Updated: January 28, 2015
Which is more exciting? Lamborghini Aventador, or a Mercedes 280 SL cabriolet from 1968? That sure is a tough question, and based on the crowds gathered round each, it's the new supercar that wins. But the smile on my face was sure bigger and brighter when I glimpsed the old timer on the roads of Opatija, Croatia's Saint-Tropez.
In this coastal city in Istria, where, back in its day, the Hapsburg Empire built its resorts like crazy, the oldtimers club gathers every Tuesday evening during the holiday season, and lets the interested enthusiasts enjoy a free ride, as passengers of course, in their meticulously preserved classics. The ensemble includes many a great example: Fiat 500 Cabriolet, Fiat 124, an original Beetle, a right-hand side JBA Falcon Roadster from its first production run in 1982, and others. But what drew me more than others was the 46-year-old Mercedes 280 SL.
Roll on to the Mystery Tour
Unlike most people whom I meet and discuss cars, or borrow cars from for some of my reviews, the owner of the Mercedes does not wish to be anonymous. On the contrary, he is more than glad to advertise his name, his site, his car, as well as the club. Mr. Rajko Hlanuda freely shared his passion with me during a fifteen minute ride through the city streets.
He bought the car second-hand, in excellent condition, from its original owner in 1992. Since, the car has doubled in its value, and can probably sell for about EUR60,000. Pretty much all of it is original, except for the wooden inset below the dashboard, which has an extra few gauges and the chrome lettering of the model. There were a few minor refurbishments and replacements of worn parts, but the rest of the car remains spotless and uncannily beautiful.
I am not sure why old cars have such exceptional charm, but when you look at the Mercedes, at its parts, at its soft, hand-designed curves, you can't miss the fanatic attention to detail, the precision, the fine art that is mostly missing from modern vehicles. There's an extra layer of something almost spiritual embedded in the old wood and metal, and it goes beyond aesthetics, trends or nostalgia. It's more than just the contemporary style, more than just the fact you are looking at something from ancient past, well beyond its expiry date. It comes down to a natural order, a harmony of the visual and the soul.
Mercedes 280 SL was a relatively popular model back in its day (with 23,000 units built), so it's not a rarity, although most cars were sold in the US. Regardless, Mr. Hlanuda has to shop for spares in Germany and Austria, and he does all of the repairs and oil changes himself. He is not shy about driving his car on the road, and he takes it to the highway, where it purrs smoothly at 130-140 km/h, keeping easily with the modern traffic.
The inline-six 2.8-liter engine delivers 170 HP, or at least used to in its original rating, which were good enough for 200 km/h top speed. Mated to a four-speed automatic transmission, with good, stiff suspension and strong brakes, it gives 280 SL enough oomph to breeze like a champ. Indeed, even though it was designed almost fifty years back, this fine 2+2 cabriolet has some rather nifty features: power steering, multi-point fuel injection, air conditioning, leather interior, chrome elements all over, and tons and tons of beauty.
Fifteen minutes came and went, but I finished the ride feeling relaxed, elated, privileged. I did spend another half an hour chatting to some of the other owners, too. They all have their unique story, their own angle, their own passion. One thing binds them. No, it's not Sauron's ring. It's their love for their cars. The classics are clean, fresh, well maintained, and highly priced. It's so nice to see people who enjoy their hobbies and share it with the world. There's something almost sacred about creating art and making it be seen and enjoyed by others. Well, hopefully, today, I've done my part.