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As the final version of the superbly proportioned shape, dating from 1961, logically the V8 must therefore be the best and most desirable of the W111 two-door family, happily doing without the troublesome air suspension that was a feature of the 300-series coupés.
Between 1969 and ’71, 3270 280SE 3.5s were produced, all of them built with a hand-finished attention to detail that was reserved only for the flagship Daimler-Benz models.
Only 245 right-hand-drive pillarless coupés were offered to world markets and the model has always been coveted, almost from the moment production ended – probably because its replacement, the SLC, had a less special feel about it and ended up being a much more commonplace car.
Certainly nothing prettier than these Paul Bracq-penned two-doors has emerged from Untertürkheim since their demise.
It’s hard to think of another big coupé that reinterpreted the long, low American hardtop feel so expertly while retaining a strong European identity.
It was roomy, refined and very exclusive at £6700 (a 220 saloon was £2500 at the time), and I would suggest that the only car that even approached the appeal of the 3.5 as a dignified coupé status symbol was the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow Mulliner Park Ward Two-Door Saloon.
As a design you will doubtless know it better as the Corniche – much less of a mouthful – but the shape was not relaunched under that name until 1971.
The two-door body, supplanting the Flying Spur and the coachbuilt Cloud III-based cars, was first seen at Geneva in 1966, its John Blatchley lines sharing virtually nothing with the standard Silver Shadow saloon other than a general familial resemblance.
With its curved hips, rakish roofline and long, slender doorhandles, Design Number 3010 was a beautifully balanced shape that provided an ideal basis for a drophead version.
In various forms the convertible (introduced in September 1966) would remain in production until the mid-’90s, but the last of 1108 fixed-head Corniche saloons was built in 1980.
Just 568 of these pre-Corniche MPW coupés were produced (plus 68 Bentley T1 versions) and for decades they were seen as the poor relation of the later model that, with its bigger 6750cc engine and other significant improvements, was undoubtedly a better car to drive.
Yet these early MPW Silver Shadow coupés are now widely regarded as having an appeal of their own.
Unsullied by the chin spoilers, rubber bumpers and (sometimes) loud colour schemes of the later Corniche models, the MPW coupé also had one of the best-looking dashboards of any post-war Rolls-Royce.
It mirrors the so-called Chippendale or ‘deep-dash’ look of the early Shadow four-door, but with flame-pattern veneers and contrasting pale cross-banding emphasising the model’s coachbuilt identity.
Each of these cars took between four and six months to construct, thanks to a build process that demanded two return trips to Crewe after the initial delivery of the modified Shadow base unit to HJ Mulliner, Park Ward’s workshops in Willesden, north London.
A variety of outside firms supplied MPW with body pressings, so you could argue that the process was one of adaptation rather than coachbuilding in the traditional sense, but it was still an elegant solution to the problem of building a specialist version of Rolls-Royce’s first monocoque car.
It’s odd to think that the £11,600 Rolls-Royce was almost double the price of the Mercedes coupé in 1970, because today the reverse is true. The two cars pictured here, on offer with Classic Automobiles Worldwide, illustrate the point rather neatly.
The 1967 two-door Shadow, at £59,500, is at the top end of what these cars command in 2021, although one of the rare Bentley versions might draw quite a lot more.
Looking majestic in Regal Red with beige leather, it has to be one of the best available. Anthony Bentley of Classic Automobiles – now based in Hampshire after decades on Armoury Way, Wandsworth – is a big fan of these cars.
“I’ve been around Rolls-Royces all my life, so I don’t see them as ostentatious,” he says. “And anyone who says they are not ‘cool’ obviously hasn’t seen The Thomas Crown Affair.”
Mechanically, it has to be said that the Mercedes is much less of a can of worms than the Rolls, which has a complicated high-pressure braking system that usually needs £2-5000 spending on it every few years.
But, if used regularly and serviced properly, these cars last well; you only have to look at eBay to see the huge Rolls-Royce survival rate.
Its understressed all-alloy V8 is easily as rugged as the smaller, noisier, higher-revving unit in the Benz.
Rust and parts prices are the downfall of the German car, any components special to this two-door tending to induce heart failure when you see the invoice.
Rolls-Royce components are not cheap, but there is a well-established infrastructure of companies supplying new and used bits at sensible money, for the most part.
Like Shadows, W111 coupés have long been a fixture of the Petersfield firm’s stocklist.
This late left-hand-drive sunroof car was imported from Malta and is wonderfully unmolested, retailing at £120,000.
Even for vendor Bentley the price difference doesn’t compute: “The Rolls is rarer, and even if they were the same price the Shadow just seems like a lot more car.”
While the Shadow came fully loaded from the factory (air conditioning was standard from 1969), items such as electric windows, headrests, radio and power antenna were all pricey extra-cost options on the 280SE 3.5 Coupé. In the UK, most W111 buyers ordered their cars in high-specification form.
In a beauty contest I think it’s a dead heat between these two: both are very much at the ‘personal luxury’ rather than ‘sporty’ end of the coupé spectrum.
Rather longer but very slightly narrower than the Mercedes, the two-door Shadow’s simple, elegant detailing (it carries no model badges) and beautifully judged dimensions exude effortless good taste.
If, in contrast, the W111 overplays the chrome in places then at least it never had to suffer the indignities the much longer-running Royce had to endure in the name of ’70s fashion.
The MPW sits taller than the Mercedes with big, armchair-like seats – power-adjustable and unique to these two-door Shadows – at just the right height.
You step down into the Mercedes’ opulent, more embracing seats whereas the raked ’screen and surprisingly squat roofline of the Rolls cause you to bow your head slightly as you enter.
Both cars have huge luggage areas and in neither do rear passengers negotiate for kneeroom with those in the front; but the Rolls-Royce has a decisive lead in space and luxury.
Its long, aluminium-skinned doors don’t shut with quite the bank-vault finality of those in the Mercedes, but every other aspect of the finish, materials and detailing of the Rolls-Royce is in a different league.
From the precise action of its beautifully wrought dashboard controls to the glossy sheen and immaculate fit of the veneers it just makes the German car, with its plastic switches and token wood, seem ever so slightly ordinary.
It’s not a case of ‘handmade’ versus ‘mass produced’ because the Rolls-Royce has none of the amateurish detailing that can be the downfall of so many low-volume exotic cars.
The theme continues once you are under way. Some may prefer the urgent, throaty snarl of the 280SE 3.5, but it is hard to reconcile the muted hammering of its overhead camshafts and clicking fuel injectors with the silent tickover and silky, imperious acceleration of the Shadow.
To its credit the Mercedes has a snappier take-off through a versatile, floor-controlled four-speed auto, and makes the most of the V8’s 200bhp by dispatching its shifts quickly so that the acceleration feels lively if not exactly seamless.
The period figures suggest the 3500lb 280SE 3.5 would be well ahead of the 4800lb Shadow up to 100mph, but the disparity doesn’t feel dramatic on the road.
Revs equalled noise as far as Crewe was concerned, so it made its engines large and low-revving for more torque and fewer gearchanges, which is why the Shadow can afford to spend most of its time in top.
The 125mph Benz is a solid 10mph faster than the Rolls-Royce outright, but more relevant is the ability to cruise at high speed; 100mph feels ideal in both but the Shadow is much quieter, a detached personal environment into which only road noise intrudes more than it should, probably because the car is generally so isolated from other sources of external din.
Like most ’60s Shadows this car has the four-speed Hydramatic ’box rather than the later three-speed GM400, which means a large gap between the 33mph second and 70mph third.
Driven discreetly changes are imperceptible, but more aggressive driving tends to highlight the gap.
Generally progress is serene and you can set up the car for corners by snicking down into third on the beautifully tactile electric column ‘wand’.
Observed from the tailing Mercedes, the handsome MPW doesn’t roll as much as you expect.
Blessed with superb brakes and straight-line stability that is the equal of the German car (which tends to nosedive under hard braking), the Royce is not a car that is naturally disposed to being handled roughly but has greater built-in margins than its initial responses suggest.
Certainly, compared to the nicely weighted Benz, its steering takes some getting used to.
Very light and utterly bereft of feel, it does disservice to the essentially sound handling.
But once you have learned not to over-correct – and over-think – the way you guide this gentle car, the going becomes more fluid and you can push on quite effectively, although the wide, slippery seats mean that anything beyond mildly brisk cornering tends to alarm passengers.
Town manners are beyond reproach, so you begin to understand why the steering is the way it is, giving the early Shadows a wieldy effortlessness that makes them relaxing in all situations.
The Mercedes is no sports car, but it feels like one after the Shadow. It rolls and understeers a lot less, and you can place it to the inch rather than the nearest 6in.
Its tamed low-pivot swing axles really date it as a design with its origins in the ’50s, but in this final development they generate quite a lot of grip.
If the Rolls-Royce filters out the messages it feels you don’t need to know, the Benz involves you in the decision-making: it seems natural to use the acceleration because it feeds back in a more accurate register.
At the same time it almost matches the superb ride of the Shadow; both cars steamroller road imperfections into submission, but there is a supreme sense of weight and substance under delicate control in the way the Rolls gently plunges then levels itself over undulations.
If you have your sights set on a Mercedes-Benz 280SE 3.5 Coupé there is probably nothing I can say in favour of the two-door Shadow that would sway your decision, least of all the fact that (in this case at least) you could have two coachbuilt Rolls-Royces for the price of the one Benz.
You can, of course, find much better value in the realm of the 3.5-litre W108 saloons, which drive identically and are very handsome in their own right.
And while every chin-stroking, polo-neck-wearing London design guru has fantasised over these superb coupés since at least the mid-’80s, you can see how that argument would not cut much ice here, either: such people do not see themselves in Rolls-Royces.
Maybe it’s a form of cultural self-loathing – the ‘if it’s British it must be rubbish’ mindset – but put the sociological baggage to one side and these cars, directly descended from six-figure, blue-chip greats, are undervalued machines with a unique flavour of refinement and engineering excellence for which there is no real substitute if you value those qualities.
I am very clear on which one I prefer and which one I would buy, even if money was not an issue.
Images: Olgun Kordal
Thanks to Classic Automobiles Worldwide
Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow Mulliner Park Ward
- Sold/number built 1966-’71/568
- Construction steel monocoque, with aluminium doors, bonnet and bootlid
- Engine all-alloy, ohv 6250cc V8, twin SU carburettors
- Max power not disclosed
- Max torque not disclosed
- Transmission four-speed automatic, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones, anti-roll bar rear semi-trailing arms; coil springs, self-levelling f/r
- Steering power-assisted recirculating ball
- Brakes powered discs
- Length 16ft 11½in (5169mm)
- Width 6ft (1829mm)
- Height 4ft 10¾in (1492mm)
- Wheelbase 9ft 11½in (3035mm)
- Weight 4816Ib (2185kg)
- 0-60mph 10.8 secs
- Top speed 116mph
- Mpg 10-13
- Price new £11,556
- Price now £60,000*
Mercedes-Benz 280SE 3.5 Coupé
- Sold/number built 1969-’71/3720
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-heads, sohc-per-bank 3499cc V8, Bosch fuel injection
- Max power 200bhp @ 6500rpm
- Max torque 231Ib ft @ 4200rpm
- Transmission four-speed automatic, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones, anti-roll bar rear low-pivot swing axles, trailing arms; coils, telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering power-assisted recirculating ball
- Brakes discs, with servo
- Length 16ft ¼in (4883mm)
- Width 6ft ½in (1842mm)
- Height 4ft 8½in (1435mm)
- Wheelbase 9ft ¼in (2750mm)
- Weight 3460Ib (1569kg)
- 0-60mph 9 secs
- Top speed 125mph
- Mpg 15-20
- Price new £6700
- Price now £120,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication