|Vehicle:||1968 Mercedes-Benz 280SL|
|Number Produced:||280SL, 23,885; ZF 5-speed, 882|
|Original List Price:||$6,897|
|Tune Up Cost:||$800 (manual-transmission examples)|
|Chassis Number Location:||Plate fixed to cowl under hood|
|Engine Number Location:||Rear left area of engine block, below cylinders 5 and 6|
|Club Info:||International Pagoda SL Group, Mercedes-Benz Club of America|
|Alternatives:||1968–76 Triumph TR6, 1968–73 Porsche 911 targa, 1971–74 Jaguar E-type SIII V12|
This car, Lot 26, sold for $201,946, including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams’ Zoute sale in Knokke-Heist, Belgium, on October 6, 2017.
When 280SLs come up and the words “manual transmission” are mentioned, the immediate question that follows is usually, “Does it have a 5-speed?”
W113 280SLs equipped with the ZF 5-speed from the factory are very rare, and were not available new in the U.S. Just 882 examples were produced — the majority of them in 1968.
ZF 5-speed, the market leader
The real truth here is that this was — at best — a $110,000 car with a $90,000 transmission. The combination of the two produces an economic miracle.
The ZF box ultimately transforms a car that would likely have yielded a typical sale into one of the most sought-after cars on the market. If this had been a factory silver, black or two-tone example, a $300,000 estimate would have been realistic. But ultimately, I am glad this car showed up in its original colors of Papyrus White over blue, with its original interior.
For those of us who obsesses over obscure options, I doubt that the limited-slip differential in this example added much more to the price. In the recent past, excellent restorations of typical 280SLs have sold at this price point, but in today’s market, $200k is 5-speed territory. All those things you hear about the ZF 5-speed adding 10% or 15% to the value of a 280SL are baloney — the 5-speed has its own separate market.
230, 250SL ZFs still attainable
If you’ve been watching this market, you know that the acquisition of a 230SL or a 250SL causes less financial pain and suffering than a 280SL does. This advantage carries over to the 5-speed cars, too.
It is completely possible to buy a 250SL just like our subject car, including the ZF, for a 50% discount over a 280SL. Many seasoned W113 anoraks have also commented that the 230SL and 250SL are more enjoyable to drive, effectively making the 280SL a status symbol.
Is there anything else at work here besides the idea that the last version is the best? Are we dealing with a case of market hysteria? The answer might just surprise you.
More gears required
In a 2011 discussion with Mercedes expert John Olson, I learned that under duress, the ZF is not an easy box to work with. Under mountainous conditions or in competition, it is notchy and heavy, and the second- and third-gear ratios don’t work well with the Mercedes engines.
However, there is one benefit that outshines these denigrations: The engine speed in top gear on the highway is reduced, making the car easier to use on long trips. This has been a long-standing issue for Mercedes owners, who have often complained about the 4.08:1 rear axle ratio of most 280SLs. Even later cars with the 3.92:1 ratio are uncomfortable. The ZF offers some relief from this trauma, bringing engine speeds at 70 mph down from the 4,000-rpm range.
The European variant of the 280SL was also equipped with a special higher-lift camshaft, effectively adding 10 horsepower. While this seems like a bonus, most of the extra grunt is over 5,000 rpm.
Build it yourself
And then there are the converted cars. Several years ago, ZF decided to make a short run of “original” 5-speed gearboxes for Mercedes applications. A conversion kit was sold with the unit, and with a conversion time of about 25 hours for a factory manual-transmission example, with parts and labor, you could have your own ZF 5-speed Pagoda for only $15,000.
While this sum might bother the typical fastidious Mercedes enthusiast, it was the only way anyone could have an “attainable” ZF example. I even considered doing it to my own 280SL.
The market for cars that were converted (this was not an easy conversion, as it required extensive modification of the driveshaft, shift linkage and transmission mount) has yet to be determined, as almost all of them are in the hands of diehard Mercedes collectors.
We can be certain about one thing: They aren’t going to bring the money our subject car did. Thankfully, other slightly less-expensive options exist.
There are a few alternatives to the ZF box. A straightforward 5- or 6-speed Getrag conversion kit from the Dutch firm of Van Dyke Classic SL is available. Other innovative owners have installed the Tremec 5-speeds in their W113s, although that gearbox represents the opposite of Mercedes engineering.
Another solution is the installation of a 3.27:1 axle from a 280SE 4.5, but the supply of these is getting thin. It is the only option if your 280SL is an automatic.
Never a wreckstoration
The market for most 280SLs peaked about three years ago. While the new average sales price is much higher than it was a decade ago, the sheer number of driver-level cars available on the market has driven the price down.
Just like the 190SL, most of these were number 5 condition U.S. examples that were given a second lease on life.
But this was not the typical wrecked-and-restored 280SL. This was an exceptionally optioned car with known history.
In 2014, our subject ZF could have brought $325,000. While without the 5-speed, the known history would have added quite a bit to the price (without that history, this might have been a $65k–$75k car), this example is part of a small group of 280SLs that represent the pinnacle of the market — a documented ZF 5-speed example that has complete ownership history. Items such as original hose clamps, spark-plug wires and finishes were still present, making this a car any W113 fan would have loved to own.
Still, because a good 4-speed example can deliver just as much excitement, I’d call this a well-sold Pagoda. Perhaps the market will prove me wrong. ♦
(Introductory description courtesy of Bonhams.)