This article originally appeared in the March / April 2015 issue of the SL Market Letter. If you like this article, visit our ‘Subscription’ page to learn more and to download a free sample issue of the SL Market Letter in PDF format. The SL Market Letter is printed and mailed to subscribers all over the world, 6 times a year. If you’re serious about collectible Mercedes-Benz cars from all decades, you might enjoy a subscription. We cover NOT just SLs, but ALL collectible Mercedes Benz… Sedans, coupes, even wagons!
This isn’t going to be a history lesson or a buyer’s guide, I’ll assume we’re all well acquainted with the W113 SLs. No, I’m going to try to make some sense of what we’ve been seeing in the collector car market over the past 18 – 24 months and how that relates to the Pagoda SL. Mercedes 280SL 250SL 230SL values have all increased markedly over the past 2 years. And now, just in the past month, I’ve seen these cars sell from $10,000 to over $200,000. Now, more than ever, you better know what you’re looking at, or hire someone who does, before you buy because in today’s market it’s very easy to make an expensive mistake.
Much of the talk among pundits and enthusiast at collector car events, especially the big auctions, is ‘What’s happening to the market?’ The factors mentioned in my “Making Sense of Arizona Auction Week” article in the last issue of the SLML (Vol. 29, No.2) – new enthusiasts, new money, more places to buy cars, auctions, TV coverage, etc. – all help increase demand for the relatively small number of cars driving prices up, simple economics.
One of the most beneficial aspects of increasing Pagoda SL values is that the cars are being noticed and appreciated as true collector cars, that will ensure the survival of more examples. It finally makes sense to start sinking money into ‘dad’s rusty old 250SL that’s been parked in the garage since 1976’. Unlike true blue chip collectibles like pre-War Mercedes models and 300SLs, the W113 series SLs were regular volume production cars of their era. Most were treated as basic transportation, often driven year ‘round. They were wrecked, they rusted, they were traded in when the 450SL became the more modern flavor of the month. We aren’t sure how many Pagoda SLs survive as driveable cars, but you can be sure more will be put back on the road and others will continue to be lovingly maintained as values increase.
When I look at the price chart (from the March / April 2015 Issue of the SL Market Letter – click here to see that price guide and historical context here) that Olson compiled with data from the past 15+ years I’m immediately struck by the huge difference between the three different models in the Condition #1 column. Let’s remember, that Condition #1 represents an essentially perfect car, a trailer queen. A very small percentage of cars qualify for this condition rating. In fact, most cars I’ve looked at that owners believe to be Condition #1 are condition #2 cars at best and more often, Condition #3. Is a near perfect 1970 280SL really worth $75,000 more than a similar 230SL? The market says yes. This very high end is reserved for serious collectors and concours competitors. This portion of the market gets all the press, but is a tiny percentage of it.
We all marvel at the huge sale prices for ‘cars like ours’ at the big auctions. What’s more relevant to the vast majority of W113 owners, and buyers looking for cars, are the prices of Condition 2 and 3 cars. That’s where most cars realistically reside on the condition spectrum. The good news for potential buyers is that the price differences between models shrink considerably when we get into these levels allowing more choices for similar money among the different W113 variants.
Jerry Seinfeld summed the Pagoda SL up nicely in an episode of his web based show ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee’ when he picked up Alec Baldwin in a 280SL, “This was a car for guys that want a sports car, but don’t really want to be inconvenienced.” Pagoda SLs are, like most Mercedes-Benz cars of the era, above all else they’re just GOOD CARS. They’re mechanically robust and reliable. You can store your car over the Winter and in the Spring it will start right up once you re-connect the battery. They have fuel injection. Power steering and air conditioning is available. They’re comfortable enough so you don’t feel like you’ve just run a marathon after a full day of driving on a vintage car tour. Performance is good enough that you can really have some fun and keep up with modern traffic. They do everything you need an old car to do and they do it all reasonably well. They’re also safe compared to what else was available at the time. Mercedes claimed the 230SL was “The first sports car in the world with safety body” incorporating deformable, energy-absorbing front and rear structures surrounding a rigid passenger cell, crumple zones.
As for the character of each model, I’ve heard people describe the difference between a 230 and 280SL like ‘apples and oranges’. I wouldn’t go that far. I think the differences between the 230, 250 and 280SL are more like the differences between McIntosh, Jonathan and Honey Crisp apples, they each have a distinct character, but they’re all apples.
I often described my manual transmission 230SL as a Mercedes that drove life an Alfa Romeo, high revving, plenty of work to be done shifting up and down through the gears and lots of fun to drive. The 250SL is the rarest of W113s. It was on the market for just 10 months from the end of February through December 1967, but the market has never rewarded this rarity with dollars. It has just 14 more foot pounds of torque than the 230SL, but it makes a difference you can feel from the driver’s seat.
The 280SL is the car the market values most with increased horsepower and torque, more automatic transmission cars were produced than manuals. Despite increased displacement, the compression ratio was lowered and other modifications were made to meet exhaust emissions regulations meaning that measurable performance changed little from earlier models.
The bottom line is that you don’t have any bad choices between these three . The way most of us use these cars today, which one you buy will make little difference in your overall enjoyment of it. It may be as simple as budget. The trick is deciding which car is best for you for the dollars. With Pagoda SLs, the same money can buy very different examples when you consider condition. I see real value in the 230 and 250SL market at the moment because the market places such a premium on 280SLs. The other two models can often be found ‘flying under the radar’ and there are good deals to be had. We’ve broken down the 280SLs into two groups in the price chart because the market continues to place a premium on the last two years of 280SL production, all things being equal.
If money, or future appreciation potential, is your only concern you’re in this for the wrong reasons. Buy the best car you car afford, buy what turns you on and enjoy it, the rest will take care of itself!