What do you do when the very same classic Mercedes Benz LHD W107 280SL you last drove in the late ’80s and haven’t seen since comes up for sale some 20 years later? You buy it, of course, over the telephone. Because you remember that it was a special-order vehicle, complete with factory-fitted deepened spoiler, lowered (ride-ruining) suspension and wide-rubber. Gorgeous and unique. Transaction complete, I hopped on the plane to collect.
And was met with a travesty. Resplendent as she was upon the ‘ta-dah’ of the cover removed, start up sent me straight into the cul-de-sac of buyer’s self-flagellation. Seriously funky breath, as in an acid and coal belching exhaust, will do that. How could anyone allow this to happen to such a worthy car?
I’ll explain. Even though the odometer showed a mere 154000 Mercedes-robust kilometres, there were signs everywhere that this machine had been gutted. And there’s no surer way of gutting a car than through the abuse of inertia for extended periods. And shoe-string ‘fixes’, which I call ‘grudge’ fixes, the kind that keep a car barely breathing.
The usual representations. “There’s a new battery.” Why will people think this is a sign of good faith that covers a multitude of sins? “And there’s lots of tyre tread left.” Of course there was, they were incapable of wearing down. A compound so hard with age, you could have used them as train wheels. And that variable service history, in this case relegated to: “The oil still looked clean on the dipstick.” Imparted with a straight face. And, “I’ve got her on high-mileage oil.” And this is a good thing, how? This oil is for ragged Toyota taxis and anyway I don’t believe it fulfills its own tout. “And new leads.” For which you can thank plug wells full of rat droppings. They aren’t the far superior original and costly copper items, but inferior after-market make-dos which prompt the hiccups.
Of course, it is always so that, “You pays your money, you takes your chances.” And by all accounts, it was a good price for a car with this cachet. What is more, the seller acknowledged that the car was rotting away which is why he decided to sell. Still, this doesn’t mean that I can’t feel disappointed, slighted even. Especially when some extra salt found the wound on completion of the arduous drive from Cape Town to Johannesburg. “Didn’t think she’d make it,” said our man casually.
My elder sister once told me that all my cars get the “psychotic” treatment. She’s got a point. For instance, over and above the 101 car nut things I do, I am bizarrely fixated on filling the tank up to the brim again once the needle dips off the full to bursting point. Buying fuel is a treat for me. Still, I take her comment as a compliment. And in any case, it’s not as if my oddities haven’t been to her and the greater family benefit. My nephew on her side still drives my ex 1991 Golf II wider-bumper GTi (8 valve) even after it had passed through my car-careless younger sister’s hands. Having bought it second-hand myself, I fiddled that car to pristine during my four years of ownership.
I have understood of myself that I am only miserably happy if I have a car project. And this particular SL is proving to be the most challenging but promises the greatest rewards. With that as my inevitable self-imposed brief, as soon as I reached JHB I treated her to a R20 000 service. Cooling system rehabilitated. All oils re-visited. Which still failed to loosen the sticky rocker arms responsible for asthma and oil greed. And despite sub-frames re-bushed and aligned she remained impossibly wobbly on her feet. R20k hadn’t done it.
Here in Durban, I’ve changed her footwear (pliable Yokohamas) and this has brought some stability, ride comfort and wet weather security. A new cold-start regulator (R8 000) sorted out the 23,0 litre/100 km consumption(!) and brought it down to a “good” combined cycle 14. It’s all relative. As is the information imparted by the “economy gauge” surely a term contradiction in a vehicle such as this. It was a fad, and, much like the now forgotten Cindy Crawford beauty spot, it would be better if it wasn’t there at all. Mostly because, again like that spot, my eyes are ever drawn to it. And that dilutes the pleasure that’s to be had.
Brutally mashing the throttle during a blast up and down some pegged B roads freed the last of the rocker arms with a smoke screen aft so dense that the world changed shape. And I jettisoned those nasty long-life wiper blades, which live up to their name only because you try not to use them at all so intense is the judder they promote. Mercedes wanted in excess of R1 000 for new blades. My versatile local man sourced decent cheaper ones elsewhere.
I’ve sorted most of the big stuff. Oil consumption remains higher than the acceptable Mercedes approved 1,5 l/1 000 km. Global warming in the ’80s? What are you on about? But that’s because I’ve purposely used a light viscosity synthetic to “tidy and clear” things up in there. Mostly aimed at the valve guide seals, yet more victims to brittle induced standing. I’m reluctant to have her opened up, though. It’s a factory integrity thing.
She is incontinent if left out in heavy rain, and dribbles ( auto-box) in her sleep. For this I have a failing gasket to thank, also a victim of inertia induced loss of turgidity. An agent wants 27 Mercedes-standard billable hours to remove the engine – why the engine and not just the gearbox? – and insert a R500 or so gasket. I’ll find another way.
Only the willful steering left, really. It needs a new steering box, and that’s going to be prohibitive. Those wide-rubber wheels have played and still do play havoc with the ever vague recirculating-ball system, meaning excess play-inducing wear over its life-span. They also argue vociferously with the chassis. The result of all this is squirrel-twitch nervousness, distressing lunge at cambers, skittle on bumps and a general muck up of the driving experience. I am told that it’s way worse for passengers who start off feeling wary seated on the right anyway, moving swiftly to sweaty nervousness as the car bucks and weaves. A one-man mistress, then. Fight, fidget, curse out loud. Sneeze and she’ll change lanes. Light a cigarette and she’ll help herself to two before you catch up with her via, it must be said, a rather lovely cantered wooden wheel. It’s exhausting. This only settles down some after, ahem, 160 km/h (and beyond). Eighties German (corner-excised) autobahn cruiser, then.
Staying with lane changes, I can understand why SA no longer allows the import of LHD vehicles. Nothing to do with the ticket-retrieval issues at parking garages. I get out for this, no problem. No, it’s that in lane change manoeuvres I fall to the wrong wing mirror first. The one that naturally draws my eye on the left of the car next to me. Every single time. Then I have to “force think” about the “correct” one on the right. Counter-intuitive. I always fluff it. So I turn completely around instead.
There’s no urgency to her performance. Acceleration is an “if you must, I’ll pick up my skirts”. Power arrives as a slow lazy bubble, like a lava lamp “gloop.” It’s there, just that you just don’t feel it much. That 4-speed auto ‘box, in truth mostly a 3 (seldom chooses 1st gear), will not be hurried. You have to flex your ankle vigorously on a stoic accelerator to summons a kick-down. So you use it as a manual. A ‘box surely meant for the better low-rev torque characteristics of the 350 and 450 V8s.
Handling? Why bother? In fact, best not bother. This lady’s not for turning. Sure, the wide tyres grip, but it’s an unfaithful grip. In the sense that you don’t know what she’s doing behind your back. The steering is telling you nothing, neither is the made-for-fat-bums seat, and the centre of gravity is undecipherable to me. All you’ve got to go on is the violent weight redistribution. I’m ever suspicious of her in the bends. I think that she’s flirting with the Armco barrier or that nearby truck. And so I instinctively know it’s got to be in her time, never mine.
And that’s a mistress for you. Wouldn’t want it any other way.