In the seven or so odd years I’ve been reviewing cars, I’ve driven plenty of exciting products: Aston Martins, Bentleys, Corvettes, and even a brief run in a Ferrari.
The closest I’ve ever come to driving a classic car, however, was the 1986 Dodge Aries I had in high school. Never have I had the joy of driving a car with a carbureted engine, no power steering, and no disc brakes. Until now.
At the press preview for the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550, the company brought along a few of that car’s ancestors, including a 2002 SL500 and a 1980 SL450. Also present was the granddaddy of them all: a 1960 300SL Roadster.
Even if you’re a casual car observer, you probably know what a 300SL looks like. The classic 1950s Mercedes-Benz with its stunning lines and signature “Gullwing” doors is legendary. The company produced a Roadster convertible alongside the coupe that most know and love. Strangely enough, the Roadster was a more engaging car to drive on account of its different rear suspension.
In either form, the 300SL was one of the fastest cars of its era. Its 3.0-liter inline 6-cylinder engine pumped out more than 200 horsepower. Depending on axle ratio, the car could achieve a top speed of up to 160 mph.
Mercedes-Benz produced the 300SL Gullwing coupe from 1954 to1957; the convertible ran from 1957 to 1963. The example the company brought to the SL550 preview was what you would consider a “driver quality” car. It won’t win the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, but it would be perfectly content to cruise Sunset Boulevard with the top down . . . which is exactly what I did.
I didn’t go into the drive without some trepidation. It was sort of like going out on a blind date with someone you met from an online dating site. It could go very well; it could end in disaster.
Naturally, there’s the initial nervousness as you try to get to know each other. The interior has leather seats but otherwise few to none of the modern safety, luxury, and convenience features we take for granted on modern vehicles. Depending on your perspective, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just you, the car, and the road.
One thing I did miss was a shoulder strap for the safety belt. I hadn’t been in a car with a lap-only belt since I used to ride in the back seat of my parents’ 1980 Chevette. Once strapped in, you sit pretty much bolt upright. The steering wheel has the circumference of a serving platter and is as thin as a supermodel.
Thanks to its sophisticated (for the time) fuel-injection system, the 300SL starts like most any car with a manual transmission. No need to fiddle with a choke or fill the carburetors with fuel before starting on your journey.
Again, like that first date, once you get past the initial awkwardness, you’ll find the 300SL to be a willing, fun companion. It’s just as capable in traffic as any sporty car you can buy today. Once you acclimate to the odd clutch-pedal action, it’s pretty smooth going. The transmission has a positive mechanical feel that many modern stickshifts lack.
Every date has its quirks, though. In the 300SL’s case, it’s the brakes. The four-wheel drums (300SLs built after 1961 were outfitted with disc brakes) don’t exactly have the most stopping power or best control. The mushy pedal requires you to press it about 10 seconds sooner than you think to save you from rear-ending the motorist in front of you.
When the experience ends, you also learn that the 300SL is not a cheap date. To make this Roadster yours forever, you would have to part with a cool $800,000. Good thing my Mercedes-Benz expert/chaperone for this date informed me of that fact at the end of our brief time together.
Despite its age and mind-blowing asking price, the 300SL still retains the almost magical quality of a Mercedes-Benz. As soon as you plant yourself in the seat, you know you’re in something very special. It’s a feeling I can neither describe nor replicate in any other high-end car I’ve tested, save for perhaps the Bentley Continental GT.
While this relationship is not meant to be, my first (and probably only) date with the 1960 Mercedes-Benz 300SL won’t soon be forgotten.