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.