The Day I Met My Hero: 1969 Mercedes-Benz 280 SL Pagoda

 For this package, we risked the total collapse of our automotive worldviews by driving our childhood dream cars.

If there’s a more tasteful way to tour Palm Springs, California, we don’t know of it.

When I was a kid, I had a neighbor in Maine who lived in a sprawling gray Victorian mansion that a summer person like him would call a cottage. Every Memorial Day, he would drive his Mercedes SEL up from Boston, park the big sedan in the garage, and then fire up his summer car, a Maple yellow 1977 Mercedes 450 SL Cabriolet with Saffron tan leather seats and gleaming silver 14-inch Bundts. I would pedal past on my Schwinn as Mr. Clarke fired up that 4.5-liter V-8 for the first time of the season, and then all summer long I would watch him snootily drive past in that low-slung exotic missile. I hated Mr. Clarke because of his car. But I coveted the car so much that in the wintertime I would make my way into his garage and slip into its leather seats, breathe that imperious Mercedes aroma, and take long trips in my mind.

This story originally appeared in Volume 9 of Road & Track.

At that age, 11 or so, I didn’t have one single hero car. I had a whole universe of them: the Ferrari Testarossa (naturally) and the 308 GTS, the ’69 Camaro ZL1 with the raging 427 big-block (my first plastic model kit car), the Gulf Porsche 917, Dale Earnhardt’s No. 3 Goodwrench-sponsored Chevy.

In 1987, I took scissors to the latest issue of Road & Track and cut out a photo of the Porsche 959 (taken by the late, great Jon Lamm) rocketing around the banking at Volkswagen’s famed test track, Ehra-Lessein.

Legendary designer Paul Bracq gave the SL a simple, elegant form without even a hint of fussiness.

That picture was taped to my bedroom wall for a decade, until well after I graduated from college. To this day, I haven’t driven a 959, though I’ve seen plenty and even sat in one. I’ve had the dubious pleasure of writing about them but never actually wheeled one around.

Mr. Clarke’s 450 SL was the first luxury car I actually sat in. I was a kid from the wrong side of the street, sneaking in the off-season into the cottage garage of a Boston Brahmin to touch leather that was colored saffron. Those were magical afternoon moments. I never even told my friends about them.

That car piqued my interest in the SL. It was not a natural hero car for me. I never had a poster of an SL on a wall. As I got to know more about which cars were the killers, the SL never made it onto any lists. It was quiet, imperious, feminine. Eventually, I discovered the 300 SL Gullwing. It was the obvious choice for a hero car, a racing machine that will always be considered one of the greatest cars ever made. But Mr. Clarke’s SL—a cruiser with a long hood and shiny wheels—haunted me.

It might have had only two seats, but the W113 SL was no bare-bones sports car. It represented a unique combination of style, safety, and luxury.

Then I was given the rare opportunity to drive a 1969 W113—the 280 SL Pagoda, the progenitor of the 450 SL. The generation SL, which debuted in 1963 as the 230, solidified Mercedes styling for the entire decade and set in motion the longest continuously running production car in the world. Designed by the legendary Paul Bracq, the 230 SL was a more accessible car than the pricey and precious 300 SL, and better appointed than its predecessor, the 190 SL.

Bracq drew the roofline of the new car’s removable hardtop in a way that heightened the side windows, making it easier to get into and allowing for great visibility while minimizing the weight. The end design resembled an Asian pagoda, and somehow that name stuck with the car.

The morning I drove the ’69 280 SL Pagoda down California’s Highway 1 was dense with fog, and a little chilly, but I put the fabric top-down in honor of snobby Mr. Clarke. The top stayed down for the Palm Springs–area photoshoot, too. I never drove the car with the hardtop that inspired its name. About that, I am at peace.

When I sat in the pristinely restored leather seats, the thin, elegant steering wheel, with the silver Mercedes star, made an immediate impression. It has an indulgent circumference, as though you could reach from anywhere and grab it. I cranked up the 2.8-liter OHC straight-six engine, which breathes through Bosch mechanical fuel injection and makes a deceptively powerful 170 hp.

Did the Pagoda drive heroically? Even better. The front double-wishbone suspension pairs up with a couple of legendarily nasty swing arms in the rear. The car is heavy, at more than 3000 pounds, with a steel body and aluminum doors, hood, and decklid. Mercedes claims this is the first sports car to feature a rigid cockpit protected by front and rear crumple zones, which helps explain the little SL’s weight. (And if you ignore the two-speed auto in the 1953 Corvette, the W113-generation SL is also the first sports car offered with an automatic transmission.)

Of course, I was driving the manual. I’m no Mr. Clarke. Instructed to unwind the revs at will, I accelerated through those long gears to the top of the tachometer and pulled every one of the 170 horses out of the engine. It was a revelation: graceful, with the effortless feel of power.

I had finally taken the SL that I truly wanted for a real drive, Mr. Clarke.

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