Driving a vintage roadster is way more enjoyable than the average Ford Focus. But there's a good reason why we don't see more classic Mercedes and Alfas around. In real life, they're a pain in the neck. The driver has to take care of so many things that are now handled automatically, constantly reminded of the limitations in half-century-old technology. It's true they don't build 'em like they used to, but that means something totally different to the owner than it does to the enthusiastic onlooker.
Classic cars are romanticized. Sentiment keeps our eyes on the good and closes them toward the bad. The 280 SL, the most potent version of the Mercedes-Benz W113 (like the dark green car seen here), debuted in 1969, the same year as Woodstock. Today, that festival is remembered as an exceptional event, something that will never happen again. Not many, though, remember the dirt, the two fatalities during the three days, and the fact that Hendrix eventually appeared on stage at 8:30 in the morning for those few people who had endured until then.
It's a similar case with the Pagoda (or any other '69 car, for that matter). Yes, it's still a drop-dead gorgeous roadster, maintaining its inimitable style thanks to elegant proportions and that distinctive concave roof. But even with virtually indestructible build quality and relatively simple engineering, the Pagoda is no match for today's cars in terms of safety, reliability, or performance.
It's tempting, then, to conceive of a car that retains the best aspects of an old-school driving experience but also comes with modern-day sophistication. Mechatronik has done it and made it. It's the dark gray car in the photos, the Mechatronik M-SL 430. And it's ideal.
Less than 20 years old, the Mechatronik workshop is younger than the cars inside. But it has managed to earn such a good reputation that the 60,000-square-foot high-tech garage in the small German town of Pleidelsheim attracts classic Benzes of all sorts from all over the world. It's no exaggeration to say Mechatronik achieves a level of artisanship that Mercedes-Benz, as a mass producer, simply cannot afford to match.
The restored green Pagoda here is ammunition for that argument. To say it seems as if it has come straight from the showroom would be an understatement. It looks better than any Pagoda that ever left the factory. No wonder, given that it took Mercedes-Benz 200 hours to build one SL, while Mechatronik spends 1,500 hours rebuilding it.
This means that when a Pagoda or any other post-'45 Mercedes-Benz is taken in for a full restoration job, the finished product won't be ready for about two years. Over this time, the car won't be gathering dust. It takes the team of 50 workers six to eight months just to bring the oily bits up to Mechatronik standards. Even a seemingly straightforward process as painting takes two months.
"A chromed pimple is still a pimple," says Thorsten Klenk, Mechatronik's managing director and, unsurprisingly, a perfectionist. If an original part needs replacing with a new one, Mechatronik bases its work on its own parts whenever possible. The company will go as far as building a new wiring harness.
To give the owner an idea of what he has paid so much for, he's given a big book with photos documenting each step of the renovation. The back is finished with the same leather as the one used in the car's interior and then covered in the same cloth as the convertible roof. Talk about attention to detail.
Company founder Frank Rickert gained his experience from building prototypes at Mercedes-Benz. His specialization in restoration quickly evolved into making them even more special. As clients kept asking for a classic Benz they could use every day, he began toying with the idea of putting a modern drivetrain into a Pagoda. After experimenting with a couple of Mercedes-Benz engines, he ended up with a 4.3L M113 V-8 that had originally served in the C43 AMG of the early 2000s.
Lift the hood of the M-SL and in place of the regular inline-six and some auxiliary units on the sides, the engine bay is crammed with the modern plastic cover of an alloy AMG engine. That's the size and weight limit a Pagoda can bear without making changes to the body structure. Which brings us to one of the most interesting things about these Mechatronik cars: although it takes a great amount of time and money to strip a Pagoda down to the last nut and rebuild it to the customer's taste, every change is totally reversible and the old parts are kept in the shop so the owner can revert to the original state without leaving any trace of this rejuvenation process.
The M-SL looks almost original. Only after comparing it with the green Pagoda does it reveal its performance purpose, wearing wider tires and sitting closer to the ground.
Inside are more hints of the tremendous effort Mechatronik has devoted to each of these cars: the period-looking Becker radio is actually a modern unit with an advanced sound system and navigation; side windows are now electric; a gear lever with the shift pattern introduced decades later reveals the presence of the 5G-Tronic automatic transmission; the seatbelts are three-point; the big, over-stuffed seats are as well sprung as ever, but now they're also heated.
The driver's right elbow now settles on a masterfully integrated leather armrest sitting on the wood-veneered center console. Everything about the interior is new, but it looks so perfectly correct that Janis Joplin would still have prayed for one of these.
To appreciate how good the Mechatronik car is, I start by taking an original Pagoda for a spin. It's a peaceful experience. Like most period Benzes, the Pagoda is coveted for its comfort, and it's no different today, with the car floating gently on soft springs. I don't know if it's the presence of the 80 percent more powerful and 70 percent more torquey counterpart beside it, but I soon wish for more power.
And that's exactly where the Mechatronik M-SL Pagoda shines. It will sprint from standstill to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds, while the top speed is limited electronically to 145 mph. It's a properly fast car for a '69 convertible. So, for the ultimate Pagoda experience, Mechatronik has installed modern brakes with ABS and traction control, together with an uprated suspension of Eibach springs and KW dampers.
The crisp, vibrant note from a '69 inline-six is succeeded by a deep V-8 rumble, although the relaxed nature of a luxury convertible remains. The M-SL still moves quietly and effortlessly with the driver kept in awe by the jitter-free ride, which is nowhere to be found in a modern car with such performance figures. From behind the delicately thin, bus-diameter plastic steering wheel, I don't really feel like pushing hard. But when I eventually stab the right pedal, massive torque hits instantly, making the rear tires struggle for traction. And it's not only the lower region of the rev counter where the M113 engine excels. Having just driven the original Pagoda, the M-SL is almost shocking in its willingness to rev. The steering system and the transmission stay on the relaxed side, but the whole chassis forms an instantly reactive, impressively dynamic package.
Germany has the advantage of derestricted autobahns. The speedo quickly shows 130 mph, and it surely wouldn't stop there but for the incredulity of other road users. Even at high speeds, the Mechatronik Pagoda remains impressively planted—and it's comforting to know the brakes will do what's expected by modern standards.
Mercedes-Benz once embarked on a similar project, a Pagoda with an M100 V-8. It was an experiment by Erich Waxenberger, the legendary head of M-B's technical department, a man we should thank for making the legendary W109 300SEL 6.3, paving the way for all future fast Benzes. "Hot Wax" would surely be impressed by how his cars are still preserved, but I bet he'd so much rather get to drive the car created by Mechatronik, one that embodies his idea of a V-8 Pagoda from more than 50 years ago.
And yet for some reason, Mechatronik still hasn't filled the streets with perfectly behaved classics. Perhaps it's because such a great effort from German specialists using only the highest quality materials doesn't come cheap. One of these cars will set you back around $350,000. For this, you can get a '15 Mercedes SL63 AMG plus an original Pagoda...and then another one. Mechatronik argues that the best world-class, concours-original 280 SLs already get similar numbers and are currently rising in value, so choose wisely and you could actually make money.