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1969 Mercedes-Benz 280 SL
1969 Mercedes-Benz 280 SL

1969 Mercedes-Benz 280 SL

Two years late, restored Mercedes graduation gift worth the wait Add to ...

Doug Dees likes to wind up the unwary with a tongue-in-cheek claim that Sophia Loren slept in the sexy Mercedes he restored as a graduation present for his son.

She didn’t really, and after a seven-year restoration, Dees will finally deliver the car to his son this summer.

But the silver 1969 280SL – an example of Mercedes-Benz’s “Pagoda” sports cars – does have an Italian connection.

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The classy 280SL was a favourite of movie stars back in the day, and this one did spend its early years in Turin before making its way to California and then turning up in Toronto. Dees found it stored outdoors in the Beaches, under a tarp with a door and fender panel punched in. But “it looked brand new underneath,” and he decided a bit of work would make it “fine” again.

After four years of effort, and $50,000, the 280SL was an order of magnitude better than just “fine.” It was also now two years overdue as son Oliver’s graduation gift.

A job in Calgary forestalled a planned father/son shakedown cruise along Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles. Dees drove the 10,000 kilometres with his brother-in-law instead, as part of a Mercedes-Benz Car Club of America tour. And then there was a delay while Oliver, who has driven it just twice so far, acquired a home with a double garage. But this summer, Dees is determined to make the long-overdue delivery.

The 230SL, 250SL and 280SL were cars that, from 1963-71, ably carried on the traditions founded by the super cars of their day, Gullwing-doored 300SLs and the elegantly contoured and classy 190SL boulevardiers.

The 230SL of 1963 served as a premium-priced, haute mode, grand touring roadster. A period German auto journalist described it as looking as if it was designed for the sole purpose of providing a backdrop for bikini- and mink-clad models in a fashion magazine. The exotic “Pagoda” nickname referred to the concave curved roofline of its removable hardtop.

And, although it wasn’t in the 300SL’s league, it also proved a capable performer, as rally ace Eugen Bohringer proved just as the new model was being introduced, driving one to victory in the rugged, 6,600-km, Liege-Sofia-Liege rally (Belgium to Bulgaria and back – you can watch it on YouTube).

The W113, as it was known in house, claims to be the first sports car to be built with a “safety” body, based on ideas from engineer Bera Barenyi, and incorporating a rigid passenger compartment bookended by crumple zones. It was powered by the 220SE’s 150-hp, 2.3-litre, single-overhead-cam, inline-six, four-speed manual or automatic gearbox, independent front and swing-axle rear suspension, and had front disc/rear drum brakes.

It wasn’t exactly “leicht” at 1,295 kilograms, being structurally substantial and fitted with a luxuriously trimmed and well-equipped interior, and reflected this with 0-100 km/h acceleration requiring 11 seconds. Flat out, it could hit 200 km/h.

The bodywork’s clean and timeless lines – but with a drag coefficient of 0.51, not very aero – are attributed to Paul Bracq (who later designed the fast French TGV train), but its signature droopy roofline might also be the work of body development chief Karl Wilfert, depending on which Mercedes source you believe.

The 230SL was followed by the 250SL in 1967, with a torquier 2.5-litre engine, and in 1968 by the 280SL with a 170-hp, 2.8-litre engine, and other upgrades that saw it through to the end of the production run in 1971. A total of 48,912 were built, and it is still prized by collectors, with the best examples selling for $250,000 or so.

That Toronto-born Dees, who retired in 2004, after a career with Montreal Trust and the Bank of Nova Scotia, should present his son with one of these classic Mercs isn’t surprising. Cars adorned with tri-pointed stars are all he’s ever owned, since acquiring his first in 1968.

His Mercedes epiphany occurred while taking a shortcut to business administration classes at Ryerson, when he spotted a white 220SE four-door, with red leather and walnut trim, in the showroom window of the downtown Mercedes dealer. After walking in and quizzing the mechanic tweaking some minor problem it was experiencing, he decided there and then these were the cars for him.

His first car purchase, as a 24-year-old, was a 1961 220SE sedan, also white with red leather. About 20 more Mercs have followed, including a 1961 220SE Coupe, purchased while building a resort in Spain and, more recently, a 1969 280SE Coupe. His fair-weather car is a superb 1995 S500 coupe, his “winter-beater” a near-perfect 1989 560SEL, while his wife Maria drives a B-Class, and son Oliver an ML.

Dees became a member of the Mercedes-Benz Car Club of America in the late 1970s and since has served as president of its Montreal section, where he hosted races at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. In the 1990s, he returned to Toronto and was soon heading up that section, and serving the club in other roles, including as its colour commentator at Concours d’Elegance at Pebble Beach and Amelia Island. He’s president of its education foundation, which preserves Mercedes-Benz heritage, and is conducting a North America-wide Safe Drivers Safe Families driver-ed program. (For info on its May 5-6 event in Mississauga, go to mbcaef.org).

After the marathon Route 66 run, Dees has no concerns about this summer’s trip to Calgary in “Prince Eugen” – named after the German Second World War battle cruiser.

“Even though it’s 45 years old, it drives like a modern car. It’s got four-wheel disc brakes, precise steering and it’s fast. It revs high, but it’s a nice buzz. It’s a fun car to drive.”

Son Oliver is a lucky guy, even if he has had to wait a while.

Back in 1969
The Beatles stage their last public performance, and John Lennon (who owned a 230SL) and Yoko Ono marry and stage a peace “bed-in” in Amsterdam, then follow it up with another in Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel.
The Montreal Expos win their first game, beating the New York Mets at Shea Stadium, but lose their home opener in Jarry Park.
Comedian and political satirist Rick Mercer is born and is still delivering “rants” on the The Rick Mercer Report. Rob Ford is born in Etobicoke, and has been known to deliver rants of his own as the mayor of Toronto.

X-rated, Oscar-winning movie Midnight Cowboy premieres, as does Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, while The Brady Bunch and Monte Python's Flying Circus debut on TV.




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