The Collector is a weekly series produced in association with Gear Patrol, where we discuss the car, and Gear Patrol discusses the essential gear inspired by the car. (Click here to see the rest of The Collector Series on Petrolicious.)
The personal luxury convertible may have truly come into existence with the advent of the 1968-1971 Mercedes-Benz 280 SL - itself an evolution of the earlier 1963-1967 230 and 250 SL, or “W113" in Mercedes-Benz speak. Somewhat more commonly, the cars took on a “Pagoda” nickname collectively because of their unusual hardtop shape. Originally launched at the 1963 Geneva Motor Show, the W113 was a clean sheet design for a new decade. The 280 SL, like our feature car, was the last of the series, and today is still instantly recognizable as a Mercedes. It might also be considered a drivable classic, as well as a collectable investment. Here’s why:
Accredited to Frenchman Mr. Paul Bracq, who headed the Mercedes-Benz design studios at the time, the 280 SL was a technological tour de force when it debuted, and featured a fuel-injected, overhead camshaft, straight-six engine displacing 2778cc, producing 170 horsepower. With disc brakes on all four wheels, a rarity for the time period, Mercedes-Benz took lengths to ensure the 280 SL stopped as well as it went too. Four- and five-speed manual transmissions were available, but most American-market SL’s were equipped with a smooth shifting four-speed automatic. 60 mph comes up in 8.6 seconds and stops from 70 mph in just 233 feet, so even today the SL still has enough performance that one could conceivably drive it everyday. Air conditioning was an option too for those in sunnier climates.
It’s no lightweight though. While the “SL” in Mercedes nomenclature stands for “Sport Leicht” or “Sports Lightweight”, this is somewhat of a misnomer as the 280 SL is more of a cruiser, and a very solid one at that, make no mistake. The unibody construction featured front and rear deformation zones, a first for a sports car. An aluminum hood, deck lid and door skins saved precious pounds, but the construction of the Pagoda roof that gives the car its nickname is a marvel in itself. It is the work of Mr. Bela Barenyi, who headed Mercedes-Benz pre-development department. While beautiful, airy, and seemingly delicate, it is as solid as the body structure and designed to withstand a load of 1000 Kg. Bela designed it that in a way so a driver could see clearly from all sides without obstruction from the pillars, and avoid potential trouble…and that the construction of the hard top would provide enough rollover protection if the driver could not.
Values of the SL are on the rise, perhaps somewhat attributable to the overall rise in prices amongst its forbearers carrying the “SL” nameplate, the famous 300 SL, and it’s baby brother, the 190 SL, but the W113 series is more than capable and valuable in its own right. Demand was reflected in the appeal of the car–Mercedes sold 48,912 of the W113 worldwide. 23,885 of those were the 280 SL’s, and of those, half came to the USA. Hagerty’s valuation tool indicates that, lately, prices have been rising quickly for the 1968-1971 280 SLs, especially for ones in excellent condition. And for good reason–they are beautiful, usable, and have enough modern conveniences to remain comfortable today. Their driving dynamics are sporting enough, refined and comfortable, even for a car over forty years old. The bucket seats are supportive, and the low shoulders invite one to rest an arm, while cruising. And like any Mercedes-Benz from the era, its build quality is impeccable.
The 280 SL was originally created as a sports coupe/convertible, but the huge demand for the car in the U.S. morphed its reputation into more of a touring car than one with sporting intentions. All of this is evidenced by the prevalence of the Pagoda’s automatic tranny and air conditioning for the American market. The 4-speed automatic tranny overshadowed the rarer ZF 5-speed manual without AC here. The end result? Collectors pine for the one where you can rope your own cogs despite the absence of a cooled cabin. Popularity doesn’t breed a coveted state, and only hindsight is 20/20, even in the automotive world.
Written by Amos Kwon of Gear Patrol