Sitting on a path of immaculate crushed gravel, bathing in the dappled rays of a dying summer sun beneath the imposing walls of a beautiful Italian castle, the Mercedes-Benz 280SL ‘Pagoda’ seems completely in its element.
It’s as if it were built for touring the laid-back Italian countryside and a life of relaxed glamour. But trace your eyes down the elegant, slab-sided flanks and around the broad, muscular nose, and something jars with the initial impression of years spent cosseted and polished in its hilltop bolthole.
The numberplate, rather than the local ‘PG’ prefix, carries Arabic characters, hinting at an altogether more intriguing past and the faint aroma of adventure.
“I bought the car in 1996 when I was living in Beirut,” explains owner Andrew Jeffreys. “Lebanon had been a successful economy in the 1950s and ’60s – it was a very glamorous place, a bit like a Middle Eastern St Tropez.”
As a result, the country was awash with Mercedes Pagodas, whose 1963-’71 production run coincided with the country’s most prosperous and politically stable period.
“Many cars were hidden away when civil war broke out in 1975, but as the years rolled by you started to see more SLs around, and people eventually began selling them.”
Being in the right place at the right time, Jeffreys – who didn’t even own a car in the UK, but had longed for a Pagoda for many years – was perfectly positioned to indulge.
“I saw a garage in Hazmiyeh where a guy was selling five of them. He was quite a good salesman and said ‘don’t give me any money, just take it and I’ll call you’. So I took the car for a couple of days and we somehow agreed on a price – about £9000. I spent the next six months paying him back.”
A 1969 model with the range-topping 170bhp 2.8-litre straight-six, the well-specced Mercedes had been bought new by the Saudi Embassy in downtown Beirut just before the war broke out.
It remained there until the mid-1990s, having spent much of its life underground, away from snipers and shells.
Subterranean life was beneficial for the Benz, protecting it from the usual plundering that tends to occur when cars reach the bottom of their depreciation curve – even the oft-pinched original Becker stereo is still in place, and in full working order.
The warm, dry climate was also kind to the car’s structure, which was never famed for the quality of its rustproofing, though the time spent under the harsh desert sun took its toll on the paintwork, which was resprayed in its original ivory prior to being sold.
“I used it for a few years, but not many young Lebanese drove classics,” says Jeffreys. “If you had any money you bought a new car, so people thought I was a bit odd. I didn’t have to spend any money on it: the guy I bought the SL from was a good bloke, so if there was a slight issue I just took it back and he fixed it for nothing.
“I eventually left Lebanon, but not without making one key error: I was so determined to drive into Syria with the top down that I didn’t take the factory hardtop [from which the model derived its ‘Pagoda’ moniker]. It’s still sitting in a garage somewhere in Beirut – I thought I was going to go back but then I never did!
“Unlike European borders, which are immediate, between Lebanon and Syria there’s a two-mile drive across no-man’s land. Back then the road was full of burnt-out cars from the Lebanese war – ironically, today it has more burnt-out cars from the current conflict.”
Though the Middle East was much more politically stable at the turn of the millennium, travelling from state to state as a foreigner could still be problematic.
“The Pagoda had Lebanese plates and I wasn’t a Lebanese citizen, which caused confusion at the border. I eventually got into Syria and drove the SL all around the country.
“I had guests to visit and we drove to Aleppo, to the old crusader castle at Krak des Chevalier, and to Palmyra on the Iraqi border. It was beautiful, but now it’s been largely destroyed.”
Despite losing the hardtop, Jeffreys used the car as his daily driver as well as on longer adventures.
“There’s a mountain between Lebanon and Syria, and as you come down it you get an incredible view into the valley. Looking along that long bonnet was so romantic. Syria has great weather, too, so from about May onwards I could just keep the top down, secure in the knowledge that at night it wasn’t going to get covered in rain or dew.”
After three months in Syria, both owner and car moved to Jordan: “I took the Mercedes in on a 90-day visa – it was complex and I had to pay quite a lot. I spent about a year and a half driving it before and during the Iraq war.
“It was lovely to drive it down to Aqebo, where you have the whole Lawrence of Arabia romance, and Wadi Rum in the desert, which is home to some amazing rock structures. We also spent a lot of time driving around the Dead Sea.”
Unlike many period rivals, from the small-batch Alfa 2600 Spider to the fragile Facel Vega Facellia, the Pagoda made sense to the owner who wanted Riviera chic with dependability – the latter a boon in the Middle East, where the garages were simple in approach and the roads often poor.
“The 280SL has a straightforward engine,” says Jeffreys, “and when it went wrong it wasn’t like a Ferrari breaking down – parts were everywhere and almost everyone knew how to deal with them. When I arrived in Damascus in 1994, half the taxis were ’60s Mercs.”
Though Jeffreys’ ownership of the Benz has been marked by near-perfect reliability, there is one notable blot in the Pagoda’s copybook that took place while it was in Jordan.
“Everyone told me the thing would fall to bits in five minutes, and my father was very against my buying the car. He visited me in Jordan, and I arranged to go with him to Wadi Rum, which was a 300-mile drive. I finally got him into the SL and we made it across one set of traffic lights before the engine cut out, causing about five cars to go into the back of one another.
“Needless to say, my father was delighted at having been proved right; the Merc was towed away and we ended up finishing the trip in a battered Opel hire car – not quite the nostalgic drive I had envisaged.”
The globetrotter eventually left Jordan in 2003, but not before a chance encounter with the owner of the country’s main Mercedes dealership, T Gargour & Fils.
“We met at a dinner party, after he spotted the car as we arrived. When he learned that I was leaving, he kindly agreed to let me leave the Pagoda in his showroom until I returned. I said I’d be back in about a month – I came back six years later!
“I called every two years, with increasingly large delays because I was so embarrassed. They kept the car inside and drove it regularly, making sure it was all healthy. I eventually had to get it out of the country, which was problematic because it was only supposed to be there for 90 days!
“When I called to say thank you, and that I was finally picking it up – he said that he had a shipping company and would have it sent to Genoa for me.”
The car was driven south to Aqaba, where it was placed on a container ship for the long journey to Europe: “By that time I was living in Italy, so I drove from Umbria to Genoa to pick it up. I got a bill for $800, which was the exact cost of shipping – he’d charged me nothing for six years of storage and care.”
Jeffreys was concerned that the car might have suffered after the long journey and years of inactivity, but he needn’t have worried.
“When we got to the port, two guys unlocked the container and I got my first glimpse of the car in six years. It looked amazing: polished and beautiful. They had left the keys in the glove compartment and of course it started first time.
“We simply drove out through customs, who waved us through. Since then everyone who sees us – all our Italian neighbours – just assumes I’m Lebanese!”
Tales of Middle Eastern adventures are still fresh in my mind as, back in Italy, I slip onto the sumptuous red driver’s seat and turn the key.
Jeffreys’ 13th-century castle home in Polgeto served as the temporary headquarters for General Kesselring – who ran Germany’s Italian campaign in WW2 – and from there we point the Pagoda’s long nose towards the hills and the scenic road to Lake Trasimeno.
Much like Jeffreys’ description of Lebanon, the roads here are crumbling and cracked, ravaged by the summer sun.
The Mercedes doesn’t mind, though, its engine little more than a murmur as it comfortably absorbs bumps and shocks caused by deep fissures in the asphalt and encourages me to press on.
Progress is brisk, and while the Pagoda lacks the outrageous pace of its exotic predecessor, its handling is predictable and more easily exploited.
Front double wishbones and rear swing-axles remain, but the SL carries its weight well, like Paul Gascoigne during his spell at Lazio. It feels assured in the bends, aided by the short wheelbase and mile-wide track.
The large wheel and a slightly numb feel to the steering are my only gripes as the road continues to wind upwards and the lack of traffic inspires the confidence to lean into the corners, levelling the throttle to make the most of that sonorous straight-six soundtrack.
The vast majority of SLs were specced with automatic gearboxes, making this manual example something of a rarity, and good fun to hurry along Italian back-roads.
Though the S-Class-derived four-speed doesn’t like to be rushed and the years have allowed some vagueness to seep into the linkage, it’s still a pleasure to use.
The engine, though smooth as an Olympic swimmer, is no fireball, and at times struggles to hustle the 1415kg roadster.
But the Pagoda isn’t about top speed and sprints away from the lights, being more at home cruising along with the wind in your hair.
With the top down and the crisp exhaust note carrying on the breeze – coupled with the Tuscan sun beating down – you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. It’s a pace of life that suits Jeffreys, and his Mercedes.
“In Italy it’s been a joy. We regularly drive to Florence, an hour and a half away. It’s so representative of the beauty of Tuscany, and the Pagoda just fits into that scenery perfectly.”
Lebanon, Syria, Italy, London: the more time you spend with the SL, the more obvious it becomes that its blend of understated good looks, no-nonsense engineering and effortless glamour would fit in almost anywhere.