Bottrop, Germany - Until the SLC was axed last year Mercedes offered six alternative models for fans of open top driving. From the C-Class Cabriolet to the AMG GT Roadster, the choice was enough to make your head spin!
However, it wasn’t always like this. In 1963 Mercedes had only four model ranges, with the just launched W113 SL ‘Pagoda’ being the only two-seat convertible amongst these. But along with the much cheaper and faster E-Type Jaguar the Mercedes SL was the roadster to be seen in during this era.
By the time the W113 was replaced by the R107 in 1971 a total of 48,912 SLs had been produced - 230SL (W113 042) 19,831, 250SL (W113 043) 5,196 and 280SL (W113 044) 18,681.
While cars with lower production numbers are normally more valuable, there is a reason why this is not so for the 250SL, which was only made from late 1966 to early 1968. It was replaced by the 280SL whose 2,496cc M129.II straight six had the same 150hp output as the 2,308cc M127.II motor that powered the 230SL, but with an increase in torque from 196 to 216Nm.
Unfortunately the 2.5 litre engine, which was shared with Mercedes saloon cars of the era was a problem child, and its well documented mechanical issues have resulted in cars with this motor being avoided by collectors looking for a good SL.
In Germany, enthusiasts therefore either look for the 230SL with manual transmission, a good drivers’ car for those who like to row their own gears, or the 280SL automatic. The bigger 2,778cc M130 motor has 170hp along with 244Nm of torque, and its lack of any significant mechanical weaknesses makes it more relaxed to drive. It is the most universally sought after W113, so if you are going to pour money into a W113 restoration, then starting with a 280SL is a no brainer.
However, as anyone familiar with classic cars will tell you there are restorations, and then there are restorations. And it is always better to seek your perfect car from a marque specialist rather than a company that professes to be able to restore a wide range of cars.
One of the tell tale clues I use to check out the attention to detail on a restored SL is very simple for anyone to see. The chrome bezel around each stacked headlamp unit has a small kink high up on the side facing the grille, and the horizontal line in the bezel lines up with the one on the front wings. Lazy or ill informed restorers almost always remove this from the bodywork, and if I see this line missing I just walk away from the car as this tells me everything I need to know about the person or company that did the work.
At the other end of the scale are cars that are as good as or even better than the day they left the factory. In the old days Kienle was the pinnacle restoration expert for these cars, and they still are absolutely at the top of the tree for Pagoda restorations to this day.
However, in 2011, the late Bodo Buschmann saw the growing market for valuable classic cars and began to leverage his team’s expertise with all things Mercedes. “Our 40 years as Mercedes-Benz specialists gives us a unique wealth of knowledge and experience that we will now use to restore older models,” Bodo told us at the time.
In the ensuing months Brabus Classic grew as a separate entity under the Brabus GmbH umbrella. In the early days work on classics was carried out in their main workshop alongside the modern cars.
However, as the business grew Brabus took the plunge and acquired additional land in their industrial estate and constructed a bespoke building to house the workshop and showroom for this rapidly expanding and very lucrative operation. The 2,000 sq m Brabus Werk 4 is totally focused on restoring classic and young timer Mercedes to as new condition.
The better than new 280SL sitting outside Brabus Werk 1 is fuelled up and ready for our drive to the photo location, the old Thyssen Krupp steel factory in nearby Duisburg that is now a museum to the Ruhr Region’s former industrial glory days.
From a distance the revitalised SL looks compact, and elegant, every one of its Paul Bracq and Béla Barényi penned lines converging to form a simple but elegant shape with exquisite detailing. Even the slightly concave detachable hardtop that inspired the ‘Pagoda’ nickname sits just right, its thin pillars conveying a light and airy look.
Pouring over the cars amazing finish I note that the DB-050 White paintwork is as smooth as glass and definitely better than new. Opening the bonnet reveals an engine bay you could eat your dinner off. The straight six motor has been painted and assembled to perfection, with every screw, clip, wire and cable not just pristine but also fitted with total precision. Every bracket is new or has been made new, and concours addicts will note that all the screw heads are perfectly aligned as well!
An inspection under the boot carpet reveals that the factory grade underseal and grey paint have been replicated exactly. I was later told that this car was in a really bad state when it arrived at Brabus, so all the panels are new and the underseal had to be applied from scratch to match the original finish.
To top things off every authentic factory sticker that was applied to a factory fresh SL has been added to the restored car in exactly the right places. While some might use the hackneyed term ‘time warp’ this amazing car is actually better than new thanks to the luxury of time to make everything perfect that the production line workers in Unterturkheim simply did not have.
Brabus’ PR Director, Sven Gramm threw me a curve when he handed me the keys, adding that the car is not doing the 20km in a transporter to our photo location, and that he wants me to drive it there down the autobahn and through town!
Now while you might think from trawling the used car ads that a good 280SL sells for between £80,000 and £100,000 in the UK. In Germany Kienle charged 160,000 euros for one of their finished five star cars back in 2016.
ClassicData, the leading German classic car specialist organisation, examines each vehicle after the work is completed. The unique quality and originality of these restorations, leads ClassicData to award their “1” status to BRABUS Classic six-star restorations.
Their experts went as far as confirming that these cars are endowed with the qualities of a brand new car. It is thus no surprise to learn that many owners have the confidence to use their six-star restored classic Mercedes as daily drivers during the summer months.
When Bodo sold a Brabus Classic restored 280SL off the Geneva stand for 250,000 euros that year this raised the stakes even higher, creating an all time record for a car of this type. Sven just grinned and told me that this newly re-minted Pagoda comes with a slightly higher price tag. Kid gloves time then.
It is rare to drive a classic that starts first turn of the key each and every time, but this one does. I set off gingerly, making sure that all the vital fluids are gently warmed through. The recirculating ball steering is far from as precise as a modern rack and pinion, but as the Pagoda’s performance feels brisk rather than fast by modern standards it works just fine for me.
Most of the Pagodas I have driven over the years were not too precise in the shifting of their automatic gearboxes. This one is a lot snappier and quicker witted but still shows the tremendous engineering progress made in 50 years.
Cruising on the autobahn at 120km/h feels fine but the smooth six is turning over a lot faster than I would like. Four forward ratios were a big thing in 1970 when many automatic gearboxes had just three. But Porsche offered five forward speeds in their manual gearboxes back then, as did Ferrari.
Overall the Pagoda feels fairly modern for a car of its era, and its modest physical size and good all round visibility are something that I miss in many modern cars. It is no wonder that this elegant roadster tugs at the heartstrings far more strongly than the more brutal looking R107 that succeeded it in 1972.
The Restoration Process
The most comprehensive service that BRABUS Classic offers is called a ‘six-star restoration’. This entails replacing every single worn component, from the window glass rubber seals to the complete interior upholstery using original Mercedes spare parts wherever possible.
For instance, the leather used in a BRABUS Classic re-trim corresponds exactly to the original factory material in look, feel and even scent. “We place great emphasis on originality, and so where possible we seek out the original materials for use in our restorations," stresses Bodo’s son, Constantine who now runs Brabus.
On the other hand parts suitable for remanufacture such as the chrome bumpers and body trim parts, are renovated by the workshop team in classic style. This goes for the bodyshell too, which is first stripped back to bare metal and any corrosion or imperfections attended to.
Modern, far more effective methods of protecting the metal such as a catalytic immersion primer are used, followed by corrosion protection, and finally several top-coats in the original colour, each hand rubbed to perfection.
At the same time the engine specialists disassemble the motor to check for wear, sometimes replacing pistons and rings, valves and other worn parts, machining and balancing components where required to ensure the engine will lead a healthy and reliable second life. The same thorough checking and rebuilding process applies to the gearbox, suspension and brakes.
This whole process can take 1,500 hours with a Pagoda SL, or 4,500 hours for the more complex 300SL Gullwing, whose space-frame chassis can suffer from corrosion.
Customers seeking the very best cars come to BRABUS Classic from all over the world. Some of them are existing BRABUS clients now looking for a restored classic Mercedes of the highest calibre.
BRABUS Classic seeks the basic vehicles for restoration from around the world, and have the accolade of being an official factory Mercedes ClassicPartner, a status equivalent to a knighthood for any Mercedes restoration specialist.
The old timers restored at BRABUS Classic in Bottrop leave the workshop in literally as new condition, providing their owners with the opportunity to experience these characterful classics just as they left the factory.
However, in cases where maintaining the original patina of age is crucial, BRABUS Classic will also undertake partial restorations. In such cases only the bodywork is repaired and painted, the engine overhauled, worn leather renewed, and the wood brought back to good order. Such a car is deemed a useable classic as opposed to a potential show winner.
If you want a 300 SL Gullwing or 280SL in the same perfect condition it left the factory BRABUS Classic will build you such a car under their extensive six-star restoration programme, complete with a two-year ‘new car’ warranty and no mileage restriction. And if you so wish they will continue to service and maintain it for you.