Has elegance left modern car design? Are there no longer any cars being made which exude grace and class? Some may point to the raucous Jaguar F-Type or a svelte Aston Martin, but those designs are far too littered with scoops, “flame surfacing” and spoilers to be considered the essence of elegance.
Take for example John Geist’s pristine 1966 Mercedes-Benz 230SL. You won’t find blacked out trim or imitation brake cooling ducts anywhere on its stately sheet metal. It’s a purposeful, yet beautiful, design that looks formal and expensive without looking frumpy or overly ostentatious. Compared to American offerings of 1966 on which chrome was apparently slathered on with a trowel, the SL uses delicate ribbons of chrome to highlight the edges of its shape in the same way that a diamond necklace complements a dress.
The 230SL was designed as a bridge between the racy but extravagantly expensive 300SL “gullwing,” and the pretty but under-powered 190SL. Compared to the racer-for-the-street that the 300SL was, the 230SL was a more genteel car. It had all the sports car ingredients including a multi-point fuel-injected straight-six engine, two seats, four-wheel independent suspension and a removable top. But these components were wrapped in what remains one of the most graceful bodies to date. Like scotch in a fine tumbler, it just looks right.
Like many, Geist was initially attracted to the 230SL for its graceful shape, but he likes to enjoy it for more than just wall art. An active member of the Mercedes-Benz Club of America, Toronto Section, he loves driving his SL to shows and club events.
But the SL’s signature design touch is its “pagoda” roof. Mercedes engineers designed the removable hardtop (which is surprisingly heavy) with a unique concave curve in it; most roofs are convex when viewed from the front or rear. One of the reasons they did this was to add rigidity to the structure so that it could protect the occupants during a rollover crash; the other reason was that the upturned roof edges allowed for taller windows and better visibility, giving the car a very light and almost delicate appearance.
The 230SL’s design was well ahead of its time and the driving experience is shockingly modern. Multi-point fuel injection means that it starts and idles just like a new car – none of the usual carbureted recalcitrance when starting one of these. It rides smoother than the 1965 Sunbeam Tiger we recently featured and it’s only slightly less quiet at highway speeds than the superb Citroen SM.
But all that calm is shattered when Geist prompts the four-speed automatic to dip into low gear and accelerate hard. The sound doesn’t seem to come from one point; it surrounds you. You hear the whine of the double-row cam chain, the rush of air being swallowed through the intake runners and the surprisingly racy rasp of the exhaust. It’s a cornucopia of pleasant sounds.
Those looking to buy one of these graceful convertibles would do well to buy a sorted one. Unlike most cars that have bolted on fenders and body panels, the SL is comprised entirely of spot welded panels to increase rigidity and reduce rattles. Unfortunately, this means that rust and dent repair can be very costly and labour-intensive ordeals. The first step to repairing the front fenders on an SL is to cry in the fetal position. It won’t be cheap.
The SL was not an inexpensive car when it was new. Its $7,000 price tag was on par with Porsches and Maseratis of the period. Today, values remain high and a perfectly restored car can fetch easily $100,000+.
For those wanting the graceful looks of an early SL for a slice of the money, an option exists in the form of the “R107” generation SL. Made from 1971 to 1989, the third-generation SL is an affordable way to enter classic Mercedes ownership. These were made with I6 or V8 engines and their long production run means they’re fairly easy to find for sale.
One ride in Geist’s 230SL explains exactly why these cars are so valuable. It’s a classic that actually feels modern. It’s one of the few cars from the 1960s that can be driven like a new car. Understandably, Geist plans to drive it as often as he can, for as long as he can.