The fresh-faced SL is inspirational, but be prepared to pay £40,000, says Giles Chapman

Never mind engine oil. Most cars need litres of metaphorical moisturiser to stop them feeling dated after even 10 years, much less 40. Looked at like this, the "pagoda roof" Mercedes-Benz SL is a wrinkle-free motor car.

Never mind engine oil. Most cars need litres of metaphorical moisturiser to stop them feeling dated after even 10 years, much less 40. Looked at like this, the "pagoda roof" Mercedes-Benz SL is a wrinkle-free motor car.

There's barely a crow's foot on its urbane and handsome visage. Its road manners are nostalgia-tinged contemporary, and it has marvellous, Jaguar-shaming build quality. Any snide accusations of soulless Germanic efficiency are debunked by a growling exhaust note and a gorgeous interior.

I hoped to find someone who, unlike me, had owned an SL and who could sum them up succinctly. I found Michael Lavers, proprietor of SL specialist Silver Arrows Automobiles (www.silverarrows.co.uk, 020-8789 8525) in Putney, south-west London. He got straight to the nub. "No poor person ever bought an SL," he said. "When this car came out, people moaned that you could have a Jaguar E-type for half the price. I'd say it was more a case of the SL only costing twice as much."

Great concept, a car being reassuringly expensive, but with the SL it was true. Mercedes-Benz had previously offered two types of sports car, the race-bred, over-powered 300SL and the pretty but gutless 190SL, and it had noted an interesting dichotomy. The 300SL received "enthusiast" acclaim by the bucketload but didn't make the company any profit; the 190SL was derided by "enthusiasts" but wealthy buyers lapped it up. The 1963 230SL replaced them both, and instantly delighted both camps. The 2.3-litre six-cylinder engine offered a fiery 150bhp and, thanks to an abnormally wide track, well-sorted suspension, fat tyres and a ground-hugging stance, its handling and roadholding were fantastic. Motor magazine said: "It inspires a feeling of tremendous confidence which, even under the hardest cornering, the car always justifies." It could also do 120mph.

The car's design and tactile qualities were leagues above the spartan norms of the time. Its huge wheels, wide grille, stacked headlights and flared wheel arches were assimilated into an elegant shape of design genius, while the layered bumpers, glittering chrome bedecked dashboard, ivory steering wheel and hubcaps, matched to the body colour, dripped prosperity. The fact that every SL came with a detachable metal hardtop - with upturned edges, hence the pagoda tag - was a sure sign you had ample space to keep it in. And leather-covered seats would do the least damage to a freshly pressed tuxedo.

The 230SL enjoyed a brief career as a rally car (Eugen Bohringer won the 1963 Spa-Sofia-Liege rally in one), but Mercedes-Benz quickly realised this was a side issue. The company had taken the extraordinary step - for a sports car - of offering its automatic gearbox on the SL and, with this available, very few wanted the notchy manual. Progressively larger engines, first in the rare 250SL and then in the 1968 280SL, gave the car enhanced cruising prowess and softer suspension, better refinement made it feel more luxurious, and four-wheel disc brakes were now on hand should a moment of panic spoil this motoring idyll.

As Michael Lavers says: "Mercedes realised it didn't want to compete with Ferrari and Jaguar any longer because there were more customers to be had elsewhere. Those others were macho things but anyone could enjoy an SL." The hypothesis was bang on: almost 49,000 Pagoda-style SLs were sold. But the SL that replaced it was a sartorial dud by comparison, and demand for the older models was bouyant from the moment the last 280SL roared out of the factory in 1971.

If you can find a low-mileage, original car on which moisture hasn't got to work underneath those glorious lines, you should be ready to pay £40,000 to £50,000. "I don't want any cheap SLs, like £15,000 cars with what the owner thinks is a 'bit of rust', because a proper bodywork restoration costs £25,000", says Lavers. "I've never seen a restored car that fits together quite as perfectly as one untouched since it left Stuttgart." Mercedes' thoroughness means every SL component is still available new. So once you own the perfect example, keeping it that way is easy.

Motor magazine's verdict on the 230SL in 1964 (price £3,865, 16 shillings and 3d, against a vulgar old E-type at £1,992, 17 shillings and 11d): "Two seats and fabulous handling but not a sports car; limousine luxury but more exhilarating than a saloon." That is why the world wanted one then. And still does.

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