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Keith Henry

There's nothing like a long road trip to cement the relationship with a new-to-you vintage Mercedes-Benz.

Back in 1985, after much reading and dreaming, I concluded that a Mercedes 280SL would be the perfect daily driver with collectible potential. I'm not sure how it would have worked out as a daily driver, although it would have been fun to try, but it certainly would have been collectible. It took some time, but 37 years later I actually had a 1970 280SL in my garage. Or, I would have, except it was in the shop getting ready for a road trip.


This particular Pagoda has been lovingly cared for since a total restoration some 20 years ago. The last owner drove the car only about 500 miles in eight years. I planned to drive the car more than that on the first day of my trip!


Since buying my SL in August of 2021, I've wrestled with the conundrum familiar to many Pagoda owners: do I drive it or do I preserve it? Of course, I want to do both, doesn't everyone? But what's the right balance?


A reason to drive


While I was going back and forth with that question, my dad turned 101 in October of last year. The highlight of his birthday celebration was the surprise visit of three Model A Fords from the Central Iowa Model A Club. When we mentioned that dad was a 101-year-old WWII vet, I think they would have done anything to help celebrate the moment. One of Dad's first cars, as a teenager on the farm in Iowa, was a 1931 Model A Roadster, just like the scale model on his fireplace mantel today. He sold the real thing in 1939 because the family had just moved,  and he no longer had a good place to store it while he was away fighting the war.


Dad couldn't stop talking about the surprise visit and ride in a Ford Roadster like the one he had owned. Somewhat ironically, he said "I'll remember this the rest of my life."


Thinking about that, I had plenty of time to prepare the Pagoda for a springtime cross-country trip from the Atlantic Coast to the Midwest. So, the question then became: Can this non-mechanic take a 52-year-old garage queen on a three-week trip for a series of visits in Indiana, Iowa, and Ohio?


With garage space offered at each stop and dad's excitement about a possible visit, it was easy to decide to make the trip.  


This car's history


Three previous owners ago in 1990, Steve Sizemore bought what he called a "used car" from Florida businessman and car enthusiast Paul Hackman for $8,500. Steve spent the next dozen years or so meticulously restoring it, even replacing the front fenders to ensure a good fit with the hood he was replacing. And, yes, Steve recreated the inner-fender spot welds, dead-on. The next owner, Ken Wise, knew a solid car and good investment when he saw it and bought the car in 2014, from Steve's father. Ken was just as meticulous in his preservation of the car. Between them, Steve, Steve's father and Ken put less than 1,000 miles on the car in 31 years of ownership.


Advertised as "wonderful" in August of 2021, I took the money I was saving for a new all-electric Porsche and bought this 280SL instead. The two cars couldn't have been more different! One is totally new, high-computer-tech, silent and quick off the line. The other was new 51 years earlier, entirely analog, throaty, and a stylish cruiser.


We were ready


After months of mechanical and cosmetic attention, the Pagoda was ready. Not that she needed all that much attention; the engine was strong and the car was clean throughout. But after some maintenance, she was really ready. I jokingly asked if Chris, my classic car mechanic, wanted to ride shotgun with me on the trip. He laughed, but I wasn't really kidding.


On May 11, we drove the first miles from my home in Tidewater Virginia. Besides generally avoiding any vehicle that might throw rocks at us, this part of the trip was for listening and feeling. How is the engine doing? How smooth is the ride? Is it easy or hard to keep the car pointed straight down the middle of the lane?


In fact, it felt pretty good. I felt like I was getting a gentle massage through the seat, and the engine sounded wonderful. As an older car, the Pagoda is not as smooth or quite as easy to drive as our 2002 Mercedes C320 wagon. It's hard not to compare our two Mercedes-Benz cars, separated by 32 years. And it's tempting to wonder how this Pagoda compares to its former self? Did it feel like this when the first owner took his new 280SL out on the relatively new Interstate highway system in 1970 on the Florida gulf coast?


So far, so good


After a long 750 miles on the first day, I saw the welcoming lights of Indianapolis and the promise of a restful family stopover. So far, so good.


The only issue the entire day was that my iPhone charger cord didn't fit snugly into the cigarette lighter socket, so my phone battery died, taking with it the directions to my sister's home and any way to call her.  I spent an extra hour, in addition to the 14 already spent, playing "Do you know the way to Pittsboro?"


Apparently, no one in Indianapolis has ever heard of Pittsboro, a perfectly-fine small suburb west of the city, and a majority of those asked have no idea how to give directions to a semi-lost traveler without a functioning smartphone. One young convenience store manager even refused to look at my atlas, saying, "I only do this," as he pressed the buttons on an imaginary iPhone.


Eventually, in spite of the mismatch of technologies, I pulled into my sister's driveway. I breathed a giant sigh of relief that the car was still in one piece, and a pretty piece, at that! The XPEL film and ceramic coating treatment we had used to protect the car appeared to be doing their job. And we had no hiccups from the drivetrain. The extremely low-mileage replacement engine used only 1/2 a quart of the high-zinc motor oil that I brought along. I took that as a good sign. My newer but higher mileage 2002 C320 would have used a full quart by this point.


A few days later I got on the road again. This time, to my dad's home in Iowa.


My car and my dad


On the way to Des Moines, I alternately smiled at the thought of sharing this car with my father, and worried that the car would be perilously close to dad's workshop and garden tools. He carved out just enough space for it in his single-car garage, originally built for the likes of a Model T. But, since we had survived this far, I relaxed and decided it was time to have fun.


My dad never hesitated to drive big rigs all over the country before his retirement 30 years ago. He even drove a tracked vehicle off an amphibious landing craft and onto the shore in France on D-Day, 78 years ago. Even more amazingly, he drove his own vehicle until Oct. 16, 2021, when he turned 101 and voluntarily gave up his Iowa driver's license!


As I approached the outskirts of Des Moines, I got to thinking about dad's Model A. It occurred to me that the 39 years that separated his 1931 Ford from my 1970 280SL were fewer than the 52 years since this Pagoda was sold new down in Tampa, Florida. Yet in spite of the ever-increasing technological divide between the 280SL and modern cars, I took pleasure in knowing that the Pagoda is still relevant and enjoyable today.


The first mechanical hiccup


No sooner had I celebrated reaching my dad's house, some 1,300 miles from home, than the car started to complain with little squeaks and odd noises from under the hood. It didn't take long to see that the belt that drives the AC compressor was totally loose. Further inspection revealed that the pulley that held that belt in place and taut was literally coming apart.


I shouldn't have been surprised that the story of taking a low-mileage 1970 Pagoda on its first road trip since it was meticulously restored decades ago would turn into a story about people.


The local Mercedes-Benz dealer couldn't work me in, but referred me to a respected classic Mercedes specialist who kindly moved my car to the top of his list. At 7 am the next day, I arrived at Hickman Auto and met Austrian-born Joerg Zurlo, an obvious Mercedes fan, based on the lot full of Mercedes-Benz classics and the impressive collection of Mercedes photos and posters on the walls.


The relatively minor problem of having no AC until I got home turned out to be a blessing of sorts. While in Joerg's shop, the car got a mid-trip checkup. An alternator belt, a plug wire, Bosch plugs instead of Japanese-made NGK plugs (Joerg's recommendation), and replacement tie-rod ends made the vintage SL run and drive even smoother. Not bad for the first long-distance road trip in more than 30 years. 


Dad taking the car's pulse


The new and tight-fitting soft top had proven a challenge to put up and fasten before leaving Indy, so dad and I did not go topless for his first ride. Yet, even before we got on the Interstate, conversation was difficult. Wind noise soon limited our ability to hear each other, although we were able to make a comment or two about what we were hearing and feeling from the car.


At one point, dad put his hand on the automatic transmission gear shift lever mounted on the tunnel between us. I had a momentary panic attack before I realized that he was simply taking the "pulse" of the transmission. He concluded that the transmission was probably not the source of the mild vibration and noise we were experiencing at some speeds. He explained that he never listened to the radio in his years driving a semi; he always listened to the truck.


Chris, my hometown mechanic, had already promised to adjust the roll-up windows to limit wind noise upon my return. Now I added a possible issue with a u-joint, dad's suggested starting point to investigate that mild massage we were getting through the seats.


That moment with my dad turned out to be another time when I shouldn't have been surprised. The climax of the trip for me, sharing my new car with my dad; turned into a shared father-son evaluation, not a joyful exclamation. But I decided I'm just fine with that. Just fine.


A stop at Joe's, a parts and service oasis


In spite of the attention to the car's vital signs, she still was not totally well. My return trip to Virginia was a long one. A call for help on the online W113 club forum resulted in a flood of welcome advice from longtime club members. But the message that especially caught my eye was an invitation from legendary Mercedes mechanic and fellow W113 club member, Joe Alexander, to stop by his shop near Columbus, Ohio.


As it turns out, Joe was familiar with my car, having helped both Ken and Steve with various repairs, upgrades, and advice over the years. That included converting the original AC system to a more modern, user-friendly system for Ken. Then for Steve, who is already an accomplished mechanic and restorer, Joe confirmed that his idea to convert the rear-end to the more road-friendly 3.27 gear ratio would work and be "the way to go."


In retrospect, I almost would have sabotaged my car to have a reason to visit Joe and his shop. In three short hours, I learned more about my car than I had in the 10 months prior. Joe quickly diagnosed the remaining problem as burned ignition points, and of course he had them in stock!


The long road home


The car was now running so well that I confidently increased my freeway speed from a 60-70 mph range to 65-75 mph. Was I just getting used to the car or were the new tie rod ends making it easier to track the center of the lane? In any case, for the first time, it all seemed to come together. The car was actually fun to drive!


On the long road home I had plenty of time to consider the questions I posed to myself before the trip: Was this car comfortable? Did it have enough room? How did we do? Did we have fun? Ultimately, was it the trip of a lifetime?


Yes, this Pagoda felt comfortable to me, at least for the first 2-4 hours each day. After that, the seat started feeling hard. I took a poll of the several passengers who went for drives during the trip. They all said the seat was comfortable.


There was enough room for me and my luggage and things, just barely. I probably could have left my car cover and oversized cooler at home, really. Our next trip together would be even more fun with a passenger! Hopefully one with a small, soft suitcase.


But really this car and I did just fine, with the help of a small army of sympathetic family members and friends, plus a few totally new friends.


Fun is a relative term. Was driving for hours on end while my own end was feeling more and more sore and my mind was keeping track of the number of engine misses in a 15 minute period, really fun? Well, not exactly. But there were plenty of fun moments in sharing my passion for this car with others, and that made up for the less-than-fun moments.


And, fun or not, this was definitely the trip of a lifetime! But now there's a new question: Will I drive this car to Chicago for PagodaFest in 2023? I think so.