With most roadsters, the removable hard top is at best an afterthought. For the 1963-1971 Mercedes-Benz SL, however, no aspect of the design was an afterthought -- and certainly not the hard top. The delicately shaped roof, which appears to dip down toward the center and which features tapered C-pillars, gives the "Pagoda" SLs their nickname. This generation of SL is credited to Frenchman Paul Bracq, who headed the advanced-design studios at Daimler-Benz from 1957 to 1967, and is arguably the last really beautiful Mercedes-Benz roadster.
Most Pagoda SLs have both the hard top and a manual soft top. Some have the folding top only while others, the so-called California Coupe, have only the hard top. The 1969 280SL we've borrowed has both. It arrives with the Pagoda roof attached. Driving with the hard top in place is a very pleasant experience, owing to its large glass area and the car's wraparound windshield and low beltline. The roof, which locks in with two clamps at the windshield header (turned by a special wrench) and two just behind the doors, actually seems to aid structural rigidity as well. As pretty as it is, however, we were anxious to remove it and experience the SL as a roadster. According to the owners' manual, "Removal or attachment of [the] coupe top is done best in a service station, though two persons can do the job themselves." It is a two-person job, but it's hardly something that needs to be done at a service station -- good thing, since the very notion of a service station is a quaint anachronism.
With the hard top off, and/or the soft top stowed, the SL presents a particularly sleek appearance, thanks to the integral hard boot. The roofless profile also emphasizes the upright windshield and the low, shallow body, which helps give this car its delicate appearance. That may be why some people dismiss this generation of SL as a girl's car. But they're missing the point.
The SL may be delicate in appearance but not in construction. Although body shudder is well in evidence when driving top-down -- the science of automotive structural rigidity has come a long way since the 1960s -- the quality and solidity of even the smallest details is impressive to this day: Pull the hefty chrome handle of the glove box, which has no latch but opens and closes with precise action. Grab a similar handle to open and close the lid to the surprisingly spacious trunk. Feel the precision as the doors open and shut with a click.
One consequence of all that quality hardware is weight. The 280SL is a solid 3000 pounds with the roughly 100-pound hard top removed, which means that this car is more of a sunny-day cruiser than a playful roadster. That impression is reinforced by the slow-geared steering (here with optional power assist), which has us winding on plenty of lock over sinuous two-lane roads. The SL's swing-axle rear suspension has a reputation for sudden oversteer, but we found it easy to get into a rhythm with this car without provoking any surprise moves.
The 280 in 280SL refers to the 2.8-liter displacement of its straight six. The fuel-injected, SOHC engine was rated at 170 hp (gross) and 177 lb-ft of torque. Earlier models in the series had smaller-displacement sixes: 2.3 liters (230SL) and 2.5 liters (250SL). Although they're slightly less powerful than the 280, the 230SL and the 250SL were also a bit lighter.
Four- and five-speed manual transmissions were available -- and today's collectors pay a premium particularly for the five-speed -- but most American-market SLs were equipped with a four-speed automatic, like our test car. The automatic is shifted via a thin, floor-mounted lever through a gated pattern that is laid out in the opposite of the usual practice, with Park closest to the driver and low gear farthest away. Even with the automatic's four forward speeds, the SL is geared quite short, and 60 mph has the engine spinning at 3300 rpm or so; no matter -- the short-stroke six was bred to run all day at high revs.
Despite the busy engine, the 280SL is a relaxed tourer. The deeply bucketed seats are comfortable. The low windowsill invites one to rest an elbow. By 1969, Mercedes-Benz's luxury roadster was available with such amenities as an AM/FM stereo radio (a Becker Europa II unit in this car), a power antenna, and underdash air-conditioning. Although its output is feeble compared with that of even the cheapest modern car, the Kuehlmeister A/C on this forty-three-year-old roadster blew cold air. All of the accessories worked -- even the dashboard clock actually kept time, something you almost never see in a vintage car. It's true that this particular SL is kept in fine fettle by the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center (it's owned by Mercedes-Benz USA), but it's also a testament to the Pagoda SL's robust nature. That's a welcome counterpoint to the car's refined, delicate appearance and one more reason Mercedes' most beautiful roadster makes a great collectible classic.
2.3L SOHC I-6, 150 hp, 145 lb-ft
2.5L SOHC I-6, 150 hp, 159 lb-ft
2.8L SOHC I-6, 170 hp, 177 lb-ft
4- or 5-speed manual
Control arms, coil springs
Swing axles, coil springs
Discs/drums (230SL); discs/discs (250SL and 280SL)
2900/2900/3000 lb (230/250/280SL, est., without hard top)
YEARS SOLD IN U.S.
19,381/5196/23,885 (230/250/280SL; about 19,000 of that total were originally sold in the U.S.)
$6587/$6897/$7374 (1966 230SL/1967 250SL/1970 280SL)
$30,000-$45,000 (230SL); $35,000-$50,000 (250SL); $40,000-$55,000 (280SL)
It's beautiful, usable, and well made. It has enough modern conveniences to be comfortable and is happy on any road. Nearly 50,000 were produced and many of them were well cared for, so finding one isn't a problem -- which means you can, and should, be fussy. Beware of rust, poor-quality restorations, and missing trim bits. Many parts are available (via the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center), but they're not cheap. Although these cars are not rare, high-quality examples aren't getting any cheaper.