For the latest classic car news, features, buyer’s guides and classifieds, sign up to the C&SC newsletter here
Far be it from me to ever knock the Mercedes-Benz Pagoda.
I first drove one in the late ’80s and loved it. Later encounters only confirmed the feeling. Even if I never really wanted to own one myself I could totally see the appeal: the solid feel, the quality finish and the sense that this was a stylish and fun car of the ’60s that would actually go on working.
Even if they had been terrible cars to drive, the shape would have sold them to most people. No subsequent SL has come close to it, in my book. And before you say it, I don’t think the 300SL is anything like as pretty, great car though it is.
Having said I didn’t feel the need to own a Pagoda (being more a saloon sort of chap), I have actually had two – a 280SL and a 250SL. Thus, I come from a position of first-hand knowledge of what they are like to live with, and most of the news is good.
Then again I could say the same about the Peugeot 504 Cabriolet, having owned two in quick succession, and enjoyed them for their refinement and sensuous Pininfarina looks.
Where the fortunes of the Peugeot have ebbed and flowed, the Mercedes SLs seem always to have been in fashion, although there was a time when the ‘dish roof’ was seen as a bit of ‘bank robber’s wife’s’ car: think of Helen Mirren in The Long Good Friday.
That image still clings to it ever so slightly today: a safe, suburban status symbol that has always held its value and has a profile in culture generally that massively overshadows the almost-obscure Peugeot.
Built to the tune of just over 8000 examples between 1969 and 1983, you can see how the Peugeot could be seen as the more intriguing and considered choice.
Add in the huge disparity in values, however, and the case for the Peugeot looks even stronger; at £20,000 for a four-cylinder car they have to be considered one of the few ‘bargains’ left, even if you have to go into Europe to find one. It’s also important to note that 504 Cabriolets (and Coupés) were never officially sold in the UK and the briefly offered right hookers were post-factory conversions.
The £35-40k asked for one of the best post-1974 V6 versions would barely get you into a project Pagoda these days, unless you were looking for a left-hand-drive shed from the States that probably needs the same again spending on it in order to get it into shape.
The Mercedes is certainly not a £40,000-better drive than the 504. Heavy for their size, but very comfortable and ‘handy’, the SLs easily keep up with modern traffic. Trouble is, they use quite a lot of fuel doing it (18mpg is normal) and feel low-geared and fussy on the motorway, with a slightly jerky automatic transmission.
With power steering (usually) and ever-so-slightly flawed low-pivot swing-axle rear suspension, the SL never really pretended to be a hardcore driver’s car, anyway. The underpinnings are all from Mercedes ‘Fintail’ saloon but on a shorter wheelbase and, even with the rare manual ’box, an SL is no E-type.
But then again neither is the Peugeot. Based on an an excellent but now almost extinct family saloon of the same name, the 504 Cabriolet is a merely a civilised car for temperate drivers.
Powered by a smooth but unprepossessing fuel-injected four-cylinder engine, they go better than they sound (over 110mph easy), give good mpg in the thirties and combine accomplished handling with a quiet, soft ride.
Yes, the V6 versions go a little better – but not by much, and to my mind they aren’t worth the extra money. Never the smoothest of V6s, they aren’t cheap to rebuild, either.
You get nicer detailing on the ’70s four-pot 504 Cabriolets anyway, with the quad headlights and those slashed, jauntily angled ‘boiled sweet’ tail lamps.
The market values the 280SL highest but, 50 years on, does it really matter if it gets to 60 half a second quicker than the 230SL? As with most classics – and Mercedes in particular – you should buy on condition rather than getting hung up on getting the most impressive badge on the boot lid.
Both cars have good, easy-to-erect headgear. Mercedes zealots (it’s a make that engenders a semi-religious fervour) will point to the practicality of the SL’s superbly elegant hardtop. The 504 lover could counter with the fact that, where the Mercedes is a strict two-seater, the Peugeot has a fairly usable rear bench. The SL’s hardtop is a great thing to have, but a liability when it’s not on the car – which is most of the time.
Where the Mercedes really scores over the French car is in the detailing of its interior, with a chrome-laden dash – it has something of the appeal of an espresso-making machine – and a satisfying feel to all its controls.
It makes the Peugeot’s functional plastic facia look a bit of an non-event and it should be said that the 504, with its Italian-made body, does not feel in any way as substantial as the Mercedes which was, after all, about twice the price when the two cars were briefly contemporary between 1969 and 1971.
However, do not confuse ‘substantial’ with ‘rust resistant’. Both these vehicles will rot away to nothing when your back is turned. But where a rough 504 cabriolet will tend not to hide its issues, there are plenty of shiny SL Pagodas out there with all kinds of horrors hidden under shiny paint: high values have tended to make the bodgers get creative when there is a big Pagoda payday in prospect.
Funnily enough, both my 504 Cabriolets were solid, which is surprising given that one was rescued out of a canal. The rarity of the 504 Cabriolets makes parts much less easy to find. The W113 Pagodas, of which 100,000 were built from 1963-’71, are much better served but make sure you are sitting down with a stiff drink before you ask the cost of certain chrome and trim parts, or any body panels.
Never were two cars so much about image. Both are fashion statement cabriolets with a timeless appeal that gives them an audience among style-conscious people who might not necessarily be all that interested in cars (not obsessed, like us) which is probably why both tend to turn up quite regularly in TV adverts.
All things considered, and if money was not an issue, my feeling is that I would pick the Mercedes today if I was faced with the decision of which one to buy – but it would not be a forgone conclusion by any means.
In the end, though, there is something more intriguing about the Peugeot. That’s partly because they were never sold in the UK in any quantities, but mainly because the shape says ‘Bardot’ and ‘San Tropez’ in a way the Pagoda just doesn’t.
Images: Tony Baker