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BMW 3.3 Li and Mercedes 280 SE 3.5: German luxury sedans of the 1960s

Arturo Rivas
BMW 3.3 Li and Mercedes 280 SE 3.5
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The good star on all roads faded, suddenly there was an S-Class from M ercedes no longer the measure of all things. In the late 1960s there was a lot of upheaval, socially, creatively and technically. More individual freedom, an objective, functional product design and new, pioneering constructions took the place of a bourgeois, conservative worldview. Mercedes-Benz as an exponent of this philosophy got a little under the wheels when a headwind blew from the progressive corner. Expansive shapes with plenty of chrome curtains, lush wood paneling and plush velor seats delight the economic miracle child, but no longer the new elite of avant-garde intellectuals.

With the E3, BMW is setting new standards for engine and chassis

In 1968, BMW hit the nerve of the times with the new, large six-cylinder. The type E3, as it is called internally, has a sober, Italian-inspired functional form, it is rather compact for a luxury class car and catches the representative Mercedes S-Class on two Achilles heels. The engine and chassis of the BMW models 2500 and 2800 are ahead of the state of the art, while the 280 S and 280 SE of the 108 series are still satisfied with a six-cylinder engine and a single-joint swing axle from the 1950s.

The pendulum axle ensures outstanding driving comfort, but driving safety suffers. When braking sharply or when cornering rapidly, it tends to react insidiously despite the balancing spring. The modern BMW semi-trailing arm axle, supported by struts for the first time in the E3, is tuned to be harder, but behaves only slightly oversteer at the limit, which ambitious BMW drivers like to provoke with controlled drifting. The badly squeezed Mercedes six-cylinder no longer has the legendary mileage from the days of the 220 S with 110 hp. They don't even have a cross-flow cylinder head, which makes gas exchange easier and increases power output. And they only run smoothly and smoothly in the lower speed range.

BMW series six with 7 main bearings and 12 counterweights

The modern BMW six-cylinder in the 3.3 Li can do everything much better. He is extremely easy to turn and smoothly, pullselastic out of the lower speed range and still lasts 200,000 kilometers if his high-spirited revving pleasure is not previously fatal in the hands of insensitive stokers. Measured against its excellent properties, the design effort is kept within limits.

Because the M30 has neither two overhead camshafts nor four valves per cylinder. Its secret is the ingenious precision work in detail: thanks to the ingenious shape of the combustion chamber and a carefully balanced crank drive with seven main bearings and twelve counterweights, it has become the reference for the in-line six-cylinder engines. Daimler-Benz reacted quickly and a year later added the small 3.5-liter V8 for the air-sprung SEL and for the flat radiator Coupé and Cabriolet.

Our confrontation between the W 108 S-Class and the large one E3 BMW plays in the 200 hp league. A rare, only one and a half year built 280 SE 3.5 competes against the E3 top model 3.3 Li, which is even rarer and was only built for a year and a half. The compact BMW only grows with ten centimeters more wheelbase to the representative format of the Mercedes. V8 against straight six is ​​by no means an unfair duel. Power and torque are almost identical in both engines. The BMW engine impresses with the aforementioned brilliance, the Mercedes needs the two more cylinders in order to be able to catch up in terms of power delivery. The BMW runs even more smoothly.

Mercedes in the Wilhelminian style, BMW relies on Bauhaus aesthetics

The Mercedes S-Class is mainly available in the noble color medium blue metallic, code 396, the classic car beauty. Its proportions are harmonious, the details look skilful. The then Mercedes chief designer Paul Bracq achieved a great success with the W 108, the previously cathedral-like Gothic S-Class was visually wider and lower, the tail fins disappeared, the small taillights take away the bulk of the rear.

What remained , are the imposing curves of the bonnet and the massive dummy radiator of the Mercedes W 108 with a steep star on a solid base. The opulence of the Mercedes can be compared with a Wilhelminian style villa, the BMW E3 is reminiscent of a Bauhaus bungalow with a cool, timeless objectivity. Its dynamic shape with its strict twin headlights shaped an entire BMW era.

The BMW 3.3 Li is the second attempt of a top model, the first was the 190 hp carburettor version called the 3.3 L, curiously, it is blessed with a longer stroke and more torque. The fully equipped BMW flagship, which cost almost 40,000 marks, was initially only available with a ZF three-speed automatic transmission, later, as a tribute to the self-drive clientele, the exact four-speed manual transmission, like our BMW 3.3 Li in the covered Polaris metallic, was added /p>

Mercedes S-Class with an opulent feeling of space

In a driving comparison, the Mercedes pleasesW 108 with its opulent feeling of space and supreme driving comfort. Although the 200 hp V8 can grab hold of it, the S-Class does not encourage you to drive fast. The four-speed Ruckomatic with fluid clutch instead of torque converter, often criticized for its hard gear changes, is pleasantly smooth when driving. And the eight-cylinder only shows its aggressive staccato sound when kick-down or manually switched. Inclination to a vital driving experience

The BMW E3 is the more modern and better car, the Mercedes is only superior in terms of body quality. The apt description of the BMW 3.3 Li was anticipated by the brochure text at the time in the typically mannered BMW diction: 'The duty of representation does not have to preclude the tendency to a vital driving experience.'

Alf Cremers' conclusion on the BMW 3.3 Li and Mercedes-Benz 280 SE 3.5

Folks, don't make it so difficult for me! I've had both cars in my heart since childhood. I love the 108 Mercedes because of its gorgeous shape and valuable workmanship. The magnificent 3.5-liter V8 kills the stigma of the farmer's engines. Ultimately, it is the BMW whose vital nature totally fascinates me. I feel young and sporty in the E3 - and that means something!

BMW 3.3 Li even more popular than Mercedes-Benz 280 SE 3.5

So different are the two luxury sedans of the 60s are, that's how popular they are among classic car enthusiasts. In addition to the quality of the cars, the price also reflects their number. The top version 3.3 Li of the BMW E3 was built only 3,271 times, of the Mercedes-Benz 280 Se 3.5 with 11,309 copies, more than three times as many. Classic analytics lists the BMW 3.3 Li in condition 2 at 32,000 euros (condition 4: 8,500 euros) - the Mercedes-Benz 280 SE 3.5 is 9,000 euros cheaper at 23,000 euros (condition 4: 5,800 euros).

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