" 1969. There was something in the air. Forty years ago the tectonic plates of history were grinding each upon each. Man was landing on the moon whilst the Vietnam war had taken a turn for the worst after the Tet Offensive. "
Having a heart attack in a million pound Mercedes
Take care meeting your heroes, especially when they cost five times what your house does
It sat, in silver paint of course, lightly flattened and patinated by half a century’s careful polishing and rubbing in the sun-drenched courtyard of a Spanish hotel.
We were in town to drive its successors, but I couldn’t take my eyes off it. A superb emblem of German engineering, daring and Wirtsachaftswunder all in one near perfect shape. The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing.
I was supposed to be upstairs, closeted away, filing copy on a test of its modern-day successor, the SL 500 convertible out of which I had just stepped. But when a car as gorgeous and as historically important as that is in front of you, it grabs your attention. All around, Mercedes had dragged out its fleet of SL historic models, from the 190 SL (mini-me to the 300) to the hopelessly pretty Pagoda Roof 280 to the Bobby Ewing 450 and the Kraftwerk Staff Car 600 SL V12 from the early nineties. They were all being driven and poured over. The Gullwing sat alone.
I sidled up to the desk with the keys. “Ummmm, can I drive that one?” I asked in an unconscious tribute to Little Britain? I expected a firm but Germanically polite ‘nein.’ “Yes, of course,” came the unexpected response, as a key was fished out. “Horst will show you how to start it. Do you know the test route?” I may have squeaked a thank you before the redoubtable Horst flipped the elegant drivers’ door skyward and helped me squeeze my bulk in past the huge white Bakelite wheel.
Inside, in a mixture of tartan red leather and chrome sat a perfectly reasonable array of Mercedes dials and switches. No need to panic then. No need to worry. No need to be concerned that you’ve just fired up the 2.9-litre, 225hp engine and Horst is waving you out into traffic. No need to have any doubts at all about the reactions of the swarming, tourist-driven Dacias buzzing along the dual carriageway. No need to remember that this 1957 car, Mercedes’ own, from the museum in Stuttgart, must be worth the guts of £1-million. Oh god, what have I gotten into? Are… are those chest pains?
Ignoring for a moment that the engine chugs and splutters like a Massey-Ferguson at low rpm, I nudge out onto the road, flinching every time another rented Sandero passes within a five-mile radius. The gearshift is slow but precise, the drum brakes feel surprisingly reassuring and I really, really need to build up some speed. Both to avoid the hordes of tourist traffic and also to get some air in through the tiny quarterlights as the heat in the dome-shaped cabin is fast becoming unbearable.
Right, power coming in. Only 225hp. You can get that in a family hatch these days, Whoa! As the straight-six comes on the cam, the diesely chugging ceases and it’s instantly replaced by a big, deep vrooooaaaarrrggghhhh that sounds as if Fangio himself is about to overtake you. The 300 SL leaps forwards, instantly transforming into that proto-supercar it most certainly was when new. Performance is actually pretty gentle by modern sporting standards, but on a crowded road, in a million-quids’ worth, it felt more than sufficiently brisk.
And more than sufficiently wonderful. After a few more minutes, as the threat of death-by-Dacia, or worse – denting the car – receded, I realised what an exceptional car the 300 SL was. It felt perfectly capable of dealing with, even dispatching anything else on the road and I was quickly calculating how close I could get to a ferry port before they realised I wasn’t coming back. The chest pains began to die away. Even a million pound car is still a car, after all.
I gave it back a few minutes later. The sheer terror of pranging a priceless masterpiece was gone.
Now I was worrying about explaining such an impulse purchase to my bank manager…
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