Part one: The Selection

About a year ago an automobile enthusiast contacted me about finding him a 280SL that was in superb condition.  After discussing several examples we determined that nearly every example available fell short in some respect from the mental picture he had of the ideal Pagoda.  It was decided that we needed to find an example that we could turn into his dream car.  To do this we needed to start with a car that had never been crashed and poorly repaired.  We also needed a car that had not suffered from that bane of the vintage car enthusiast - Ferrous Oxide, more commonly referred to as rust.

Data plate showing body # of 05606

One day my client called to ask if I had seen the San Diego car advertised in Hemming's Motor News.  I had not.  I called the number and was told that the car was scheduled to go in the local newspaper next weekend.  He had had it for about 15 years.  When I drove up I saw it parked in the street.  As I walked up I noted the car had a sort of honest feel.  It had not been "detailed" by the local car wash folk with tire dressing and "engine rebuild" in a spray can.  It showed some door dinging that did not break the paint.  To the casual observer this car would look just like the typical "Pagoda" advertised in any local newspaper in any of the warmer climates anywhere in the U.S.

Body stamp on hood.

A closer look reveled that the color and the body stamps matched the codes on the ID plate, and the engine number matched that of the data card.  The car also exhibits the correct headlight door notches and the row of factory spot welds along the inside of the front fenders.  The typical car that we encounter has had a poorly executed color change and has had more than one body panel 

Row of factory spot welds under the hood along the front fender

replacement.  The body panels most vulnerable are the hood and front fenders.  Even if still in its original color most cars this age have been repainted.  As for cars this age I would be so bold as to say that the percentage of repainted cars runs as high as 99.8%.  The usual re-paint overspray that one finds in the door jams and under the hood was absent.  "OK, so the paint shop spent a little extra time and back taped the gaps" I thought.  "Hmmm, no masking tape ridge either". 

Could this be the holy grail of 280SL's, the elusive Never Re-Painted 

Body stamp on boot box lid

Pagoda?  I have had many owners bring older cars to me and state that they are original paint. I can tell most have been re-painted from ten feet away. Others, I have just to get a close-up look at the door jams. Still others I have to peel up weather seals to find evidence of the re-paint. This car I looked at for forty five minutes and could find only two indications that maybe it had some paint work after leaving the factory. There is one chip at the leading edge of the hood and under this chip is shiny body color paint. Usually a paint chip will go down the primer. The other indication is that the factory runs on the underside of the hood are mysteriously absent on this car. I have been told that one of the primer coats at the factory was applied by dipping and the resulting runs on the underside of the hood were not sanded off. The front fenders show no signs of re-painting. How just a hood could be painted to exactly match the fenders I don't know. It could be that the hood suffered a mishap at the factory and it was sanded down and repainted a second time when the rest of the car was painted its first time. This is conjecture only.

This is exactly what the headlight door notch should look like, not longer, not smaller, just like this. Click image for another view.

    So what is the purpose of and why do we make so much fuss about these headlight door notches anyway?  I am told that they were alignment markers during assembly for fitting the headlight doors(the headlight door is the chrome headlight surround that also contains the parking light lens).  Now they function as a sort of originality marker.  When a car is repainted, if the shop doesn't deal with a lot of Pagodas they will not know that the notch belongs there and will invariably "repair" it.  The body prep technician may not even notice the notch and it takes just one pass with a body grinder and it is gone.  If a car has suffered a front end collision and the body shop is fighting with the fenders, nose piece and hood trying to get it all to line up usually the last thing on their mind is duplicating this little tiny accent mark.  Many of the aftermarket fenders that are sold to body shops do not have the notch(I was told that in the early days this was to get around Daimler-Benz's patent).  In short, if there is no notch then we know that something has happened at the front end of the car and should probably look closer in this area.

The gap at the front only looks bigger as it is closest to the camera.

Another indication of an original undisturbed body shell is if all of the gaps or shut lines are even.  Even though Daimler-Benz didn't have laser guided robots assembling cars back 30 years ago they got them amazingly straight.  The hood is particularly vulnerable to impacts since it must fit three dimensionally and hinges only on two fulcrum points.
    Having spent quite some time looking over the car it was now high time to drive it.  The car started instantly, the oil pressure pegged at 45 pounds and tail pipe emitted no smoke.  The car drove fine, however on my test drive I noticed the accelerator sticking somewhat.  This 

Door gap

made it difficult to drive smoothly.  It was also particularly difficult to determine if the transmission was shifting properly.  This is because the transmission shifts in response to various inputs, one being what you are doing with the accelerator pedal.  At this point a seller would lose maybe 30% of his buyers.  Another group would want to schedule an appointment for a pre-purchase inspection by a garage.  A lesson to sellers is that you can't always count on attracting a buyer who can tell a diamond in the rough.  Most buyers are apprehensive, as a seller has the advantage of knowing the car intimately and is not always forthcoming with information of a negative nature.  Being that I was more concerned with the structural integrity of the car and the fact that the owner had a stack of service records totaling $20,000, I was not willing to take the chance that someone would buy the car out from under me.  The decision was made to purchase the car as I could not imagine a better car to restore.
    Did I make a good decision?  Would I find a gummed up injector pump and a transmission that needed a $2800 rebuild?  Stay tuned for the next installment!


On to part two



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