Even as I approach my sixth anniversary with Automobile Magazine, there are times I feel the need to pinch myself as quick reminder that I’m actually experiencing something in real life. In the first person. I’ve had pinch moments in cars from practically every continent. Like when I hit 8000 rpm in a perfectly tuned Honda S800 roadster. Or when I slithered behind the wheel of the most dusty-rose Mercury Park Lane ever produced. And certainly when I accidentally achieved momentary flight thanks to a small pavement swell at 180 mph in a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport.
Last night I got behind the wheel of a Mercedes 300SL Gullwing and felt the need to punch myself in the groin.
That is, of course, until I hit the throttle and the engine accomplished the same thing for me. It’s now been, oh, eighteen hours since I gave the keys back to Mercedes, but I’m still buzzing. I still stink of unburned gasoline. And I’m still in absolute and complete awe. It has nothing to do with the gullwing doors.
Perhaps more than any other car I’ve experienced, driving the original SL is all about the engine. It’s an eighteen-inch dildo strapped to a Ken doll. It’s overkill to the point of insanity, and it dominates the driving experience so completely that the doors become the teensy punctuation mark cowering below an exclamation point the size of the leaning tower of Pisa.
And when gravity finally renders the tower completely horizontal, it’ll take up as much of the earth’s surface as the SL’s hood.
But you could load the fallen tower full of Pyle subs and it wouldn’t vibrate your naughty bits the way the SL’s straight-six does. Let’s forget for the moment that the engine was force-fed gasoline by way of direct fuel injection (in nineteen-fifty-effing-seven) and allow me to ponder the physics involved in producing the noise. The straight six produces 215 horsepower from three liters of displacement, which means that, according to Dr. Nobody’s law of thermodynamic ethanol expansion quotient derivatives and energy conservation, each of the 2996 cubic centimeters produces precisely 4.23 times as much sound as it does horsepower.
It’s deafening. And it’s not a rowdy exhaust note, which I verified by redlining it through first, second, and third gears in a tunnel, solely for the sake of science. It’s ENGINE noise, damn it. The exhaust is barely present. It’s the noise of pistons and valves and crankshaft and… oh my word, the intake snarl.
One of the car’s German minders described the engine note as “gewaltig,” or violent. He’s right, except that he should have thrown in a few vulgarities first.
I have never, ever been so absolutely enthralled by an engine before. Not even by a Ferrari with a Colombo V-12 in an open Ferrari or a Lamborghini Countach motor in an LM002. And the rest of the SL? Sure, it’s cool. But the steering is no better than that in a 1933 Bugatti. The rear suspension is a swing axle, which means it wants to go any direction but where you want it to—and will kill throw the SL on its roof if you even think of getting it sideways. The four-speed shifter is great, once you get used to the sticktion in the linkage. And the drum brakes? It’s safe to say that they pretty much suck.
But the engine? The engine. The ENGINE. It’s strong off idle but something happens at four and a half thousand revs that makes me want to spell out what would otherwise be just 4500 rpm. It turns angry. It turns mad. It makes a noise so deep, complex, rich, and hollow that it rattles the inside of your chest. And presumably your brain.
Which is why, six hundred words later, I still haven’t shut up. I’ll make it brief: hurry up and go get rich so you can buy one of these. Actually, go make enough money so you can buy one for me, too, as a thank-you for turning you onto the SL. But please don’t punch me in the groin. I’m going to go to that for myself right now.