When 300 minus 190 Equals 280
There was a time when automotive critics and enthusiasts questioned the Mercedes-Benz 280 SL’s sports car credentials. But that was more about comparisons to faster, sexier cars than it was to honest assessments of the SL’s capacity for driving enjoyment and quality. Think long-term relationships versus summer flings.
So, can we interest you in a 280 SL? At the Amelia Island Concours auctions this month, Bonhams has a 1971 model up for grabs, with an older restoration and a pre-sale estimate of $90k-$110k. Gooding & Company will offer a 1969 version with the rare five-speed manual transmission and a more recent $143k restoration, for a pre-sale estimate of $200k-$250k.
Misunderstood, At First
The ‘60s offered a sports car buffet. Looking at the category beyond the small four-cylinder British and Italian roadsters, the Jaguar E-Type was sexy and speedy; the Porsche 911 was a semi-road racer with license plates, and the Chevy Corvette offered brute power with flashy clothes.
Where did the Mercedes SL fit in?
For 1963, Mercedes replaced both the high-end 300SL Roadster and its lower-priced, four-cylinder 190 SL sibling with something in between: the 230 SL. Designed by Paul Bracq, the French-born head of Mercedes design, the W113-series SL was less expensive and easier to live with than the exotic 300 SL. At the same time, it offered leaps in performance, comfort and overall driving pleasure over the 190 SL.
A Car Called “Pagoda”
The 230 SL was instantly recognizable as a Mercedes. Odd as it may seem, the little Benz sports car showed some critical similarities to the giant 600 luxury sedan that Mercedes also introduced in 1963. You can see the resemblance in the slab sides, headlight design and even the contours of the trunk lid and taillights.
The detachable hardtop, with its concave center section, gave this SL series its “Pagoda” nickname. The unusual design came from Mercedes safety engineer Béla Barényi as a way to add strength in case of a rollover. Many sports cars of the time were tin cans compared to the Mercedes SL.
Fun Without Big Horsepower
The W113 series began with the 230 SL, the name reflecting the car’s 2.3-liter inline six with mechanical fuel injection. Its 150 horsepower seemed tame compared to the Jag’s 260 hp, but more than what the 1965 Porsche 911 started with.
There was, though, an issue of weight. The typical built-to-last Mercedes quality meant more of it than in other small roadsters. The 230 SL was about 100 pounds heavier than the far more powerful E-Type, and was a whopping 600 pounds up on the 911.
The 230 SL’s 0-60 performance of about 10 seconds put it in the same league as the much less expensive Triumph TR4.
Last was Best
Mercedes upgraded the SL to a 160-hp 2.5-liter six in 1966, changing the badge to 250 SL. The bigger jump in performance came with the 1968 280 SL with its 170 hp 2.8-liter six. Mercedes made some suspension improvements and for 1969 offered a five-speed manual transmission in addition to the four-speed manual and automatic.
The 280 SL was the model that took off in America, where air conditioning was an welcome and critical new option. About half of the 24,000 280 SLs made came to the U.S., with most equipped with the four-speed automatic transmission. So, it was never a rare car.
A 280 SL could do 0-60 in 8.6 seconds, according to Car & Driver. A 1970 Porsche 911E did the deed in about seven. The Mercedes, though, was easier and more comfortable to drive, even if its swing-axle rear suspension could make for tricky handling in fast cornering, but safer than the Porsche. Besides, who was driving an SL like that anyway?
Today, the 280 SL appears striking for the purity of its lines and the elegance of its details. What looked like a cute but conservative design 60 years ago has become an ageless beauty that still turns heads. In practical terms, a Mercedes 280 SL is an eminently enjoyable car for long drives, offering the comfort and trunk space to be a great weekend getaway machine.
Maybe you’ll get away with a solid deal on a 280 SL at one of the Amelia auctions.
Written by Jim Koscs, Audamotive Communications