It cost a small fortune, but the SE Coupé easily seduced its buyers

The big, pillarless Mercedes SE Coupé with the stacked lights is still one of motoring's ultimate fashion statements.

When new they sold to a colourful international mix of old and new money owners in surprisingly healthily numbers despite a huge UK price tag. The Americans loved the coupés too - the sheer length of the car and its pillarless windows were a clue to market it was aimed at. Suave and square-jawed, they still cruise London's media ghettos like prowling U-boats, the pinnacle of motoring ambition for the style leader with the requisite wedge. From new they were owned by TV stars such as Eamonn Andrews and Michael Aspel and never really had a "banger" period. Many were restored in the 1980s at huge expense. David Walliams of Little Britain is a current celebrity Mercedes coupé owner.

Launched as a fuel-injected, 120bhp 220SE in 1961, the coupé was based on the new mid-range W111 saloons, though Paul Bracq's styling was happily bereft of the saloon's clumsy fins.

Instead he drew a tight, Detroit-influenced pillarless hardtop, with fashionable wraparound front and rear screens, squared-off rear haunches and stacked lights at the front, their glass "bubble" covers echoing the design of the top-of the-range fintail saloons. Doors were long and heavy while the rounded profile of the flanks suggested weight and solidity. It was generously spacious for a two-door coupé, and the elongated tail meant a cavernous boot too.

For 1962 the 220 Coupé was joined by the air-suspended, fully disc-braked, power-steered 300SE Coupé. It was all change again for 1965, when the 250 replaced the 220 range: from this point on the two-door cars took their technical lead from the new W108 S-Class saloons that replaced the upper-range fintails that year. The 250 Coupé was almost as quick as the 300, and it also shared the bigger cars' disc brakes.

Thus, it seemed perfectly rational to Benz-watchers when 1967 Stuttgart rationalised the coupé range with a single 280SE model, the smooth, flexible 2,778cc unit pumping 160 real horsepower in injected form.

But the final, and best, W111 coupé derivative was undoubtedly the 1969 V8, confusingly badged 280SE 3.5. Conceived to appease American buyers weaned on lazy, high-torque V8s, this single-cam per bank electronically injected engine gave a full-blooded 200bhp at 5,800rpm in "dirty" European tune, good for 125mph on the Autobahn with 60 in the sub 10 second bracket. The V8s were smoother, more refined cars than their six-cylinder ancestors and looked more contemporary with squatter front grilles and rubber inserts in those trademark double-decker bumpers which are now so famously expensive to replace.

Still top of the Mercedes range - if you discount the 600 Limo - the W111 two doors stayed in production until 1971, effectively replaced by the 350 SLC.

Drive a 3.5 Coupé today and it is till impressive in a way few other classics can manage, radiating top-drawer build ethos from the moment you put the key in the smooth-acting door lock. Massive and heavy, the doors - complete with power window motors - shut with the dull thunk of intrinsic, solid-hewn quality. Settle back in the wide leather armchairs, sniff the fragrant hides and survey the splendidly baroque facia, expansive slabs of burnt veneer detailed - like the bodywork - with heavy chrome highlights. There is a huge helm spanning 15 inches across and all the info you'll need behind it in a very 1960s instrument cluster.

Twist the ignition key and the fuel pump whirrs, priming the electronic injection, and the V8 fires first touch. Acceleration is authoritative rather than ultra-strong, with wholesome unfaltering pull into the 90s and beyond. Few would have been disappointed by such brisk, torquey pick-up in 1970.

It's no sports car this Benz, but far tidier in its handling than the wallowing Cadillac and Lincoln coupés the car was designed to compete with in Beverly Hills. This was a car for mature men (or women) with nothing to prove, drivers more at ease on the crunchy gravel of the golf club drive than pushing their pride and joy to the point of unseemly tyre-screech.

No, the 280 3.5 Coupé is best enjoyed as a dignified grey-templed wafter, side windows lowered for that swish open-plan look, Sinatra crooning on the eight-track as you soak up the quality - from the click of the wiper switch to the well-engineered feel of throttle linkage - and enjoy the firmly damped suspension.

Used as such, it's a fine car: exclusive, handsome, built like an expensive piece of furniture it radiates taste and good-living, if not gut-churning excitement. For that you need to forgo some style, save some money, and buy the ultimate Mercedes boardroom hot rod: a 300SEL 6.3.

The Benz cognoscenti have always known how good the W111 coupés are, seeking out them out long before the trendies adopted the cars in the 1980s; at one time it seemed as if every photographer in Notting Hill owned one. Beautifully built, rare and timelessly handsome the coupé - and its even more sought-after convertible sibling - are fully deserving of classic status. Few post-war Mercs rank higher in the desirability stakes.

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