The value of fishbowls

02 Sep 2018

With Mercedes ‘Pagoda’ SL prices hitting a quarter of a million dollars even humble M-B sedans of the era are climbing in value.

A rising tide might well lift all boats (dipped into my box of classic-car cliches for that one), but the four-door Benz boxes that people seem to want all feature the distinctive faired-in ‘fishbowl’ headlights

The ‘fishbowl’ was born in the late ‘50s with the 300 SL Roadster and W111 ‘Fintail’ sedan and remained a definitive M-B design cue until the early ‘70s when it was pretty much killed off with the W114 sedan.

Paul Bracq is the designer that gets the most of the credit for the ‘Pagoda’ SL, but it’s likely the roofline was the only place he could really make his mark. Curvy lines just weren’t his thing, as the squared-off headlight of the W114 and his later BMW designs subsequently showed.

For my money (about $1600 AUD at the time) his best work was the W108 – essentially an improved ‘Finnie’ with more modern mechanicals, the distinctive fishbowls and upright part-of-the-bonnet grille, an overall lower body line, and a rectangular rear-end that did away with the pseudo fins.

I had one once. Back in ‘90s I plunked down $1600 on a (then) 20-year-old 280S. It was, simultaneously, a superb vehicle and an absolute shit box…and a ‘bland sedan’ that has provided me more memorable stories than many vehicles I’ve owned.

It was a South African import with dual carburettors, a four-speed manual, cool green-tinted factory glass, immaculate MBTex trim and…wait for it…a refrigerator in the boot!

I was later to learn that my prized manual ‘box and twin-carb gem was actually the ‘taxi pack’ version. The ‘fridge (run by compressor off the A/C) also turned out to be less of an asset the first time I forgot to remove some fish from it after a trip to the shops.

But there were moments of real glory. Cruising down the freeway with three people comfortably abreast in the rear, the Benz was rocked as a couple of tearaways auditioning for the (yet to come) Fast and Furious franchise blasted by at warp speed. “Hey, why are we only doing 80km/h,” bleated the girl in middle of the back seat. “That’s 80 miles an hour…you’re in a Mercedes-Benz,” was my smug reply.

Some of that smugness disappeared when I took it to a Mercedes dealership for a service and the bill came close to the purchase price. On that day I learnt why well-maintained Mercedes ‘last forever’ (because they replace every part well before it might fail simply as a matter of course) and why prestige cars without a comprehensive ‘factory’ service history are comparatively cheap.

That lesson was probably worth the purchase price alone but, in more physical recompense, it’s been amply repaid since in drinks and meals when friends have asked me advice on their prospective Merc/BMW/Audi purchases.

I’d like to say the mighty 280S ran faultlessly after its service, but it soon developed overheating issues. The M-B dealership diagnosed head ‘porosity problems’ –aluminium castings weren’t all they could be back in those days, and tap water was good enough for most people that bothered to check their own radiator levels, so that figured.

Long story short, I fell out with the official M-B dealership when they claimed a head I’d had independently refurbished by a trusted racing head shop (the dealership couldn’t supply one) was ‘cracked’ and didn’t ‘pressure check’ okay after they’d installed it and road tested the vehicle. Funnily enough those guys don’t seem to hold an M-B service franchise any more.

Anyway, I paid my money and drove away. The car was better than it was before, but it still wasn’t quite right and the dealership experience had started to sour my love of old Mercedes.

A flat tyre pretty much sealed the deal. Whipping the precision-engineered jack out of the boot, I promptly crushed the sill before the car lifted an inch. Old sheet metal is old sheet metal, and you’re at the mercy of previous owners’ and the climate they lived in regardless of badge and makers’ claims of durability.

To it’s credit, the 280S soldiered on regardless. The interior remained immaculate (save for a lingering fishy smell), it covered county kilometres effortlessly with a bottle of (distilled) water in the boot, it rode beautifully, handled acceptably (for a big sedan with a swing axle), and around town its imposing front-end gave it a certain respect that made ‘lesser’ vehicles and their occupants give way.

Until the day when a young lady reversed out of driveway straight into its path to dent its noble grille and crack one of the fishbowl headlights.

She was profusely apologetic and, no doubt disturbed by the thought of the insurance claim, distraught almost to the point of tears.

By that time I was a well over the 280S and I didn’t even blink. “Hey,” I said, “that’s just the way the Mercedes Benz”.

Just goes to show, you just can’t put a value on the joys of classic car ownership.