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Mercedes 280SL

Mercedes 280SL Published: 31st May 2018 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Mercedes 280SL

Fast Facts

  • Best model: 280SL
  • Worst model: Manual cars
  • Budget buy: 230SL
  • OK for unleaded?: Yes
  • Will it fit in the garage? (mm): 4288x1778mm
  • Spares situation: Very good (inc main agents)
  • DIY ease?: Maintenance, yes resto trickier
  • Club support: Excellent
  • Appreciating asset?: More than you might think
  • Good buy or good-bye?: Hugely desirable, but now hugely costly too
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Ultra classy sports convertible built the way Mercedes used to be. Hardly sporting but still very satisfying to drive and own although expensive to buy and restore

The arrival of the gull-winged 300SL in 1954 marked the start of a long line of sports cars from Mercedes. But after that initial high-tech, hugely expensive two-seater, Mercedes changed course with its Sport Leicht models, by making them in bigger numbers and dropping the price from eye-watering to merely very expensive, so the car was more attainable. Despite this greater accessibility these stylish Mercedes have always been exclusive, and in the case of the third-generation edition covered here, the SL is more exclusive than ever thanks to values that have risen at an incredible rate over the past few years.

Known internally as the W113 but nicknamed Pagoda, the third-generation SL was offered with a succession of smooth and torquey six-cylinder engines to ensure effortless long-distance cruising. When new these cars were only within reach for the most well-heeled of buyers, and after years of being affordable things have gone back to where they were. That’s because unless you’ve got upwards of £100,000 to spend you won’t be able to afford anything decent, and if you want something special you’ll need significantly deeper pockets. And while the Mercedes Pagoda is extremely desirable, that puts it up against a lot of very desirable alternatives…

History

1954 The 300SL is launched as an ultraexclusive sports car, built initially in gullwing coupé form. Fast and extremely costly, the roadster that superseded the closed car in 1957 was just as exclusive and is now just as highly prized.

1955 After the 300SL came the 190SL; it looked much the same but was offered as a roadster only and packed nothing more exciting than an 1897cc fourcylinder engine. It was from this point that the SL became a more mainstream model; still relatively costly and beautifully built, but far more attainable than the 300SL had ever been.

1963 While the 190SL is now hugely sought after, it’s the Pagoda that followed in 1963 which is the SL that most enthusiasts aspire to. At first there was a 230SL only, fitted with a 2306cc straight-six: 19,831 were made in a production run that lasted until 1967.

1967 The 250SL is introduced to supersede the 230SL. Only ever intended as an interim model, which is why it was in production for just a year, the 250SL is the rarest of all the Pagodas. Just 5196 were made, all but 19 of them in 1967. Each was fitted with disc brakes all round (the 230SL featured rear drums) and a 2496cc straight-six.

1968 The final incarnation of the breed is launched. The 280SL is the most common, most sought after and remains the most valuable of all the Pagodas. With softer suspension, better seats and a stronger engine featuring seven main bearings, 23,885 examples of the 280SL rolled off the production lines before it was replaced by the R107 in 1971.

Driving and press comments

When Sporting Motorist tested the 230SL in 1965, its introduction to this little-known car was pretty much spot on: “Not a saloon car, not a sports car, but a bit of each. It is hard to describe the 230SL properly as it breaks entirely new ground in concept and would be difficult to emulate, but is surely intended as a grand touring car which offers two people every possible comfort over very long distances. Even if it lacks the sheer performance that would be expected of an expensive sports car, the SL can be cruised effortlessly at 100mph over indifferent road surfaces (and with good petrol economy if the owner is interested) to return extremely high average speeds”.

The magazine continued: “The 230SL, with its six-cylinder petrol-injection engine combines ruggedness and lightness of control, outstanding roadholding with softness of ride, performance without drama and good looks with excellent visibility. Even without extras it costs nearly £3500 and, as tested in coupé-convertible form with automatic transmission and power steering, the price is getting on for £4000. But this heavy investment secures a superbly engineered car which should remain in firstclass condition for many years”.

While other magazines marked the 230SL down for its lack of low-down torque, Sporting Motorist didn’t level this criticism; the only change it would make was to the gear ratios, which were carried over from the contemporary saloons and were too widely spaced as a result. Strong brakes, an excellent ride, superb handling and a smooth transmission were all singled out for praise, as were the practicality, build quality and comfort. In light of this, the verdict was unexpected: “We parted with the 230SL with rather mixed feelings – and the wish to try a manual gearbox car for comparison. Like a well-bred woman, the car is so nice that it can be quite boring at times, and it could be even better if it had the extra character that better performance – or a few vices – would impart. But as a touring car it has few equals”.

This earliest iteration of the Pagoda breed was received in much the same manner by all contemporary motoring magazines; they loved its build quality, the ease of driving and its refinement, and while it was rather devoid of character, expensive and the 2.3-litre engine needed more low-down torque, there was nothing else like it. As the Pagoda evolved the bigger engines – and especially the 2.8-litre – fixed the torque issue, and although prices remained high, this was still a car without equals, a point a Motor road test eluded to despite the test being strangely less than enamoured by the SL “No one could have anything but the highest praise for the magnificent seats, driving position and visibility, the impeccable finish, one of the best power steering systems there is and road holding that must be as safe as any other production car in the world.”

Values and the marketplace

Paulo Custodio has owned Reading-based Silchester Garage (silchestergarage.co.uk) since 2008, but he’s been working there a lot longer. The company specialises in classic Mercedes and the Pagoda in particular. It’s clear that the market has changed over the past few years, with values having shot up, which at least enables these cars to be restored on an economically viable basis.

Says Paulo: “A complete restoration costs around £100,000 assuming that everything is rebuilt or renewed, but the problem nowadays is sourcing decent projects at a sensible price. It’s easier to find a left-hand drive project than one with right-hand drive, but finding any realistically priced Pagoda suitable for restoration is more difficult than you might expect. While a worthwhile 230SL project might be available for £30,000-£40,000, an equivalent 280SL is likely to cost twice as much.

“However, the 230SL is also probably to be in a far worse condition, although if we’re completely restoring the car, that makes little difference. As a result it can make more sense to go for the 230SL because at the end of the project you’ll be tens of thousands of pounds ahead”.

Of course you don’t get anything for nothing and that freshly restored 230SL will be worth significantly less than an equivalent 280SL, because it’s the latter that everybody wants – ideally with an automatic transmission. A worthwhile 230SL can be picked up for a little under £100,000, but any decent 280SL is likely to set you back at least £130,000 – and potentially rather more if it’s really tidy.

The ceiling for this most sought after Pagoda of all is now set at £200,000 if it’s been fully restored, although as Paulo is quick to point out, asking and transaction prices can often be quite different.

He adds: “Most buyers want an automatic gearbox and the biggest engine, along with the optional power steering, but the significantly higher values of the 280SL are because of assumptions and hype.

Buyers assume they must have the 280 when a 230 would be fine for their needs – which is why I point a lot of my customers towards the smallest engine rather than the biggest. I tell them that condition is what matters, not the engine capacity, but many still want nothing less than a 280SL because that’s what perceived wisdom tells them they want”.

With Pagoda values now so high, these cars have become toys for the wealthy who are close to retirement. Used only very occasionally, the W113 has become an investment. Says Paulo: “The market is buoyant at the top end, with wealthy collectors happy to spend whatever it takes to secure a mint Pagoda. Typically spending somewhere in the region of £150,000, these buyers know exactly what they want in terms of colour and spec – which will probably be black or navy blue paint with a tan interior, although silver paint is sought after too. What buyers definitely don’t want is red paint. Nobody wants scruffy cars which is why the bottom end of the market is struggling, but at least buyers in this segment are much less choosy about colours and specifications – they’ll just take whatever they can find, within reason”.

Nobody knows what the future holds of course, but Paulo has an idea. He reckons values will increase over the next decade but we won’t see any more sharp rises – just a steady uplift. What’s unlikely is a reduction in Pagoda values, which is a shame because for many enthusiasts, this is now a car that’s completely out of reach.

Around 15 years ago Silchester Garage would keep three dozen Pagodas in stock and would sell at least one every week, with prices starting at well under £10,000. Those days are now long gone, sadly.

Improvements

Mercedes did a great job which is why most mods are frowned upon. There are very few changes that will be accepted by most buyers, so before buying a modified car or making changes to your own, make sure anything is reversible or you could regret it.

Any changes to the suspension, brakes or engine are unnecessary and any Pagoda on non-standard wheels or tyres is bad news as the car’s dynamics will be affected. However, there are a few modifications that are worth considering. One is the fitment of a wind deflector to reduce buffeting, although stereo and security improvements can be worthwhile, as long as they’re done discreetly. More significant though is the fitment of a modern six-speed manual ’box in place of the original transmission. The kit of parts to convert from an auto costs £11,500; upgrading the original manual box costs £8750. These costs are for the parts only; on top of these prices you’ll also have to pay to have the kit fitted.

What To Look For

Engine

 

  • All W113s feature a straight-six engine, which tends to be noisier than you’d expect even in good condition. Most of these cars are used relatively infrequently while also being generally well looked after, so major powerplant issues aren’t common.
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  • The cast-iron bottom end is extremely strong and unlikely to give trouble, but it’s not the same for the aluminium alloy cylinder head. As with all alloy heads, it’s essential that the right level of anti-freeze is maintained, if internal corrosion isn’t to occur. To make sure all is well, make sure the engine gets up to temperature reasonably quickly; if it doesn’t, the chances are the thermostat has been removed to mask an overheating problem.
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  • Let the engine idle for a few minutes and keep an eye on the temperature gauge; if things get hot it’s probably because the coolant flow is restricted, because the radiator has got clogged with cylinder head debris – although the engine’s waterways could also have got clogged up too. A recored radiator will usually put everything right; expect to pay £200 for an exchange unit – or you could splash out at your local Mercedes main dealer and buy a new one, for a hefty £1000 or so.
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  • Predictably, the key to long engine life is 3000- mile oil changes, using a decent quality (preferably classic) 20/50 lubricant; it helps reduce bottom-end wear while also minimising the likelihood of the camshaft wearing quickly. Dirty oil will also lead to the fuel injection pump failing prematurely – with a rebuild costing over £1000. There can also be fuel injection problems on infrequently used cars, caused by condensation leading to corrosion in the injection pipes – but this is pretty rare.

 

Body & chassis

 

  • The SL’s monocoque can corrode badly and it’s common to find a car that looks presentable but has structural corrosion. The bulkhead normally survives intact but the complex sill structures don’t – and properly repairing these can cost over £2500 per side. What’s initially visible is a screw-on cover that hides the structure itself, and because you probably won’t be able to remove this, you need to make the most thorough checks you can from inside the car, which isn’t that easy.
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  • Get underneath the car to inspect the floorpans and rear chassis members; they extend the length of each side of the boot floor. Also analyse the chassis legs at the front of the car, along with the bumper mountings. These may be accident damaged or rusty, but replacement is cheap and easy at £200-£300. You must also remove the floorpan covers behind the rear seats, to see inside the chassis legs.
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  • It’s not just structural corrosion that you need to watch out for; more cosmetic areas that can also be affected include the front wings around the headlights as well as the wheelarches – original wings will feature a flute either side of the chrome headlamp trim.
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  • Many of the outer panels are aluminium, so rust isn’t an issue but corrosion might be, along with microblistering of the paint. The bonnet, boot lid and door skins are all aluminium, as is the hood stowage cover and even the door casings. Each was cut to fit when the car was new, with the chassis number usually stamped onto the bonnet and hood panel; if it’s still there, the panels now fitted are the originals.

 

Running gear

 

  • A Pagoda automatic gearbox is tough and lasts forever unless truly neglected. Leaks aren’t unusual, and if the fluid level is allowed to drop, the gearbox could be badly damaged. If a rebuild is needed, expect to pay £1500 for an exchange unit.
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  • The rest of the transmission is strong, but the propshaft’s couplings fail eventually, as will the universal joints; both are easily fixed. The latter is given away by clonking as the drive is taken up, but this could also be worn diff mounts, which typically costs up to £1000 to repair. Beware whining from a worn diff; rebuilds are £1500-£2000.
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  • Power steering was an option on all W113s; most autos have it and so do some manuals. It’s worth having, as the steering is more direct with it, and it’s also a reliable system. However, you need to check that the steering box isn’t leaking; any escaped fluid will be obvious.
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  • The suspension is long-lived as long as the kingpins and trunnions have been greased every 3000 miles. Wear here is given away by raising the front of the car and feeling for play by rocking the wheel top and bottom – if in doubt, put it through an MoT. Fresh dampers (£60 apiece) will usually transform a Pagoda; most owners don’t notice the deterioration in their car’s shock absorbers over time.
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  • Get used to the car’s brakes before really trying them out, as the front hoses can fail internally, leading to poor braking and pulling to one side. It’s an easy and cheap fix, as long you don’t crash the car on the test drive!
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  • Callipers also stick if the car isn’t used regularly, so drive slowly on a level piece of ground then take your foot off the accelerator; if the car comes to a halt the brakes are sticking and will need freeing off. Again, it’s an easy fix and not costly at around £70 per corner for exchange callipers.

 

General

 

  • Tarted-up cars aren’t rare, especially ex-US examples. Many SLs are imports from the sunshine states where the heat has taken its toll on rubber and trim. European LHD cars are more likely to have been cherished, but as there’s little difference in values between left and right-hand drive cars, you’re better off going for the latter.
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  • All electrical bits are available, but replacing some items is a nightmare. For example, the wiper spindles sit behind the dashboard, which is a part of the car’s structure so it can’t be removed. It’s the same for the capillary tube temperature gauge and heater controls – if these all need replacing you can expect a bill of over £1000 to sort it all out.
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  • Check that all four of the functions controlled by the column single stalk are all working okay; they sometimes don’t.
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  • Check the state of the loom, which may have gone brittle by now – this is especially important if you’re looking at an ex-US car.
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  • The MB-Tex material used to trim the cabin is very durable, and although seats can sag, restuffing them is cheap and effective.
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  • The wood trim found on the top of the dashboard can rot away; a fresh set is over £500.
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  • Make sure the hood and its frame are intact, because replacing either is costly; a replacement hood is over £1000 while a new frame is £7500 new or £2000-£2500 for a used one.
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  • Analyse the hard top, and make sure all its chrome trim is present and in good condition; replacing the whole lot costs over £3000. It’s a similar story where the grille and bumpers are concerned – replacing all the brightwork costs £6000+.

 

 

Three Of A Kind

Mercedes SL R107
Mercedes SL R107
As Pagoda values have increased, so the next generation has become ever more expensive. The R107 was in production from 1971 until 1989, with a range of six- and eight-cylinder engines offered in that time. Later cars are most sought after thanks to better build quality, more efficient powerplants and more modern looks. Very desirable, much like the Pagoda, but you’ll have to pay heavily to buy a good one these days because many aren’t…
Rolls-Royce Corniche
Rolls-Royce Corniche
Much more ostentatious than the Merc, far bigger and more costly to run, the Corniche offers arguably better value in that it’s a four-seater with V8 power and you can buy something superb for around half the cost of a Pagoda. While it’s from a slightly newer era, the Corniche is perhaps the ultimate grand tourer in that it offers top-down motoring for four adults with their luggage, but buying one can be fraught with danger.
Jaguar E-Type
Jaguar E-Type
One of the most desirable cars ever created, demand for the E-type will never diminish. Six-cylinder versions are the most sought after as well as the best looking but while the S3 V12 is no longer the bargain it once was it’s arguably the most usable thanks to its larger cabin, better brakes and that wonderful engine. 2+2 are finding favour thanks to occasional seating and MGB GT like practicality plus are the cheapest E-types around.

Verdict

The Pagoda SL is very easy to recommend – as any car costing six figures should be. As values have risen an increasing number of Pagodas have been completely restored so there are more excellent examples to choose from than ever. But as you’d expect, there are also plenty of Pagodas that aren’t as good as their vendors claim them to be so it’s easy to pay far too much for a tarted-up car that needs significant work.

Buy an SL that’s been properly and completely restored and you’ll have to dig very deep. You’ll need to spend upwards of £100,000 and with that kind of expenditure you’ve got a lot of alternatives within reach, from some very desirable marques.

However, few of these offer the blend of characteristics that the Pagoda does, with its tasteful good looks, performance and peerless build quality. Oh, and class…



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