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.