Mercedes Benz - Unlike Any Other

James Nicholls assesses the best Mercedes-Benz classics available on the market today

Built for speed: the 300SLROne of the great automotive brands, and certainly one of the most popular in Hong Kong, is Mercedes-Benz. The first Mercedes-Benz branded car appeared in 1926, though the company has antecedents going back into the 19th Century.
Truly a world leader in reputation for build-quality and long life, Mercedes-Benz has produced a number of legendary vehicles that have attained the classic appellation. Some of these models carrying the three-pointed star badge are perhaps beyond the reach of all but a select few, but there are still some exceptional classic vehicles available to a wider audience. Perhaps we should start with one of all the time greats, the 300SL. The 300SL (Sport Light) was born out of the manufacturer’s racing heritage and in particular the highly successful W194. When introduced in 1952, the W194 won at the Le Mans 24 Hour Race and in Mexico’s Carrera Panamericana, and became one of the most famous racing Mercedes Benz cars of all time when it won the 1955 Mille Miglia. The 300SLR, driven by Stirling Moss and navigator Dennis Jenkinson, still holds the record for the fastest Mille Miglia in history, just under 10 hours 8 Minutes, at an average speed of 157.651 km/h! This phenomenal car had the number 722 as this was the time – 7.22am – that it crossed the start line in Brescia, Northern Italy.
By 1954, the 300SLR had given birth to the road-going 300SL, more commonly known as the ‘Gullwing’ in its coupe form, due to its distinctive doors opening from the roof on account of the design of its weight-saving tubular chassis. The Gullwing and the later roadster version were capable of achieving over 250 km/h, which was extraordinarily fast for the time, and were the first production cars to be fitted with fuel injection.
These fabled cars with sculpted aerodynamics were incredibly popular in the USA. Now they are incredibly popular the world over and due to limited numbers (1400 coupes and 1858 roadsters) of production are now very rare and correspondingly expensive. The 300SL coupe was available from 1954 to 1957, while the 300SL roadster was introduced in 1957 and ceased production in 1963.
Built at the same time (1955 – 1963) is what can perhaps be regarded at the 300SL Roadster’s little brother, the 190SL. Not as fast, not as extreme looking as the six-cylinder 300SL, the four-cylinder 190SL is still a very desirable car. Nearly 26,000 of this model were built, so it is a car that is much easier to find and, as at the time, is much cheaper to buy. In the mid-1950s, a 190SL cost DM16,500 while a 300SL would set you back DM32,500. Being a Mercedes, of course, it is incredibly well built and it should be possible to find a car in good condition and at the right price.
A direct descendent of the 300 lineage can be found with the SL Pagoda, so called because of its optional hard top resembling a pagoda-style roof. To make the SL a commercial success and compete with cars such as the Jaguar E Type, Mercedes needed a new car – the 300SL was just too expensive and the 190SL did not really cut it in the speed stakes.
The 230SL was an instant classic the day it rolled off the production line in 1963 – and it still is today. Its elegant styling, craftsmanship and all-round practicality make this model, also available in 250 and 280 versions, very desirable, especially in the larger engine 280SL format. There are plenty of them about, they were built like tanks, can readily be found in original right hand drive, usually come with a hard top as well as a soft top, have power-steering and very often have automatic transmission.
Another fabled Mercedes is the 280SE 3.5. Try and find a really good two-door coupe or cabriolet of the ‘Fintail’ (W111) production series (1959 – 1968) and make sure it is the 3.5 litre V8 engine car. There is great attention to detail and a very high level of engineering and quality. Well-equipped with power-steering, electric windows, leather upholstery and polished wood, you immediately know that you are in a very special car indeed.
One final thing to remember to look out for when purchasing the best classic Mercedes-Benz you can find and afford: make sure that it still has its original Becker radio.

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