In November 1967
Mercedes released the last SL to use
the M129 body, the 280 SL - a car which most collectors
regard as the best of the trio.
Using a 170 bhp seven-bearing motor it went well in auto,
although a four speed manual was an option with a few having
five-speed manual transmissions.
Inevitably reviewers of the time were drawn to compare the 280SL with the 300SL, a comparison that really missed the point of what the 1960's SL was all about. The 1955 300SL
produced 70bhp more, and weighed 250lb. less - yet figures alone did not tell the complete story.
Unlike its race-bred forebear that had cornering characteristics that demanded respect, the 280SL was a more competent car in the hands of the less skilled driver. In contrast, it was one of the easiest cars to drive fast.
While the swing axle remained a feature of the rear suspension,
it had been well tamed over the years. Screw the rear dampers down tightly and the car displayed an amazingly compliant ride, with handling that was crisp and taut.
The four speed auto used a fluid coupling, not a torque converter. The transmission would start in 2nd from rest, but would kick down (rather violently) to first if you sunk the boot in. This would be followed by an upshift to second at (usually) between 3500 and 4000 rpm. Selecting 2nd gear only would force the transmission to start in 1st, and hold it to around 6000 rpm.
The benefit of not using a torque converter was that there was always full engine
braking available. The transmission was also incredibly smooth, and even keen drivers would admit that it was better to leave it alone than attempt manual selection. When accelerating quickly the front of the 280SL would rear up, however it would not dip during gear changes, only the engine note would drop an octave at each change.
Strangely (particularly for a car designed in a country famous for its high speed limits), the 280SL was geared relatively low. Third gear ran out to 80 mph, and in top it could make 125 mph downhill with a tailwind. But while the gearing was not ideal if you lived next door to the autobahn, for other countries where the speed limits were considerably less the lower gearing blessed the car with better off-the-mark performance.
Regardless of speed, the engine remained smooth and emitted a sweet exhaust note, that started as a deep throb and built up to a busy hum at maximum speed. Cold starts would require you to depress the accelerator to set the automatic mixture control. Inside the cabin both driver and passenger were well insulated from the weather thanks to the deep screen and curved side windows. Even at speeds of around 100 miles per hour, there was a lack of buffeting. With the roof up, the Mercedes engineering came into it's own. Exacting tolerances ensured there was little if any draughts, the securing mechanism ensuring it remained taut and free from flutter.
There was one drawback when the canvas roof was up, and that was the resultant loss of visibility. Problem solved however when you fitted the "pagoda" shaped hard top, which offered brilliant all-round visibility and had better ventilation potential than the soft-top, with the rear quarter lights able to hinge out.
Mechanically the 280SL was brilliant. The brakes were light and fade free, however to the un-initiated who had not experienced Mercedes engineering before a first drive would often see them stand the SL on its nose. That tendency changed on the open road, where the brakes became more progressive with sensitivity and really powerful stopping power that always gave the driver reassurance. Unlike the arguably underpowered 230SL
, the extra 11% of torque finally gave the chassis enough power to exploit its full potential. But as you would expect of any Mercedes, the 280SL retained its inanimate character, going about its business with an air of efficiency rather than the guttural brutish manner of many V8 sportscars.