1971 Mercedes-Benz 280SL

1971 Mercedes-Benz 280SL 1971 Mercedes-Benz 280SL
Short Take Road Test

Old age should burn and rave at close of day," observed the poet Dylan Thomas, who must have had a vintage Mercedes-Benz. A Mercedes does not "go gentle into that good night," but goes with a burn of oil and the rave of fritzing electrics and rattling mechanicals. For a century the raving minds in the Stuttgart factory liked to live on the engineering cusp, a fact that makes old Mercedes-Benzes particularly fearful. The cutting-edge technologies of their day — mechanical fuel injection, vacuum-operated accessories, air suspensions — are nightmares today for owners of "classic" Benzes, or those built before 1991, by the company's own definition.

To help serve the 550,000 such owners in the United States, Mercedes has opened the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center USA in Irvine, California, the heart of Mercedes country. Like its European counterpart in Fellbach, Germany, the Classic Center is a museum housing examples of the company's 400-car collection of vintage Benzes. It's also a parts depot, a fully outfitted restoration shop, and a dealership selling previously loved Mercedes that have been fettled into a state that is as good as (or indeed surpassing) new. Prices vary, but all are high.

An example is this immaculate Maytag-white 1971 Mercedes-Benz 280SL with 26,000 original miles. It gleams with newness, an elegant time machine that perfectly unwinds the clock to the Nixon administration. It hasn't undergone one of the center's full 3000-hour restorations (priced at $100 per hour to include parts and labor), but this 35-year-old car has undergone enough rebuilding, rechroming, repainting, and cadmium plating of its nuts and bolts to command a $79,900 sticker.

A 2007 Mercedes SL550 starts at $97,275, but it has no pagoda. The 1963-71 SL was dubbed the "pagoda" car because the optional detachable hardtop had a thin, slightly concave center panel bracketed on both sides by two thicker pillars. The design was suggested by Mercedes safety engineer Béla Barényi to fortify the roof against a rollover, but it also proved handsome and svelte, especially when viewed head-on. Demand reflected the appeal of the pagoda: Mercedes sold 48,912 of this SL worldwide.

Classic Center manager Michael Kunz hopes to sell two restored Benzes per month. To stock his showroom, he's on the prowl mainly for postwar coupes and convertibles and the gas-chugging 6.3 and 6.9 V-8 sedans of the early '70s. "We're mainly interested in special-interest and limited-production cars," he says. The center, which is equipped with a spotless workshop and a $300,000 paint booth, will also take on restoration commissions.

Kunz had such confidence in this immaculate 280SL that he turned us loose on public roads and even let us perform our test procedures on it.

The injected 162-hp overhead-cam inline-six starts and runs with a smooth flutter that sounds like playing cards in bicycle spokes. A dub-sized wheel makes the steering fingertip light, and the pedal on the servo-assisted four-wheel disc brakes sinks into mayonnaise.

A feather touch on the Mercedes-built four-speed auto flicks it between gears if you want to shift yourself, the best way to extract speed. With 60 mph passing in 8.6 seconds and stops from 70 mph in 233 feet, the old SL proves that it was built modern enough to survive at today's traffic speeds.

You could drive this pretty old car every day, and into a very gentle good night.