Vintage R&T Road Test: 1968 Mercedes 280 SL – “It’s Alone In Its Field”

Yes, the Mercedes SL occupied a niche of one in the market. There was no other roadster that was so solidly engineered and built; essentially a Mercedes sedan cut down to a two passenger convertible. And as such, it offered a combination of qualities that made it very desirable, and came to essentially to define a segment that was something different than the traditional sports car. R&T gave the new 2.8 L powered version a go.


R&T points out that the SL just got better with each iteration. The 230SL of 1963 was highly praised, but lacked torque from its peaky SOHC six, for a car that was none too light, thanks to its solid construction and target market. The 250SL in 1967, with its smoother 7 main bearing engine was a decided step in the right direction, but the 280SL, with its larger bore, upped torque from 174 lb.ft to 193 lb.ft. Maximum power increased too, but not as much proportionately: 180 hp instead of 170, at 5700 rpm. The European version got a hotter camshaft for 195 hp, but due to US emission standards, that was a no-no.


The tested car came with the older version of the 4-speed automatic that started in 2nd (some later ones did too), but once past the somewhat leisurely start, the engine pulled quite strongly. Part of that was the 4.08:1 final drive ratio, picked for the US market because Americans liked quick acceleration but generally didn’t drive much at higher speeds due to the speed limits. This made it a bit busy on the highway, and R&T said that they would have ordered the optional 3.69:1 ratio for their personal use.

A four speed manual was standard, and a five speed ZF box was optional, which was desirable due to its overdrive 5th gear.

Handling was praised, with excellent power steering and neutral handling. The low-pivot rear swing axles “don’t quite give the adhesion that a more up-to-date system would, so that it’s easy to tweak out the rear end”. And of course, the ride was fantastic, the body “absolutely rigid and rattle free”. The power assisted disc brakes were a bit touchy, but worked very well.


The upright driving position and tall glass gave a commanding view, unlike any other sports car. The seats were very comfortable, and controls are all in easy reach. The noise level was exceptionally low with either top. The paint, trim, and other components were all very high quality. There were a couple of improvements suggested, but overall the SL lived up to its reputation, which was earned the hard way.