Amid today's great surfeit of automotive choice is a cruel irony: Cars are more alike than they've ever been, and our parking lots are melting pots of badge-engineered, generically styled sedan-SUV-sports car-crossover minivans. What happened to the characterful if unpredictable sports cars our dads were always swearing at in the garage? A lot of things, but mostly safety and reliability, features that certainly made cars better but also far, far less interesting.
Safety meant bigger, dumpier bodies. Reliability severed the bonds that tied men to their mechanics – those countless hours of Sisyphean wrench work. But buying investment-grade sports cars from the past can solve all that. They're appreciating assets that recapture the visceral motoring experience. If you're sick of driving roadsters that feel and sound like video games, sick of cars you can turn off and walk away from unaffected by the experience, read on.
Between 1963 and 1971, Mercedes-Benz produced three variants of its SL: the 230, the 250, and this 280. The numbers refer to engine displacement (2.3 liters, 2.5; you get the idea), and SL stands for Sport Leicht (sporty, lightweight). But these cars were neither sporty nor light; their merits lie elsewhere.
These SLs were arguably the most civilized roadsters of their day. What they gave up in handling, they more than made up for with their silken ride, elegantly weighted steering, roomy cabins, and styling evocative of Newport mansions, and lots and lots of money.
Dubbed the Pagoda roadsters for their concave hardtop roofs (the car came as a convertible, a hardtop, or a convertible with a removable hardtop), the second-generation SLs are among the most understatedly beautiful cars Mercedes-Benz has ever produced. Our favorite is the 280, with its then-impressive horsepower (180 hp) and top speed (118 mph). SL purists contend that with the bigger engine came a softening of the suspension that dulled the car's handling, and what you really should get is a 250SL. We say phooey. The bigger engine and softer suspension made this car what it should have been from the start: a gentleman's roadster.
What to watch out for: Soft water hoses and leaky head-gaskets are a sure sign that the car you're looking at has an overheating problem – most likely the result of a previous owner using water instead of antifreeze coolant. Also, watch for rust in the door pockets and rocker panels.
Resources: Mercedes-Benz Repair and Tune-Up Guide, by R. M. Clarke; Mercedes-Benz Buyers Guide: Roadsters, Coupes, and Convertibles, by Fred Larimer
Credit: Courtesy Mercedes-Benz