Don’t buy that, buy this: Rolls-Royce Corniche vs Mercedes-Benz 280SE 3.5 Coupé

| 1 Aug 2018
Classic & Sports Car – Don’t buy that, buy this: Rolls-Royce Corniche vs Mercedes-Benz 280SE 3.5 Coupé

Mercedes-Benz is a marque that tends to encourage blind devotion.

I have owned and enjoyed probably dozens of them over the last 25 years, but I do not count myself among those who can see no wrong in these cars, or close my mind to the possibility that there are better, cheaper alternatives out there.

I have quite a few mates who are Benz-brainwashed, however, so I was surprised a few months ago when one in particular spotted a Rolls-Royce Mulliner Park Ward Coupé (like a Corniche but slightly earlier) gliding through the traffic near Hampton Court and suddenly, unprompted, piped up: “You know what, I can’t understand why those cars are so cheap compared to Merc 3.5 coupés…”

Classic & Sports Car – Don’t buy that, buy this: Rolls-Royce Corniche vs Mercedes-Benz 280SE 3.5 Coupé
“I’m not sure a more beautiful Mercedes has ever been built”

The car in question was dark blue, immaculate, totally elegant and probably worth about £40,000, or less than half what a Mercedes-Benz W111 280SE 3.5 Coupé would command in the same condition.

If you start talking convertibles, the price difference becomes completely absurd, with upwards of £250,000 being the going rate for the Mercedes – whereas there are plenty of perfectly good MPW and Corniche convertibles at £50,000 or even less: I spotted a decent one needing a few cosmetics for £35,000 being sold by a reputable specialist not long ago.

Beautiful as these big Mercedes coupés and cabriolets are – and I’m not sure a more beautiful Mercedes has ever been built – I don’t think they are as special as a coachbuilt two-door Rolls-Royce.

These cars took months to build to a standard of fit and finish that really was the best in the world at the time; you only have to look at the interiors of the two cars to see the difference in detailing.

The MPWs and Corniches don’t share their beautiful switchgear and door handles with taxi cabs, only other Rolls-Royces; the way the seats are made, the veneering, the carpets… the Mercedes does not even pretend to be in the same league.

It’s also worth pointing out that Mercedes didn’t give you things like the power hood, power seats and air-conditioning you find as standard in the Rolls-Royce.

Classic & Sports Car – Don’t buy that, buy this: Rolls-Royce Corniche vs Mercedes-Benz 280SE 3.5 Coupé
“An atmosphere of specialness and a sense of occasion that the Mercedes cannot match”

If that sort of thing doesn’t matter to you, then the next question is the way they drive, and that might well sway any decision depending on your taste, driving style and what era of Rolls-Royce you are driving: the chrome-bumper cars are undeniably soft and soggy with featherlight steering, whereas the late cars from the early ’90s feel positively agile by comparison.

You don’t buy a big Merc coupé or convertible to chuck it around, but while they are soft on the road they don’t feel as flabby as the Rolls, with the proviso that many MPWs and Corniches have had handling kits fitted that transform them from that point of view.

For our purposes, let’s say you are looking at a 1967-’77 car and simply say it will be quieter and smoother than the Mercedes and will get you there with less fuss and, again, an atmosphere of specialness and a sense of occasion that the German car cannot match, however 'cool' it looks posing around town with its pillar-less side windows down.

Mechanically it has to be said that a Mercedes-Benz W111 coupe or cabriolet is much less of a can of worms than the Rolls, with its complicated high-pressure braking system that usually needs £2-£5000 spending on it every few years.

But if used regularly and serviced properly they pretty much go on forever, with a massive under-stressed V8 that is easily as rugged as the smaller, noisier higher revving one in the 280SE 3.5.

Rust and parts prices are the downfall of the German car; any parts specific to this two-door body tend to induce heart failure when you see the invoice. Rolls-Royce parts are not cheap either, but there is a well-established infrastructure of companies supplying new and used bits at sensible money, for the most part.

Classic & Sports Car – Don’t buy that, buy this: Rolls-Royce Corniche vs Mercedes-Benz 280SE 3.5 Coupé
Don’t think a late ’60s Rolls coupé has ‘cred’? Think again

Maybe you just don’t see yourself in a Rolls-Royce, and that’s fair enough: it is not a statement everyone wants to make.

But if you put the sociological baggage to one side, they are great, undervalued cars with a unique flavour of refinement and engineering excellence.

UK Mercedes people in particular never seem to miss an opportunity to slag them off or make disparaging comparisons (I think it is a form of cultural self-loathing), usually from a position of zero experience. I can at least claim to have owned a Mercedes-Benz 280SE 3.5 Coupé and a Rolls-Royce (not a Corniche, but a Shadow), and I am very clear on which one I preferred and which one I would buy, even if money was not an issue.

And if you think, somehow, that a Rolls-Royce two-door coupé from the late ’60s doesn’t have ‘cred’, then watch the first half hour of the original The Thomas Crown Affair: the way that green Mulliner Park Ward Coupé looks among all the American barges, the way McQueen looks driving it, and even the way it sounds and moves tells you everything you need to know about how desirable these cars are. Or at least should be.


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