Photo credits for the 280 SL: Rossner Motorsports at Bring A Trailer
This beautiful 1971 Mercedes-Benz 280 SL “Pagoda” up for auction at this writing on Bring A Trailer brought back memories of the first of these cars that I ever saw that wasn’t in a photograph. I was a student at West Texas State University (now known as West Texas A&M) in Canyon, Texas just south of Amarillo. The year was 1968.
I was working for the Safeway supermarket chain in Amarillo while attending “WTSU”, thinking I wanted to be an English teacher. Charmed by those famous French Line ads that included mini-French language lessons as well as by the Norman-French heritage of my mother’s family, I minored in French.
My French teacher was an English woman, Monica. I remember exactly how she looked – salt and pepper grey hair and coal-black eyes – and I remember her distinctive voice but I don’t recall her last name. What I DO recall is that she bought a white 1968 280 SL “Pagoda” – and hers, like the car at Bring A Trailer, was a California Coupe, meaning it didn’t have the soft top.
Being the “Gear Head” that I was even then, I talked to her about her car. I remember her saying in her proper Kent English, “Well, I’ve done something truly American now. I’ve bought a car that is worth more than my house!” I knew where she lived in Canyon, and I knew that her home, while modest, was by no means a shack. Her comment was an accurate assessment of the value of her new Mercedes and the reality of real estate prices in Canyon, Texas in 1968.
Monica had bought her Mercedes from Amarillo Imports as it was known at the time, a Studebaker dealer that had successfully taken advantage of Studebaker-Packard having become the U.S. distributor for Mercedes-Benz. The old money (ranching and oil) Bivens and Wagner families in Amarillo contributed to the success of this dealer: the two extended families bought six Grosse Mercedes, the fabled Mercedes 600, from Amarillo Imports. In addition, several members of these two families also owned SL coupes. All these years later I am still impressed that Amarillo, Texas, a city of 125,000 people at the time, had six Mercedes 600s. This had to be one of the greatest concentrations per capita of that prestige machine in the world.
Amarillo, TX, a city of 125,000 in 1968 was home to six Grosse Mercedes!
The SL coupe series was launched in 1963, replacing the fabled 300 SL Gull Wing coupes and 300 SL roadsters and their milquetoast little brother, the 190 SL.
In its debut form, the new SL coupe was powered by a 2300 cc inline six and was badged 230 SL. The six was fed by a Bosch direct mechanical fuel injection system. With a 9.3:1 compression, the engine made 170 horsepower at 5,600 RPM, and 159-lb.ft. of torque at 4,500 RPM. It was the first SL offered with an automatic transmission, a floor-shifted, Mercedes-built four-speed that incorporated a fluid coupling and two sets of planetary gears. A Mercedes-built four-speed manual transmission was offered as well. A five-speed manual, made by ZF, was added to the options list in May 1966. The ZF five speed equipped cars are very rare, particularly in the automatic-happy U.S.
When the 230 SL was introduced, it was panned by enthusiasts. It needed more power or less weight – or both. While most agreed that the stying was elegant, they wondered if that is what a sports car was REALLY supposed to look like.
Once the enthusiasts – and the automotive press – got to know the new SL coupes, their criticisms of it vanished. Mercedes-Benz’s legendary chief engineer, Rudolph Uhlenhaut, had laid down a sports coupe for the ages: Its beauty lay in the way that it worked; superb chassis dynamics let it cover ground quickly with no heroics required of its driver. Over its long production run, Mercedes increased the size of the overhead-camshaft straight-six twice: the 250 SL in 1966 – a one year only model – quickly following the 250 SL in 1967 with the 280 SL – the most popular of the line, the number preceding the SL indicating the cubic centimeter displacement of the engine.
The distinctive shape of the hardtop roof led to the cars’ nickname: “pagoda”.
Rudolph Unlenhaut with a W-194 Formula One race car which, at the behest of early ’50s American distributor for Mercedes, Max Hoffman, became the basis for the 300 SL “Flügeltürs” (Gullwing) coupes and 300 SL roadsters. The coupes were built between 1955 – 1957; the roadsters from 1958 – 1963.
Being a one-year only model, the 250 SL is the rarest of the 230-250-280 SL series; 5,196 were built for all markets.
During 250 SL production, Mercedes made a variant, the California Coupe, available by fitting the coupe with a rear bench seat. This seat, which could be folded down for additional luggage space, took the place of the convertible top well, which was deleted. The car at Bring A Trailer is a California Coupe as was the 280 SL purchased by my college French teacher.
The desire for still more power led to the 280 SL, introduced in 1968. Stretching the block with more space between the cylinders allowed for an increase in the bore; displacement increased to 2,778 cc and the output jumped to 180 horsepower at 5,700 RPM, and 193-lb.ft. of torque at 4,500 RPM. The 280 engine used the same stroke as the 250 SL, and was every bit as free-revving.
The clean, uncluttered lines of the 230-250-280 SL series assured that the cars’ looks would age well. Fifty one years after my college French teacher Monica bought her 280 SL California Coupe, these cars are as handsome today as they were when new.
This one is a repeat:
Gas station photos from the ’50s – ’60s at Curbside Classic
The look on his face says: “Do I REALLY want to get back in the car with her?”
The car is an early ’50s (1952?) Chrysler Windsor.
Note the curb feeler behind the front wheel well.
Nice article and memories on the SL Your M-B article brings back memories from the 1960s-1970s for me.
1) I was at a friend’s home to check out his restored 1951 Studebaker Champion. He also showed me his new pagoda roof SL next to it in the garage. I remember that he made a big deal about it having a back seat.
2) A guy that worked with my father tried to sell me his restored 1955 300SL coupe for $7500. It was a lot of money for me at that time so I told him no. I later learned that it was a give-away price, even then. It turned out that he knew that he was dying and felt indebted to my father and was trying to do something for us.
3) I worked with a German guy that used to buy, rebuild and sell 190SLs as a sideline back when they were cheap.
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What happened to Mercedes? Growing up, they were the standard of excellence for a mass-produced luxury car. When I had my one and only, the service manager told me: “BMW is eating our lunch.” I guess they got complacent like so many companies who were at the top.
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Len – Thank you for your visit and comment.
You don’t indicate when it was that you had a M-B. I know that when M-B owned Chrysler, M-B was having some quality issues and Chrysler (!!!!) helped them work their way out of the quality problems. Chrysler used to have the reputation of having great engineering, but they’ve NEVER had a reputation for building a quality car. In recent years, there has been a real horse race between M-B and BMW for sales. BMW was gaining on M-B worldwide and a couple of years ago passed them for the first time. I don’t know what their sales ranking is currently.