Car Care / Car Culture

Road Trippin’ In A Just-Bought 1972 Mercedes Benz 280SE

So, to pick up this story from my holiday handbook column. My son Phillip and I were driving home from LA and my itchy trigger finger led to the eBay purchase of this 1972 280SE 4.5 from a gas station off the freeway in San Jose, California. We’ve just laid eyes on the car and are about to get back on the road.

After walking around the Benz for a bit and tossing the skuzzy sheepskin seat covers in the trunk, we turned over the engine for the first time and the “Solid Gold Baby” settled into a nice lumpy idle. As I pulled away it was evident she was running on about six and a half cylinders, not the eight Mercedes intended. Hmmm… that would explain the lumpy idle as Mercedes rarely put a hot cam in their ’70s era engines.

Even so, I thought I had way more power than the 300CD my son was now driving, so I was more than happy. We were clicking off the miles, Sacramento, Redding, Medford, Eugene, Portland, and then home to Tacoma. After a few bottles of STP Fuel Injection Cleaner I picked up another cylinder close to Eugene, Oregon… problem solved! Over the passes, down on the flatlands, the Big Benz was running like a freight train… which is a true testament to how a 45-year-old Mercedes Benz really runs. I kept petting the dash saying, “We can make it baby!!!” … not quite like Eddie Murphy in “Trading Places,” but close enough. Solid Gold Baby (sorry, I’ve named the Benz after Foxxy Cleopatra’s “Hey Goldmember” song…don’t blame me, it fits the car.) ran with hardly a hiccup, but after making it back to the Griot’s Motors “garage,” it was evident how lucky we were.

The brakes seemed to be okay on the road, but were hanging on by a thread in actuality. First clue? The brake fluid was black and hadn’t been changed in a decade or more. So we went through the entire braking system rebuilding the calipers and putting on new rotors and pads. We then turned our attention to the suspension and replaced all the ball joints, sway bar bushings, and shocks. Engine injectors came out and were sent to an injector cleaner company nearby, and man, did that make a difference in idle and power.

But to make the biggest difference we decided to try and make this car look brand new. We started by completely removing the interior so it was easier to clean! We scrubbed the seats and carpet with interior and carpet cleaner and made them look brand new again. The headliner was sprayed and cleaned back to a grey/white with our new citrus cleaner that also gave the interior a refreshing smell again. The gauges came out to clean the glass and we made them clear and new again. While we were in there we replaced all the bulbs and even got the clock to work again! The wood trim was sanded down and recoated with a clear coat that made the wood look fantastic. All the windows were cleaned inside and out, old blown-out speakers were replaced, and an original Becker Europa head unit was sourced to bring back that classic look to the dash. Halfway there and now getting into the car really puts a smile on my face.

With the interior looking almost new again, we turned our attention to the paint. As you know, we are now selling finishing papers for wet sanding a paint surface to perfection. Not really being happy with the paint when we got the car, I knew we could improve on it, I just didn’t know how close it would come back to looking brand new! Someone had obviously repainted the car years and years ago, but never polished out the clear coat, so we had a lot to work with and made the paint look brand new again! It was simple and here are the steps: Wet sand down to our finest grade, then polish to perfection with our BOSS lineup of products. I knew we sold great products, but the results were amazing! Jaw dropping actually. Finishing touches included removing the bumpers for a good cleaning and polishing and machine polished the taillights to their original color and clearness. The last thing we did was remove the tires so we could powder coat the wheels. New Michelins went on for maximum handling and safety.

I feel the car is fully sorted now and ready for its next adventure. Why did I push the Buy-It-Now button? I crave adventure, and after Solid Gold Baby got me home in one piece I found the thrill of driving an old car can’t be replicated with something new. The beauty is anyone can do this. Minor work made this ’70s icon a reliable runner and then we just polished the paint and thoroughly cleaned the interior using the same wonderful Griot’s Garage products you can buy every day. Don’t take your loved ones to a shop, you can save a TON of money and never stop smiling that you did all the work in your own garage. We did and it didn’t cost a lot to do… just a lot of sweat, a little bit of brains, and a lot of love invested in the joy of driving something most people would have written off.


  1. Walt Partymiller says:

    Richard, it is a great pleasure to see your ‘new’ 280SE 4.5 on the cover of the latest catalog. It’s lying right on my kitchen table so I can glance at it every time I walk by.
    My folks bought a ’71 280SE (inline-6) from the 1st owner in 1976; I have owned that medium blue beauty since 1988. I pulled the car cover off and am ready to begin cleaning it with Griot’s Garage products that I have collected (& used exclusively) for the past 25 years- I’ve got the 6 & 3 inch buffers & all the essentials.
    Your story helps to inspire the work ahead.
    Griot’s products always create a protective, shiny finish that makes my cars a joy to me in my garage, and on the road.
    Thanks, Walt

    • Thanks for the reply, Walt. They say timing is everything and we’re glad to keep you inspired. Keep the fun flowing in your garage.

  2. Scott Stewart says:

    I’ve got a 1973 280se 4.5 that I’ve had in and out of storage for the last 30 years or so, and was losing enthusiasm for getting it shiny and new again until I saw your car on the Griot’s catalog. Since then, I have started doing most of the same things you did to yours – brakes, general rehab, and now starting to address the “5 cylinder lope” you describe. This old girl deserves to be on the road again. Thanks for inspiring me!

  3. Wayne Walker says:

    I too own an older MB but new than that one, an ’85 500 SEL Euro model. Since I
    am NOT much of a mechanic, I found a great older MB mechanic in town who
    not only works on my car, but loves as much as I do. Phillip Nicholas is my auto
    savior. Enjoyed you article.

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