for having succumbed to a similar fate, but then I simply raise it back up and drive wherever I need to without worry. It’s not for the strict purists, but I like to think of it as a modern version of the original option that’s much easier to work with and maintain, plus I love the way the long, straight shape of the body looks when it’s lowered.
After getting the suspension sorted, it then came time for the host of optional parts and period-correct accessories that I’d been collecting. I started with fitting my lighting kit that I’d saved for so long, and soon after came another set of whitewalls, only this time with the thicker stripes I’d wanted from the start. I drove it like this for a few years until I decided it was time to finally repaint and restore it. So, I stripped it down in my garage, drove it to the bodyshop, and had them spray it in the same OEM Silver Grey. While that was happening, I also had all the brightwork re-polished and all the chrome pieces redone as well. This led to me also buying the whole host of OEM rubber bits, clips, hinges—all the little ancillary pieces that always surprise you in their abundance when you start really picking cars apart.
After the paint was finished, I took the car back and began fitting all this to it as I reassembled everything. I’d also collected a few more OEM optional parts at this point that I’d been trying to locate since my first Merc back in 2010, and most of these pieces took years of patience and searching to find. The interior for example has a bunch of optional extras like the long armrests, center seat adapter, ivory -colored steering wheel, rear speakers, C-pillar reading lights, a first-aid kit, and a European-spec searchlight.
On the exterior, I’ve fitted among other pieces a grille guard, window visors, the gas door pull lever, a period-correct thermometer, and a collection of OEM decals that I’ve tracked down over the years. I also had the front end wrapped in clear paint protection film to avoid getting rock chips on the new (at the time) paint job—I drive this car a lot, so it was definitely needed. And now, having owned it for almost half a decade, I can say I’m proud to have accomplished the look I’d be chasing for so many years, and I’ll be getting around to fixing my first one too. As it’s already been restored to OEM specification, I plan to keep only original parts on that car, so if you’re offended by this one know that my other W108 will be purist-approved!