As Noel Coward once eruditely put it; “Bed is the perfect climate.” Having no doubt glanced at the cataclysmic weather forecast for 14 July, many of the masses of Pagoda owners who’d expressed prior interest in joining our 60th celebrations, wisely chose to heed his sentiment, staying snug under their duvets.
Due to the British summertime proving to be stereotypically rubbish, once again, we weren’t convinced that any owners would be intrepid enough to drag themselves – never mind their 50+ year-old classic SLs – out into the moist Friday morning maelstrom. To put things in perspective, just 24-hours later, Goodwood Festival of Speed would take a day’s break in order to avoid the worst of the weather.
Despite our fears, arriving at SLSHOP, it turned out we were far from alone… Brave souls by the dozen were in attendance, and not just fellow staff! Over a few hours, more and more owners gathered for a chinwag within the showrooms and workshops, which had been set aside for an impromptu open day.
To a crowd of valiant owners, members of the press and the SLSHOP team, guest host and TV classic car expert Alex Riley framed the importance of the Pagoda and this 60th milestone; amid the wider context of mid-century motoring and the Mercedes-Benz saga. During his short speech, Alex stressed how the Pagoda’s arrival changed the course of sports car production. It was the first roadster to feature crumple zones and was a pioneer of passive safety, thanks to visionary engineer Béla Barényi (more Pagoda history here)
Perhaps even more pertinent was the way the Pagoda shifted the SL into touring territory. No longer bound by competition considerations, the W113 was the first SL to truly nail the formula of what we now consider to be SL hallmarks; blending sports and touring abilities in a lavish, highly-desirable package.
Before we put all that to the test, with a 100-mile jaunt down to Mercedes-Benz World, Brooklands, there was just time for a line-up and photoshoot along SLSHOP’s long trackway. So many Pagodas gathered in one place made for quite a sight and, since we’d been fortified with caffeine and pastries, we swapped our umbrellas for soft-tops – that would stay firmly up for the foreseeable – and headed off just before noon.
Our chariot for the day was a 1969-built – and utterly stunning – 280SL automatic that recently resided in the warm confines of SLSHOP’s showroom. This example has been methodically restored, to an extremely high standard, with a price tag of nearly £240k to match.
With a mild sense of trepidation, we meandered this momentous motoring memoire through largely ignorant town traffic in Stratford-Upon-Avon. A few admiring glances and even the odd beep and wave provoked a little smile, right before we managed to get lost… Route guidance was provided, of course, but as this writer was sharing this Pagoda’s hot seat with an old acquaintance, and fellow motoring journalist, we were far too busy catching up to pay attention. A detour northeast and away from the Bard’s old stomping grounds lead us down a charming tree-lined A road; its 50mph limit proving ideal for both warming us and the car up. Not that the latter needed it, proving willing and able right from the off.
I’d driven Pagodas before, but our co-driver hadn’t, so he got the first stint behind the wheel. From both passenger and driver perspective however, we were immediately impressed by how useable our 54-year-old conveyance proved to be. Cabin comfort is bolstered by relatively high levels of insulation (for the era), which means that even using this 280SL in truly terrible weather doesn’t seem to faze it in the least. The first impression was one of usability and drivability, far in advance of its era; an impression that only grew stronger as the miles racked up.
The official ‘Scenic Route’ was supposed to take in Stratford, then Oxford before meandering through the lesser trunk routes of the Chiltern Hills and on to Brooklands. We’d managed to point that large grille star about 10 miles north, which meant a minor course correction down a far less glamorous stretch of the M40, though this did again prove how capable a cruiser the Pagoda still is. Although the tachometer showed that gearing was making the engine work a little hard at the national speed limit (4000rpm).
We soon found a more suitable pace and made our own fun along some sweeping A-roads between Bicester and the British Motor Museum, Gaydon. Passing these fabulous facilities, we couldn’t help wonder how many classic British sports car owners would have braved the same conditions. Probably just as many to be fair, though we were certainly glad we had a bit more weather proofing than a side-screen TR! We’d left the hard-top roof back at SLSHOP, but even the canvas proved tight and leak free.
Stopping midway for a driver change, I was immediately reminded just how accessible these cars are. The Pagoda requires very few of the usual classic car compromises; you can jump in one and enjoy it right away. It’s more comfortable, quieter and even drier than many a more modern roadster, with great brakes and performance. It feels its age when it comes to damping finesse, though ride comfort is rarely affected. Sudden road imperfections catch out the relatively primitive dampers, which transfer more shocks than a modern setup, but overall the car behaves better than many similar machines from the early 1980s, rather than the late-1960s. It remains impressive even today.
Brooklands was breached without further incident. We lined up alongside other owners (we weren’t even last) in our allocated Pagoda parking place. Hiding under SLSHOP-branded umbrellas made swapping tales of the trip with other guests even easier, as we headed over to M-B World proper for a peek at the exhibits. A quick presentation from Rob Hollaway, M-B UK marketing director, pointed out a few must-see models in the building – including the oldest SL in the world – yet my attention wandered in the direction of the 190E 2.3-16; famously piloted to victory by Ayrton Senna at the inaugural race of the then-new (1984) Nürburgring F1 circuit.
A quick safety briefing followed, before we were all allowed out onto the M-B World infield track for a few laps, behind a pace car. Within 100 yards the scene bore a greater resemblance to a power boat race than an historic parade, but far too much fun was being had by all for it to matter much. We suspect the photographers were having a little less fun! After one final photo op in front of the spectacular glass Mercedes-Benz World main building – crested by its slowly rotating three-pointed Star – our tribute to the paradigm-shifting Pagoda was at an end.
Most owners then made their way home again, but a few stayed for dinner and drinks in the Brooklands hotel. Here, conversation and libation flowed well into the evening as we dried out and reflected on what had been a great day, in spite of all mother nature had thrown at us.
The fact our Pagoda celebrations proved a success, against all odds, was clearly down in no small part to the car we were celebrating. Very few other sporting machines marking a 60th milestone could have covered a 100-mile trip on such a day and still see its passengers emerge with smiling faces. The rest of the credit for pulling victory from the jaws of defeat must surely go to those brave owners, who decided to forsake their warm beds and help us further immortalise the truly pivotal Pagoda.