Wafting from corner to corner in the hills behind the Pacific Coast Highway south of Santa Monica, I’m evocatively transported back to 1969.
Thin steering wheel in hand, the rock of the body from corner to corner as the suspension loads up, automatic gearbox whirring away quietly, raucous exhaust note echoing off the rock walls, the salty So Cal breeze rolling through the immaculate cabin off the ocean.
All I need is the right soundtrack. Matt Monro’s On Days Like These would be perfect.
On days like these indeed…
This article was first published on July 29, 2017.
Remove über rare race cars from the equation, take out modern classics like the SLS and Black Series weapons and three Mercedes-Benz cars stand head and shoulders above all others for enthusiasts. The dream list is pretty similar for all fans of the three-pointed star.
It goes like this: 300SL Gullwing, 300SL Roadster and 190SL Roadster.
But recently, newcomer has emerged, to add a fourth model to that list, and prices are climbing quickly now too – the SL Pagoda, a convertible that wasn’t always as loved and appreciated as it is now.
The price of entry for Gullwings has moved into the stratosphere, while the 190SL, which is often maligned because of the enormous shoes it had to fill, isn’t far behind at around a quarter of a million bucks, making both unattainable for all but the wealthiest of collectors and classic car aficionados.
While the Pagoda is a bona fide collectible now – try finding a well maintained or fully restored example for sale for less than 100 grand in Australia – it wasn’t always that way. Still, it’s a lot more attainable than a Gullwing.
The task of replacing the 300SL/190SL siblings was always going to be monumental and for that the Pagoda suffered initially. It was a child of the swinging Sixties, a time of rapid and vast change for the automotive world as much as society, where the 300SL/190SL were decidedly of the old world.
Automotive technology moved at warp speed from the beginning of the ’60s, and much of that change was encapsulated in an airy sports convertible like the Pagoda. Disc brakes, fuel injection, air conditioning, electric windows and luxury interiors – so many things thought to be costly pipe dreams in the ’50s became an automotive reality through the 1960s – it would have been an amazing time to be in the market for a new car.
One of the few instances where time travel is possible, is in an automotive sense, and dropping back to 1969 is as easy as swinging that long door open and taking a seat.
We collected our 280SL Pagoda from the stunning Mercedes-Benz heritage centre in Southern California, well worth a visit if you happen to be in town. The amount of exotic metal being restored, serviced and displayed is sensational.
The 280SL was built between 1967 and 1971, a sister car to the 250SL and 350SL and the ‘Super Light’ moniker was all about – surprise, surprise – performance.
The hardtop design is both so beautiful and so synonymous with this model we opt to leave it in place despite the perfect Cali weather. You’d never have the roof on if you lived in this part of the world, but the unique design makes it perfect for photography.
You could argue the 280 is the sweet spot of the model cycle, with the 2.8-litre straight six backed by a four-speed automatic. 130kW and 244Nm were more than adequate for the time, and our 280SL was fitted with factory installed, under dash air conditioning that worked impressively well. Power assisted disc brakes were fitted front and rear and it’s argued by some the 280 completed the evolution of the SL from sportscar to Grand Tourer.
Any old car is a revelation in simplicity if you drive as much new metal as we do at CarAdvice and the SL is a vehicle that demands you take a seat behind the wheel and then take time to simply admire the cabin.
Admire the simplicity, the elegance, the uncluttered design and the lack of superfluous controls and switchgear. The SL’s is a beautifully executed cabin that is comfortable, functional and classy – this would have made a statement when it was brand new.
Turn the key and the 2.8-litre fires into life quickly and settles into a smooth idle matched by a perfect exhaust thrum. You do get the waft of exhaust fumes (as you do with any old car, really) and it’s a subtle reminder you’ve stepped back into an age that was pre-catalytic converter and emissions controls.
While the value of the SL has almost crept up into unobtanium territory, there’s absolutely nothing intimidating about it at all. It’s tactile, gentle, easy to cruise sedately, but willing to be pushed too, the perfect blend of comfort and performance, in fact.
The gearbox (which is reverse pattern) is smooth and devoid of any clunking or noises, and once in drive, shifts smoothly at all times. Early autos are not as technically adept as modern units obviously, but a properly serviced auto can still cut the mustard in 2017.
There’s a gentle rock to the idle, and as you pull away, you're immediately reminded of the strong connection between car and driver that only an old vehicle can deliver. I’m wearing kid gloves as I would with any old car, but I soon realise the SL is more than capable of handling a spirited drive. The steering is slower, the brakes require more force and the engine isn’t as urgent or power laden as a modern sportscar, but the driving experience is beautiful, almost hypnotic.
Not perfect, rather it’s well used, our SL has less than 100,000 miles on the odometer and is meticulously mechanically maintained by the experts at the heritage centre and it shows. It’s effectively as-new to drive, delivering the same smooth cruising experience we would have expected in 1969. Admiring glances, comments and waves come our way all day – America really is the home of automotive appreciation.
Like my old Buick, I’m staggered by the comfort of the, frankly, very basic suspension system. Sure the body moves in corners, but the SL irons out every single road imperfection as if you’re riding a magic carpet.
Its level of compliance is such a change from the rock-hard ride so many modern cars toss up. There’s much at play here. Smaller wheels, fat sidewalls, softer springs and shocks and some body flex all ensure the ride is softer and more gentle than you’d expect of a new drop top.
On the subject of coaxing a little more out of the SL, I was impressed with the brakes, which didn’t fade even after prolonged use downhill, the steering, which was direct enough even though we had to work the wheel a little, and the engine, which actually liked revving and punted the two-door along as rapidly as you’d ever want. The SL has more grip than I expected too, it’s way more competent and effortless than you’d ever think.
Those of you who torture yourself with antique car ownership know all about the potential pitfalls. Costly repairs, hard to find replacement parts, cantankerous behaviour in traffic and 50 year-old air conditioning (for example) is well, 50 years old. When you drive as many new cars as we do at CarAdvice, old cars are spotlit in a very harsh context.
However, our day with this Pagoda was a revelation. Properly sorted and maintained to as-new mechanical condition, it was a beautiful car to drive. It’s exactly the kind of classic that you’d want to drive a couple of times a week on the right day.
You could drive it every day if you wanted, but with values where they are now, you probably wouldn’t. The fact it is such a well sorted car to drive in 2017 is testament to the quality of the original 1960s engineering.
They say you shouldn’t drive cars you’ve come to love via mythology but in this case, whoever ‘they’ are, they’re wrong.
Click on the Photos tab for more images of the 1969 Mercedes-Benz 280SL Pagoda.
MORE: Everything Mercedes-Benz