For Lee Harris, that moment came as a teenager, riding in a Mercedes-Benz 280SE Cabriolet. “When I was seventeen years old my older brother’s co-worker bought a 1970 280SE convertible in silver blue,” Harris recalls. “I went riding in it and thought it was the most insane and beautiful car I’d ever been in.”
That ride served to notify Harris that he was a car guy. Of course, at that age he couldn’t afford a big Benz of his own, so life went on with the usual parade of cars that someone owns. Still, the image of the big soft-top Mercedes never left his mind. It just took a special moment in Beverly Hills to bring it back, full-strength.
“My daughter was getting married in Los Angeles,” Harris relates, “We’d been out there seven, eight, nine times, and she said, ’Dad, you've been so great. What do you want to do this time for some off time?’ I told her I'd love to go into Beverly Hills Sports Cars and look at their cars."
You might call it a pilgrimage. “I have all sorts of old cars,” Harris says. “I've loved cars since I was a kid, and my wife Tarie doesn't care about any of them. It's just transportation to her. So, we go into this beautiful showroom. And then there's all these fabulous cars: a ’57 T-Bird, Triumphs, and Jaguars. And there's a silver-blue 1971 280SE Cabriolet. My daughter Lauren, when she saw the car, said, ‘Dad, get this car for mom.’ I asked my wife what she thought about it, and this time she surprised me. She said, ‘It's a beautiful car.’ I told her I was going to look for one.”
He didn’t have to look far to find just the right example.
The deal that almost wasn’t
“I looked on Hemmings, thinking I'd never find one, but this car comes up,” he says. “It was a 1969 280SE Cabrio, white with a Cognac leather interior, and it was a bank foreclosure. I called the banker and he told me they thought it was worth about $28,000 at the time.”
Harris gave the proposition some thought, mentally totaling up the potential restoration costs.
“I was willing to take the shot at $28,000 because I just had a feeling,” he states. “I told him I didn’t need photos, but he wasn’t willing to make a deal without sending me some photos first.”
That’s where the deal almost went off the rails. “I waited three days and on the fourth day he hasn’t sent any photos, and suddenly I can't reach him. And I get his secretary, who said he was meeting someone about the car. So I'm thinking, great, I just got stuck. My wife said it wasn't meant to be and I should move on."
But something was tickling Harris’ mind, and he couldn’t let it go.
“The next week, it still bothered me,” he says. “I called the guy up and asked what happened to that car? He said, ‘Actually, the deal fell through. The guy didn't go through with the deal on buying it.’ He offered me the car if I was willing to match the other guy’s price. And I thought, you know what? I'm not going to play a game, so I bought it.”
Fixing a few bugs
Buying a classic Mercedes-Benz car sight-unseen is unusual, but the angel whispering in Harris’ ear turned out to be right. Or at least, mostly right.
“I had the car shipped up from Georgia. When we unloaded it, I said to my wife, ‘Tarie, happy birthday, happy anniversary, happy everything. Here's your car.’ I gave her the keys. She gets in the car, puts it in drive, and it goes backwards. She doesn't even look at me twice. She puts the car in park, gives me the keys and says, ‘When you fix the car, I'll drive it.’ It turned out that it just needed linkage adjustments.”
Apart from that, the car was everything Harris had wanted.
"The interior was all original,” he says. “The woodwork was uncracked, not even crazed, never touched, original woodwork, beautiful condition. I never even touched it. The Becker AM/FM shortwave radio, perfect. I just replaced the electric antenna. Power brakes, power steering,air conditioning that works phenomenally. Everything works beautifully.”
The car was some distance from perfect, however. The interior needed work, and rodents had gotten at the wiring while the car had been sitting.
“I spent about $25,000 to fix everything up,” Harris says. “I put a new top on the car. It was beautiful. I kept the old top. I kept all the original stuff. I havethe original spare from 1969. I put the correct Cooper whitewalls on it. And the top was made custom in California. But after they shipped it, it wasn't right. So, they paid to have an upholstery shop in Chicago redo it. They fixed it so it's custom perfect. Because each of these cars were hand made.”
Once that investment was made, the car lived up to all of Harris’ expectations.“It's perfect.” he insists. “It drives like a million dollars.”
Closing the circle
A closer inspection of the car revealed an unusual treasure: contact information for the original owners.
“When I opened the glove box, I found all the original paperwork,” Harris explains. “There was a lot of it, including the original owner's name, Dr. Robert Lombardo. I thought the guy's got to be dead by now. But there was a phone number for the hospital where he worked, so I called. His secretary took my name. He called me the next day and said, ‘That was my beautiful bride's car.’
He said it was the best car he ever had, that with the top up it sounds like a hard top, it's so quiet. He loved it.”The connection led to Harris and the Lombardos forming a friendship. “They’re alive and healthy in their mid-90s,” Harris says. “They've become very dear friends. Ilove them; they're amazing people. I’m going to visit them in Chicago.”Once he met the Lombardos, Harris learned an interesting story about his car. “When they ordered the car, the president of MBUSA had it shipped to New York for the car show, and then he tried to buy it from them,” Harris says. “He tried to convince them to sell it to him. But Doctor Lombardo said he bought it for his bride and there was no way he was selling it.”
The 280SE Cabriolet today In the 12 years since he purchased the 280SE, Harris moved from Chicago to Los Angeles to be closer to his growing tribe of grandchildren. The car came along as the family moved west, and now roams the streets of Southern California.
“I drive it maybe a few hundred miles a year,” Harris says. “I start it every month, and I keep it on a trickle charge. We drive it about every two months. We'll drive to Palos Verdes, for example, and we'll enjoy it there. Everything still functions perfectly. My son-in-law and my daughter, they love the car. My granddaughters Brooklyn and Chloe are eight and five years old. The car will definitely be in their hands someday.”
If you ask Harris what he loves about the car, it’s best to take a seat because you’ll be listening for a while. “It's super comfortable,” he begins, “It's an amazing performing car, even though it's a six-cylinder with fuel injection. It rides amazingly. I can drive it with one hand at 70, 80 miles an hour on the highway, because it cruises. I don't go anywhere in LA without people give me a thumbs up, or they roll down the window and ask me to talk about the car. Whenever I go out with it, people want to stop and talk about it. This car starts a dialogue.”
The white over Cognac convertible fits the L.A. aesthetic, and Harris clearly appreciates that. “I would put it against any older Rolls-Royce, or against an old Bentley convertible, any classic car there is,” he says. “This is the epitome of beauty, especially with this white with the gold pin striping. It's stunning.”
Apparently, Harris is not the only person who thinks so. “Jay Leno goes to every Cars & Coffee, and I went there about three years ago,” Harris recalls. “My friends called me over and said Jay was at my car. So I walked over and he said, ‘Hey, great car.’ He was restoring a 1969 coupe at the time. He mentioned my car later in an episode of Jay Leno’s Garage.”
So, if you’re ever in Manhattan Beach and see Lee and Tarie’s 280SE pull up next to you, give them a wave, start a conversation, and find out more about what makes this 280SE absolutely timeless.