In this new series we chat with local classic car owners about the cars they own, and to share their experiences and advice on the machines they cherish. First up, the Mercedes-Benz 280 SL "Pagoda".
Model code: W113
Engine code: M130
Years of manufacture: 1967 - 1971
Engine line-up: 2.3-litre, 2.5-litre and 2,8-litre; all six-cylinders
Where was it built: Sindelfingen, Stuttgart, Germany
How many were built: 23 885 (of the 280 SL)
What you can expect to pay for a good-condition example: R2,0 – R2,8 million
As we circle the neat W113 Mercedes-Benz 280 SL, universally referred to as the "Pagoda", the owner talks me through the buying process, which happened 13 years ago, as if it was yesterday. He purchased the car from friends in Irvine, California, USA and imported it to South Africa. That explains the over-riders on the bumpers as well as the USA-specific headlights.
To start off with, this SL is finished in quite a rare exterior colour, called Tobacco Brown. The car was bought with 103 000 miles on the clock and the owner has since added another 5 000 miles.
It is the colour, overall design and the variety of roof configurations that make the "Pagoda" so alluring for the owner. “I thoroughly enjoy driving with the roof down, then other times with the cloth roof up and then also having the option of putting the hard top on, giving it a true coupé look.”
Of course, it is the hard-top's unique, slightly concave design that led to the "Pagoda" nickname. It's also worth noting that the legendary Paul Bracq was a lead designer on this model.
The only things the owner don’t like are the American-style headlights. “European lights can be fitted, but then the car won’t be standard anymore, which is not a route I want to take.”
Under the bonnet is the most powerful engine the Pagoda was available with, a 2.8-litre, six-cylinder engine producing 134 kW at 5 900 rpm and 262 Nm at 4 500 rpm. Although a manual transmission was optional at the time, most of these cars came fitted with a four-speed automatic. Top speed was a claimed 190 km/h (195 km/h for the manual-equipped model) and the dash to 100 km/h was completed in 11 seconds, which is very leisurely by today's standards.
Although this Pagoda is often used for shorter trips around town, it has also been used for a number of 1 000-km trips to the George Motor Show and even all the way to Plettenberg Bay. So, this is no garage queen.
New tyres had to be fitted over the years, of course, and most recently a new set last year, and this Pagoda is serviced annually. The owner elaborates: “Currently the viscous fan at the front of the engine needs to be replaced. The soft top was replaced shortly before I bought the car.” However, the owner does have a spare one in stock. What is rather rare is the fact that the car has not been resprayed and still wears its original paint.
The owner had the gearbox overhauled. However, he quickly points out that it was not necessary, but as his preferred specialist was about to go into retirement, he decided to do what he calls "preventative refurbishment". That has been the most significant expense to date.
The air-conditioning compressor (a rare option!) is currently leaking which needs to be attended to. A new, OEM exhaust system has also been fitted which cost around R14 000. He admits that he wants to keep the car completely original. Other than these little jobs, he admits the car is only a pleasure to own.
“For me the highlight of this car is that it is fully original and has been well-maintained during its life. It has never stood still for five or 10 years, but has been used throughout its life, which not always the case with these cars.”
In fact experts agree that regular driving is vital. When inspecting a Pagoda, you should look for a car that starts easily and immediately. Lack of use can reportedly cause rust in the pipework and block injectors. It is also advised that a corrosion inhibitor is added to the coolant to avoid the system silting up, which will cause overheating and, potentially, a very costly head-gasket failure.
He makes a list of the work that needs to be done throughout the year and once there are a few things on the list, they get attended to. According to the owner one should never allow the list to get too long. Annually he says one needs to put around R15 000 aside for general maintenance and upkeep (this would obviously vary depending on the condition of a vehicle).
What should potential buyers look out for?
“There are several poorly restored cars out there. Most of the cars have also been painted at some stage in their life. There are not a lot that still have their original paint.”
He points out that there are well-known things to look out for to see if a Pagoda has been restored or repainted and whether it has been done correctly.
“At the headlights there is a lip in the body and paintwork. The chrome bezel of the headlight has this same lip in the same spot. Often when cars are restored this is accidentally removed.”
“Then you can also check for the original spot-welds on the bonnet and on the frame in the engine compartment. Finally, checking for the original firewall material will also help to determine if it has been replaced.”
He advises prospective owners to ask a specialist for assistance, as these are not cheap cars to maintain or to rectify when they have issues, especially as parts are very expensive.
These days a Pagoda is a pricey collectible, but it's worth noting that even when it was new it was expensive compared with period rivals (including the Jaguar E-Type). The W113 SL also boasts considerable celebrity appeal, with the list of famous owners including David Coulthard, Kate Moss and John Travolta.
If you want to verify the authenticity of a Pagoda, remember that the hood frame, hood cover, base of the hardtop and the gearbox support should all have the car's unique body number (which can be found on the VIN on the adjacent inner wing).