At the end of the ’90s it became apparent that many people were getting bored with modern cars, which were all beginning to look and feel very much alike. To address the quest for individuality, manufacturers tend to go in one of two ways. Either they make groundbreaking futuristic designs that may or may not be liked, or play it safe and go down the retro route.
Most have gone the latter route with cars like the New Beetle, the PT Cruiser and the MINI, which take their inspiration from the past. However, there is a small band of people who prefer to drive real classic cars. Old cars not only look different from mainstream moderns, in the main they also provide a more direct, more involving driving experience. But there are significant problems for those who want to use a classic every day.
Old cars are fragile and require frequent maintenance. They were never designed to withstand the heavy stop-and-go traffic we have today, so their cooling systems tend to overheat, and points and plugs foul up regularly when subjected to such abuse. Carburetors and early fuel-injection systems use a lot more fuel, and are much less safe in an accident. These are all factors classic car owners have to accept.
However, there is a solution for those who genuinely want to run an older car daily, and it is a route that has been explored before by those who have the money to match their indulgence.
In the Mercedes-Benz realm, AMG once integrated modern mechanicals into a few classic 300SL Gullwing and roadsters for a special client. Now a German Mercedes specialist is doing the same thing for the evergreen Pagoda SL roadster and the 280SE Coupe.
The Mercedes-Benz W113 SL, popularly christened the Pagoda SL after its concave hardtop, was produced from 1963 to 1970, and remains popular among classic Mercedes buffs because it drives and handles much like a modern car. It also has fine build quality, a great image and spares are easily obtainable.
Using one on a daily basis is quite another thing though, so Mechatronik owner Frank Rickert set out to turn such a car into a totally painless driving experience.
Our bread and butter work is restoring classic Mercedes-Benz cars and preparing them for historic racing, he explains. But my background is with prototypes and one-offs, which I worked on a lot in the eight years I was in the development department of AMG. Making unique cars became a passion, and I had the idea of installing a modern engine and gearbox in the Pagoda SL to make it a sensible daily car for clients who asked the question.
Although the Pagoda SL is a relatively common classic, there is always the chance that the owner might want to convert it back to its original specification. Because of this, it was important that we carry out the work in such a way that nothing structural was altered and the conversion is totally reversible.
There was no need to perform any major surgery anyway, as the modern V6 is a compact and light unit that slots neatly into the space vacated by the big, iron block straight-six. Open the bonnet and you witness an installation so good in its execution that the contemporary Mercedes V6 looks factory installed since day one. Frank is a stickler for using only original parts wherever possible, and every bracket, nut, screw and hose comes from the Mercedes-Benz parts bin.
I drove a V6-engined Pagoda SL in 2005, but the car I have come to drive today is even more interesting because it has a modern version of the engine and gearbox it left the factory with in 1970. The W111 Coupe and Cabriolet, specifically the 280SE 3.5 with the 3.5-liter, 200hp motor, are incredibly desirable cars that fetch significant money in nice condition, and serious money if they are mint. If you do not open the bonnet, there is absolutely no clue to the fact that this is a Mechatronik New Tech car. The only giveaway for the sharp-eyed enthusiast who peers inside, is the gear lever gaiter with its 4 + D shift pattern.
When the bonnet is raised, the sight of the modern V8 with its plastic top cover is greeted with either raised eyebrows and acute interest, or extreme derision, depending on which school of thought you come from. I’m not a purist as far as cars made in large numbers are concerned, and as I would like to see more classic on the road, I admit to being a supporter of this cause as it has been done so well and so sympathetically.
Because the original car had a V8 to start with, the modern 24-valve motor happily sits in the engine bay, and did not require any special engine mounts to do so. If anything, the engine swap immediately points to a better handling car, as the modern all-alloy 306hp, 5-liter V8 is an incredible 150 pounds lighter than the old iron block V8. In fact, the alloy V8 is nearly 490 pounds lighter than the iron block straight-six in the SL Pagoda!
Where Mechatronik used to totally restore a Pagoda SL or 280SE Coupe and do the engine and gearbox transplant at the same time, they have now stopped doing this as the time and cost are simply too great.
The uprated springs and dampers are specially made for Mechatronik by KW Suspension, based near Stuttgart. These are stainless-steel-cased, dual-valve dampers with 16 separate settings for compression and rebound.
It is critical that we can set up every car just right for its owners needs and these dampers allow us to do this, Rickert says. They cost more, but in view of the value of these cars and the perfectionists that both we and our customers are, I feel that it is worth it.
Because the dampers have a great range of adjustment and their attachments to the cars are the same, the Pagoda and 280SE Coupe/Cabriolet share the same units, with just the spring rates varying for the different models.
Part of the upgrading program offered by Mechatronik includes grafting a partial modern CAN-BUS wiring harness into the car to operate the ABS and ESP systems if a client so wishes. This gives the now much faster classic Mercedes the same safety net as a contemporary car.
The driving experience was particularly telling as my memory of a perfectly tuned original 280SE 3.5 was still fresh in mind. The new motor starts up even more easily, its V8 firing pulses quieter and smoother.
Riding smoothly and comfortably on its tall aspect ratio rubber, the Mechatronik 280SE Coupe garners many admiring glances as I drive through the evening traffic around Ludwigsburg. Other road users respect and clearly love pristine old-timers like this, but no one remotely suspects that a young heart beats under its classic, square-rigged hood.
On the move, the difference is staggering. Three engine generations younger, the new motor is far more powerful and torquey, moving this elegant coupe smartly and smoothly off the line and down the road at a pace that leaves most modern cars gasping for breath. Being lighter than the modern S-Class or even E-Class that use this engine, the Mechatronik Coupe is a very swift machine.
The modern five-speed gearbox is also much faster and more precise than the old mechanical four-speeder, and does not kick you in the back when you use the manual override to downshift.
The chassis upgrades comes into their own when you start to use the extra power, and the car feels very secure. The only downside is the rather slow-witted recirculating ball steering, which makes the car feel unwieldy when you ask for a quick change of direction.
We can change that for a modern Mercedes rack-and-pinion system, said Frank. But if you go down that road, it is very hard to return the car to standard if you ever wanted to do so.
The 280SE 3.5 is one of my all-time favorite classic Mercedes, and I really enjoyed driving this updated example. In a world full of boring, mass produced cars, it is the perfect blend of classic styling coupled with the ease of modern mechanicals.
The only downside is the price tag. A complete restoration to concours condition, plus the mechanical transplant sees the asking price for this wonderful car soar to a whopping 260,000 euros. That is a lot to ask, even for perfection.
Frank Rickert knows a thing or two about missions impossible; he worked in AMG’s development department from 1988 to 1996 crafting prototypes and one-off or limited production cars for wealthy customers.
In that time, he watched the company grow from a staff of 100 to more than 550, and its partnership with Mercedes-Benz meant that mass production rather than custom-built cars became the order of the day.
I am only interested in special cars and in fulfilling the wishes of customers who want something unique, Rickert explains. When I saw the direction AMG was taking, I decided to leave and set up my own company. My first love is historic racing so I set out to restore post-war classic Mercedes-Benz cars and prepare historic racers. A smaller part of the business is undertaking commissions for clients who want special cars. If you wanted an S-Class estate, for instance, we could do that for you.
There are obviously a lot of potential clients who think like him. In the 11 years since this passionate 36-year-old car enthusiast started Mechatronik, he has had to move premises three times and increase his staff numbers to cope with the flood of work.
The funny thing is that I have never advertised and only ever had one or two magazine articles written about the company, he tells us. Our reputation has spread by word of mouth and all our work comes from happy customers who tell their friends.
The Mechatronik storerooms are a veritable Aladdin’s cave of classic Mercedes parts, and they actively look for parts all over the world. They have over 60,000 spare parts in stock now, including brand-new engines for the 190SL, 230SL and 280SL. The former were thought to be unobtainable, but I saw them there, along with a brand-new steering wheel for a 300SL Gullwing in its original box.
A lot has changed since my first visit in 2005. The company has expanded its premises by 100 percent, and divided operations into Classic, Engineering and Trade divisions.
Classic undertakes all the restoration work on classic cars, while Engineering prototypes and produces the New Tech cars, classic Mercedes with modern engines, for which Mechatronik is famous. Finally, Trade buys and sells cars, and recently acquired the famous, record breaking, one-off Fulda Maybach Exelero Coupe.
Interestingly, Mechatronik’s New Tech cars have not been successful in Germany. German classic car enthusiasts are purists and we only ever sold one car in our home market, Rickert says. All our customers are from other countries like Japan, Korea, Indonesia, South Africa and even Israel. In fact, one good client in South Africa has five New Tech cars, including an SL Pagoda with an M113 E43 4,266cc V8.