Lansing, Michigan attorney Norm Witte found this unique 280SL – his first Mercedes-Benz – completely by accident. He and wife Joy were vacationing in a rental home on Topsail Island, North Carolina. The house had an elevator that was malfunctioning, so they called a maintenance man to fix it. The maintenance guy told them there was a car in the garage that might be for sale, and he unlocked it for them to have a look. There it was; a 1985 R107 280SL.
Witte was at first unimpressed. “But then I walked around it and noticed some things,” he says. This 280SL “had Euro bumpers! A manual transmission! Air conditioning and power windows! And it was in reasonably good, rust-free condition. Within a day or two, I was in love with it and negotiated a deal.”
This R107 has an interesting history. “It was purchased new by Jim Trum, who was controller at the American embassy in El Salvador at the time,” Witte relates. “When he was transferred back to the United States in early 1986, he put diplomatic plates on it and drove it from El Salvador to Alexandria, Virginia, running at 100 miles per hour through most of Central America due to political unrest along the way. He sold it to a developer in Baltimore, who started building houses on Topsail Island. After he died, the developer’s widow decided to put the house up for vacation rentals. "I have a lot of documentation for this car, including paperwork related to its importation to El Salvador. I am still in contact with Jim, who is an interesting and entertaining guy.”
Rare in America
What makes this car unique? For starters, Mercedes-Benz did not offer the R107 to Americans with the 2,746cc M110 DOHC inline six-cylinder engine, or with a 5-speed manual transmission. This 12-valve, Bosch K-Jetronic fuel-injected, Euro-spec six-cylinder delivers 182 horsepower at 5,800 RPM and 177 lb-ft. of torque at 4,500 RPM. In the hands of an experienced driver, the car will acceleratefrom zero to 60 MPH in just 8.7 seconds. By comparison, the contemporary American market 380SL carried a 16-valve fuel-injected V-8 producing 155 horsepower at 4,750 RPM and 196 lb-ft. of torque at 2,750 RPM. With its automatic transmission, the 380SL can manage a 10.7-second dash to 60 MPH.
Second, Witte’s car is not American-spec, but rather a left-hand-drive ROTW (Rest of the World) version without the federally mandated 5-MPH bumpers. “It did have American-style quad round headlights that were added when the car was federalized,” he explains. “But I converted it back to Euro headlights. I also ditched the ‘electrical box’ turn signals that came on American models in favor of 'banana light' units from the 1971 and 1972 R107s, so the front of the car is unique to those who know these models.”
This 280SL also sports a 450SL rubber rear spoiler, which original owner Trum had his dealer install. “While these changes are not original stock,” Witte chuckles, “they are elements of the story of the car, and I think they look good.” He adds that it was notably also “part of the tsunami of gray market Mercedes that came into the United States in the early 1980s that led to the virtual ban on gray market cars. That wave peaked in 1985, the year this car was built.”
Why does Witte love this car? He says, “Driving it was a whole new revelation. I know that some people would want more power, but this straight six loves to rev and the car is a hoot to drive. I drove it to court in Stanton this morning and came back on two-lane roads with the top down. It was blissful. At 70 mph, it is relatively quiet, comfortable and just cruises along.”
Out for a ride
We seized the moment and drove Witte's car top-down on a crisp, bright fall day and enjoyed the same sensations that he describes. The DOHC six is short on low-end torque at launch but likes to rev and gets ever more eager at higher rpms. It also makes lovely noises through its non-stock exhaust. The five-speed shifter was a bit loose and floppy, not surprising for its age, yet surprisingly precise. It never failed to select the gear we wanted when we wanted it. Overall, the car felt solid, handled well and stopped straight and sure, though we didn’t push it hard. We also judged it lovely to look at inside and out, set off by its Euro lamps and 450SL spoiler.
“It has become a family favorite,” Witte continues. It’s a driver, not a carefully restored garage queen. There are future projects for this car, but it gets regularly driven and shown. It is often overlooked because Mercedes-Benz made so many R107s, but when people who know look more closely at it, they realize it’s unique.”
Witte describes himself as a “gearhead” who likes unique vehicles. “We have two 42 x 30-ft. pole barns known as ‘Barntopia,’” he says, “and my son Seth and I are constantly working on car projects. Of my four kids, my two oldest are also attorneys, but Seth – who went to the College for Creative Studies and majored in Transportation Design – is now a product designer for American Expedition Vehicles. My oldest son, Jake, likes to say that he followed in my footsteps, but Seth followed my dreams. With Seth’s design skills, we are able to create 3D-printed parts, vinyl cuts, laser cut sheet metal and graphic designs. One of the barns is heated and air conditioned, and we have a two-post lift. In the last couple of years, we set up our own powder-coating system, and this allows us to do increasingly professional work.”
Among Witte's current automotive stable are a 1963 Oldsmobile 98 Holiday Sports Sedan, a 1965 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa 140-hp coupe, a 1965 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa 180-hp turbo convertible, a 1968 Imperial Crown four-door hardtop, a 1968 Pontiac Le Mans, a 1971 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser and this 1985 280SL. “We don’t go for cars that are just traffic,” he says. “This is the first Mercedes I’ve owned, and I’d love to pick up another one when we have room. I probably will someday.”
We see that revelation as evidence of a happy conversion to the magic of the three-pointed star.