A 1968 Mercedes-Benz 280 SL Pagoda Is Class on Wheels
Everybody has their very own interpretation of luxurious. To some, it means being pampered, suffused in buttery softness, like dwelling in an enormous, fur-lined cashmere croissant. To others, it signifies exclusivity, a locking of the door behind them, like having Harry Types play at your bar mitzvah.
For me, luxurious is about timelessness, and in a automotive, meaning a design that maintains its class, its consolation, and its standing for lengthy sufficient that I can comfortably age into driving it whereas carrying a captain’s hat and an ascot.
I’m quickly approaching that life stage — okay, I’m there — and after spending time boulevarding alongside Freeway 1 in Huge Sur behind the thin-rimmed, gigantic wheel of a low-mileage 1968 Mercedes 280 SL “Pagoda,” I’ve determined to relinquish the bohemian lifetime of the author and suppose up a worthwhile rip-off in order that I should buy one.
The Pagoda is bizarre within the pantheon of SLs. It was the second born, kind of, following the progenitor, the hardcore sports activities vehicles that had been the 300 SL Gullwing and Roadster. But it surely additionally internalized the DNA of that automotive’s stepbrother, the 190 SL, which was sort of a cushier factory-produced 300 SL knockoff, like the best way Costco rebadges Courvoisier as Kirkland Cognac. However in fact, each SL is bizarre. That’s one of many biggest charms of the nameplate; it’s not caught in memorializing the model or objective of some everlasting previous, just like the Porsche 911. It adapts to the instances.
The times, in the early ‘60s, meant an expanding market for Mercedes-Benz cars, especially flagship sports cars. That meant a shift in focus: less Le Mans, more Le Corbusier. The result was vehicular high Modernism, where the luxury convertible was as much a clean, quiet conveyance — a machine for driving — as it was a symbol of refined good taste. (Remember, the arrival of the Pagoda coincided with Mercedes quitting racing entirely following some horrific competition crashes. The automaker avoided motorsports until the late 1980s.)
The Gullwing was an outlier beamed in from another galaxy; the Pagoda is not. Instead, it’s meant for spirited sporty driving — a weekend trip to the country, an elegant evening at the bistro. My jaunt up the Pacific Coast Highway during Monterey Car Week was the ideal venue.
The Pagoda is not exactly fast. Its 2.8-liter straight-six produces 168 hp, but more importantly, 180 lb-ft of torque, giving it a spirited sense, even when paired with the four-speed automatic transmission found in most US-market W113s. That transmission, or at least the one in this Mercedes-Benz Classic Center-owned example, mates well with the character of the car. It’s miraculously smooth. It reminded me of the gearbox in a Rolls-Royce, so unobtrusive and smooth that it felt like a cartoon butler, always there for me before I imagined the need. And I wasn’t trying to set any gymkhana records, or acquire any additional speeding tickets (particularly after the $625 penalty I got for a previous indiscretion on Highway 1 earlier in the week.)
Still, the supple steering from the thin-rimmed wheel was something of a revelation. The Pagoda steers as if engineers removed everything excessive from an S-Class and left in all of the over-engineering. It turns out a stiff structure, backed up with quality parts screwed together with lavish attention to detail, results in an excellent driving experience. It was like a C3 Corvette convertible that had been built competently, out of real materials, somewhere where laborers were treated with respect. So, nothing like an actual C3 Corvette.
Speaking of materials, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the sensual delight and purity of everything that comes to hand in a Pagoda. Though the direct lineage to the Gullwing’s purposeful straightforwardness is evident in the painted metal, barely-padded dash, there’s a simplicity and honesty to the layout. Moreover, the textured steel trim around the sliders controlling the heater, the wooden trim around the defroster vents and windshield base, the all-metal heat vents — which we needed in the freezing northern California evening — reflected a quality you’d expect on today’s coachbuilt Bentleys and nothing less.
This is one of the profound joys of a Space-Age Mercedes. The cars are so excessively good at what they set out to do — in this case, providing an ideally comfortable roadster that looks and feels elegant literally everywhere — that they can’t help but induce delight in the human limbic system. One need only take a look at my face in these photos to recognize the outcome.