1983 Mercedes-Benz 280GE
On a cold winter night, on a twisting highway toward Valencia, hopped up on Red Bull and Cheetos, the cabin of a Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen is a pretty nice place to be, all things considered. I have done plenty of these kind of drives before, long hauls across Spain in a classic car in the cold and dark, and they can be fairly agonizing at times, but now, in the G-Wagen, everything felt downright civilized. Very… “Mercedeslike.”
Which again, is not a bad thing at all. The Geländewagen, or “G-Wagen” as it is often called, was designed at a time when Mercedes-Benz quite frankly didn’t make many mistakes. It is from a time long before BMW and Audi were considered competitors, and long before the likes of Lexus and Infiniti came along to eat into market share. The G-Wagen is from a time when Mercedes-Benz essentially designed and built vehicles to be the best they could be, period, and damn the cost.
I have owned more than 40 cars in my life, but more of them have been vintage Mercedes models than anything else. There is a feel to them that is consistent across model range and size and even age. It is a feeling of competence and refinement and comfort. I have never felt that Mercedes-Benz made particularly appealing sporting cars, but when you want to get somewhere, anywhere, reliably and comfortably, and with as little effort as possible, the feel of an old Mercedes is hard to match, and this 1983 280GE has that feel in spades.
GETTING THERE IS HALF THE FUN
I bought this truck in Caceres, on the far western edge of Spain, and I had been chauffeured out there from Madrid to pick it up by my good friend Javier, an attorney, former Spanish rally champion, and classic car collector of considerable stature. We had driven west from Madrid, fast and quietly, in a newish CLS, accompanied by his lovely daughter (a licensed vehicle inspector for the Spanish ITV) and their dog, a cheerful Gos D’Atura named Doro.
Purring along the A-5 at 140kp/h Javier gave me a running tour of the history of the region, known as Extremadura. The story of the Iberico pig, the origins of the Ruta de la Plata, and the history of the mountains of western Spain. We ran for a period along the partially completed high-speed “Ave” train route destined for Portugal, and Javier waxed poetic about the multitude of unpaved tracks and dirt roads in Extremadura, heaven for a four-wheeling enthusiast. Spain has a more “live and let live” attitude about such things as four wheelers taking to the mountain tracks, and where in the USA you might expect to have some run ins with the law if you go four wheeling in many areas, Spain is much more laissez-faire about it. Javier often takes his 280Z-powered Nissan Patrol into the “campo” around here, and says he can run for hours in peace and solitude, seeing little more than sheep.
We pulled into Caceres around mid day, and navigated to the area of town where we would meet the seller, Carlos. We all shook hands and Carlos pulled the 280GE around, and at first glance it looked like what I expected. A well-kept, unrestored truck that sounded good and looked its age. We took the vehicle to a nearby lift and raised it up, where Javier’s daughter gave it the once over. A slight weep from the right front axle seal and a dodgy looking old repair to the exhaust system, but otherwise in excellent nick. Best of all, not a speck of rust anywhere.
A test drive confirmed the mechanicals were in order, so we shook hands on the deal and completed the paperwork. After a lunch of the outskirts of town, I bid my friends farewell and set off alone heading south, toward Baños de la Encinas, where I was scheduled to buy a four-door Land Rover 109. By the time I made my way out of Caceres, the sun was already tilting downwards in the sky. It felt like the day was slipping away, and I had a lot of ground yet to cover.
HORSES FOR COURSES
This truck is a contemporary of the Series III Land Rover, and in theory they were designed for similar use, yet the two vehicles really couldn’t be much more different if they tried, and each seems to speak to the culture from which it emanated. The Land Rover is all plucky British charm and bulldog bravado, with a rough and ready character that laughs openly at adversity. It is stiff-upper-lip Englishness, and the din of the motor and the bumpy chop of the suspension makes every trip, of any length, feel like an adventure. The Geländewagen by comparison is teutonic efficiency and consummate competence. There is no great drama to driving a G-wagen, but everything just… works.
The seats are simple looking chairs, but incredibly comfortable, even after long hours on the road. The steering wheel is recognizable to anyone who has ever driven a 1980’s Mercedes-Benz sedan, from a 240D to a 560SEL, and the steering is light and direct. Gauges are chunky, no-nonsense VDO’s that remind me of those in an air cooled Porsche 911, and the sliding climate control knobs are easy to understand at a glance. Headroom is capacious, and even at over six feet tall I could probably wear a top hat comfortably (although that specific need hasn’t arisen) and leg room in the rear is limousine-spec.
The M110 2.8L DOHC inline six cylinder engine is one of my favorites. Often maligned due to a small number of them developing leaks from the rope seal around the head, it is (like Porsche’s magnesium case 2.7L) occasionally overlooked for all the wrong reasons. Used in literally millions of mid and full-sized vehicles throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, M110’s with more than 800,000 miles are not at all uncommon, and legions of previous owners swear by them as the best six cylinder powerplant Mercedes ever produced. Smooth at all RPM, the engine revs beautifully and sings a wonderful note through the midrange that turns into a raspy snarl at higher RPM. It reminds me, in sounds and character, a bit of the Datsun 240Z engine, and I wish Mercedes-Benz had seen fit to drop it into a proper sport coupe. Mated to a four-speed manual transmission, it is a drivetrain that is inspiring to operate, even in what is, in this application, a large, heavy all-terrain vehicle.
I dialed up “Carlos & The Banditos” on Spotify, gave the M110 the beans, and made for the lights of Sevilla in the distance as the sun dipped below the horizon.
WIN SOME, LOSE SOME
After a good night sleep I set off in the 280GE again toward Baños. My route out of Sevilla would take me east to Carmona, then bend north to Cordoba before twisting east again towards Linares and the peaceful little pueblo of Baños de la Encinas, a place I know well.
Spain is a country where beauty and antiquity can be found around almost any corner, and Carmona is a wonderful example. A stunning little town of twisting, medieval streets, Carmona is home to one of the most breathtaking “Paradors” I have ever seen. A Parador is a state run hotel, often (but not always) set in a restored ancient building, and this one is inside a 14th century Arabic fortress set on the edge of a massive bluff overlooking the surrounding countryside. Stand on the back patio and you can see for what feels like forever, out over the olive groves and orchards, all the way to the next mountain range, far off on the horizon. On another day, I would have checked in and stayed, but not on this day. I snapped some photos and got back on the road, eager to keep moving east, toward the Mediterranean and home.
I rolled into Baños de la Encina around 1:00pm, and met up with the man who was to take me to the Land Rover. He was one of my “scouts,” a local resident who looks for vehicles for me in return for finders fees. I had bought a truck from him already, and knew him to be trustworthy, but he was quick to let me know he hadn’t actually seen this Land Rover yet. He had been promised it was better than the one I had purchased from him directly, which was very good indeed. I was excited.
We drove to meet the owner, and followed him to a brace of giant warehouses, as large as modern aircraft hangers, on the back side of town. He dialed in a passcode on a digital lock and swung the giant door open on a well-oiled slide. Inside was as much heavy farm equipment as I have ever seen in one place in my life. Row after row of huge, ultra-modern New Holland tractors, as well as heavy trucks and all sort of other machinery that I didn’t recognize. Peppered among them, in virtually every row, were a handful of Land Rover 109’s. All were white.
“Which one is it?” I asked him. He pointed, and my heart sank.
It was a battered old work truck, nothing more. Caked with farm dust and dirt in every crevice, I wandered over and popped the hood. The engine was also caked in choking dust. Every body panel was dented or dinged. The interior was covered in the same heavy dust as everything else, but what I could see of the upholstery was torn and there were heavy Mexican blankets on every row of seats. The grille was broken, and none of the tires matched. I thanked the owner for his time and left. Another wasted day.
Actually, not really. Baños de la Encinas is in the region of Andalucia, and Andalucia is famous for the production of olive oil. My wife had asked me to pick her up some, and on the way out of town I saw the local cooperative where the oil is produced and sold to distributors. I pulled the Mercedes into the parking lot and wandered in, finding myself in a production center with a bare concrete floor and heavy presses everywhere. A man greeted me and I asked him if I could buy oil from him. He said yes, and took me to the back where dozens of huge cases were stacked in a corner. I bought eight liters of the sweetest smelling, best tasting olive oil I have ever had. Cloudy from the bits of cold pressed olives still floating in the mixture. Incredible stuff.
I loaded the crate into the back of the 280 and set off for home. Nothing left but to get there.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
Vintage cars are always an adventure, and can generally make a trip more interesting than it would be in a comparable modern vehicle. And while that is certainly true of this 280GE, it integrates more seamlessly into a modern world than many old vehicles, and certainly better than many old adventure trucks. It accelerates briskly and will cruise calmly all day at 110kp/h, with at least another 30kp/h to spare if necessary, although I never found it to be so. The brakes are strong and sure, and the gear change is as light and direct as the steering. On the smaller national highways it’s perfect, and right in its element, but if you need to take the Autovias and superhighways of the world, it’s just fine on those too.
The greenhouse is huge, and all the glass panels are flat, a fact that belies its military heritage and was probably done to make replacement easy anywhere in the world, but whatever the reason, visibility is regal in all directions. It really is a perfectly livable truck.
I stopped for fuel south of Manzanares and stumbled on the entire Lotus Formula1 team, apparently on their way back from winter testing at Jerez. Three transporters and the whole technical crew, but no drivers, who don’t road trip with the rest of the team. All of them looked like they were having fun around the dinner table, so perhaps the drivers miss out.
Past the wineries of San Clemente, and then onto the A-3 to Valencia, the 280 just ate up the miles and kept me fresh and happy. When I got it back to Javea, we had the mechanics give it a proper looking over, and ended up doing quite a bit of work to it. The bodywork was fully restored and given fresh paintwork in the factory wheat yellow color. An occasional long-cranking condition was traced to an aging fuel distributor and leaking injectors, so the distributor was overhauled completely and new injectors were fitted. A new exhaust was installed, as was a cold start enrichment sensor. The result is not a restored truck, but a very, very good one. The interior doesn’t have any glaring faults but generally shows its age, the factory A/C doesn’t work and the windshield wipers function only on high speed, but it is a very straight, entirely rust free G-wagen that is mechanically excellent and has beautiful coachwork in a lovely period color. The small details remaining can be restored easily while driving and enjoying the vehicle, or not. It is a truck that looks stunning and runs beautifully, and for many of us, that’s plenty. It would be the perfect truck to meet Javier out on the tracks of Extremadura for a little cross country exercise. It would handle everything with aplomb and get you home safely, no matter where home happens to be.
Typical Mercedes-Benz. And that, again, is not a bad thing at all.
(CLICK ON ANY IMAGE ABOVE TO ENLARGE, AND CLICK THE IMAGE BELOW TO CYCLE THROUGH THE GALLERY.)