The most attractive three-pointed star on the road has something to celebrate.
“No problem at all.”
After a right-hand bend, we see a steep incline ahead of us. The engine is labouring but this becomes a reassuringly powerful hum as the automatic transmission kicks in – and on we go. “I’ve even driven my Pagoda over the Grossglockner,” boasts Karlheinz Preiss. With an altitude of 3,789 metres in the eastern Alps, the Grossglockner is Austria’s highest mountain. “Thanks to the automatic transmission and powerful engine cooling system, it was no problem at all,” explains the native Franconian with a dismissive gesture. By comparison, the Sauerland region and its elevations are virtually flat country – but the landscape is breathtaking. We drive past lush cornfields and golden yellow fields of wheat, passing lakes, grazing cattle and plantations bursting with early Christmas trees. We’re surprised by the smell of fertilised fields, followed by fresh forest air as we pass through dense coniferous woodland.
400 guests from 12 countries in more than 210 Pagodas.
We’re careful not to get too close to the Pagodas ahead for fear of breathing their fumes. Karlheinz Preiss likes the gentle approach, preferring to drive with the roof down along country roads rather than the motorway. “I don’t expect the old girl to do any more than 150 km/h,” he says. “After all, it’s not an ordinary car that you would drive every day.” And this is no ordinary car rally. The Berliner’s 280 SL is one of more than 210 Pagodas and their owners who have travelled to Willingen for the 33rd international annual meeting of the Mercedes-Benz SL-Club Pagode. In this anniversary year (the Pagoda was unveiled in March 1963 at the Geneva Motor Show), the club – officially recognised by Mercedes-Benz – joined forces with the international W 113 Pagoda SL Group and the Internet forum Pagodentreff.de to organise the get-together.
It was therefore no surprise that an unusually large number of people took part in the rally: 400 participants from twelve countries, including the US and UK. “We have 60 Pagodas that have travelled from abroad,” announces Club President Werner Heidemann with pride.
Acclaimed premiere in 1963 in Geneva.
The roadster has met with great enthusiasm since its launch. Unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1963, the 230 SL caused a stir, delivering an intoxicating blend of power, elegance, comfort, superb performance and outstanding operating safety. Safety is always a high priority at Mercedes-Benz.
The vehicle body, incorporating a rigid passenger cell and crumple zones at the front and rear, follows the concept of Béla Barényi, who is seen by many as the “father of passive safety”. The coupé roof designed by Paul Bracq features a concave shape for enhanced stability – which ultimately resulted in its nickname: with its curved roofs reminiscent of Far Eastern temples, the 230 SL was quickly christened the Pagoda.
The club hosting this year’s Pagoda annual meeting – the Regionalclub Dortmund – has prepared carefully over the last two years. It makes life a whole lot easier during the rally. A total of 700 signs positioned along the route tell us where we need to go, and everyone is amazed by the great organisation. This leaves us more time to enjoy the stunning landscape and conversation – of course on the topic of the Pagoda that Karlheinz Preiss has been driving for the past ten years: a metallic blue finish, interior appointments crafted in metal, leather and wood, and the original springs in the black leather seats. “It’s all the genuine article – except for the satnav,” grins Preiss, born in 1951 and an employee of the Federal Bank of Germany. “In its day, the Pagoda didn’t have the profile it does today – it was considered a bit of a ladies’ car,” continues Preiss, remembering the initial difficulties experienced by the W 113. However: “The car is really comfortable and superbly smooth to drive”.
“There’s no better car to learn to drive in.”
This was also the experience of Mary-Catherine Sargeant. The 22-year-old steers the US-registered golden 280 SL safely along the switchbacks. Her father, Thomas, a stock trader from Virginia and one of the founder members of the Pagoda Group, sits next to her. Her 20-year-old sister, Margaret, huddles on the “jump seat”. Thomas Sargeant explains proudly that both daughters learned to drive in the Pagoda.
“There’s no better car to learn to drive in,” reveals Mary-Catherine, “the visibility is ideal when parking.” At a Pagoda meeting three years ago, she was still the only female driver in the rally. “I got quite a few funny looks from the male drivers,” laughs the young woman. Suddenly all the wives wanted to take the wheel ...
The Star: The “Böhringer Pagode”.
At the next stop, the guests collect reverentially around a red Pagoda with a large white racing number 39 on the doors. York Seifert poses proudly in front of his car, probably the most famous Pagoda of all: the 230 SL, in which Eugen Böhringer and co-pilot, Klaus Kaiser, completed the gruelling 5,600 km long-distance Spa-Sofia-Liège Rally in 1963 – and helped the “Pagoda SL” to global fame in motorsport circles. Seifert, who bought the partially restored Pagoda in 2011, had to grapple with doubts about the authenticity of the car until 2012. Investigative research work finally gave him assurance that he was in possession of the original 1963 Böhringer Pagoda with chassis end number 14, which was thought to have been scrapped. “I even consulted Waxenberger,” explains the dentist from Ingolstadt.
Erich Waxenberger, former development engineer at Mercedes-Benz, was responsible for introducing the 230 SL to the rally circuit 50 years ago – and in 2012 had the final say on the heritage of Seifert’s Pagoda.
Mourning the loss of Eugen Böhringer.
Sadly, Eugen Böhringer himself, who gave so much to the Pagoda and its admirers, did not experience the annual meeting: the former European Rally Champion died in Stuttgart in June at the age of 91. In the early 1960s, the Swabian was one of the most successful Mercedes-Benz works drivers. In his day job, the trained chef ran the family hotel in Stuttgart but regularly raced for the car manufacturer – with which the family had been connected since before the War. His first races in a private Mercedes-Benz 219 (W 105) can be traced back to a bet he had with friends. In January, already troubled by illness, Böhringer told the club magazine “Pagode” in an interview that the head of development at the time, Fritz Nallinger, had had a serious word with him before the start of the Spa-Sofia-Liège Rally: “Mr. Böhringer, a car that does not cross the finish line will never win.”
For Böhringer this was motivation enough to push himself harder than ever – and to write motorsport history.
The Pagoda - the most attractive three-pointed star on the road.
Unusual sights at the parade.
On the next stage we are “followed” by a 350 SL from the R 107 series, the successor model to the W 113. “This was how modern engineering took its rightful place in the history of the SL,” explains Karlheinz Reiss. The “all-rounder” is tolerated by the participating Pagoda drivers. A much more exotic sight in the rally is driven by Ray Hays: a German rental car without athree-pointed star. The American travelled from Florida with his wife, but without his Pagoda. But he does show us pictures of his 280 SL, built in 1968. “Since I don’t have any children, I carry photos of my Pagoda in my wallet,” he says. Despite being without his Pagoda at the Pagoda get-together, Hays still receives requests for autographs from his club colleagues: he appears alongside his “treasure” in Michael Salemi’s book “Pagoda Style”. The modest American is delighted to sign his picture in the book during an evening spent in a mountain hut on the Ettelsberg.
You don’t simply give back a Pagoda.
“All political and ideological boundaries are broken down – by the love of the car,” says Ray Hays, who is inspired by historical events such as the annual Pagoda meeting. He is a regular visitor to the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance and is in Germany for the third time. He adds that it’s a wonderful opportunity to meet people who share the same passion. Just like Andrea Venturini.
The Italian travelled by motorail from Florence. His 280 SL is probably the only Pagoda authorised to carry five people – an oversight by the authorities in Venice at the time. The 47-year-old estate agent bought the Pagoda from a friend who was forced to sell but wanted it to find a good home. Venturini drove the car 5,000 km throughout Europe last year.
Enthusiasm and quality.
Like their Italian club colleague, Michael and David Smith also like to travel: the two British brothers from the north of Newcastle bought their 280 SL in 2002 and have since covered around 75,000 miles – about 90 percent on the mainland. “We love Mercedes. We’re impressed by how the culture and heritage are carefully preserved – and all in such a familiar atmosphere,” explains Michael (69). His big brother, David (“in his seventies”), adds: “We appreciate what the brand stands for: enthusiasm and quality – it’s the best or nothing, just as Gottlieb Daimler once said. That’s something we can confirm.” It’s a matter of honour that the two distinguished gents also drive a three-pointed star vehicle as their “daily car”.
The Pagode makes friends quickly wherever it goes.
What is it that makes the Pagoda so fascinating – apart from the combination of sports styling and elegance? “The Pagoda has ushered the old style and soul of automobiles into a new era,” says Ray Hays. There is nothing to add to that. Except, perhaps, that we are greeted again and again by enthusiastic onlookers at the roadside, waving, taking pictures – or just simply marvelling at the sight of these beautiful vehicles. “The Pagoda is hugely likeable,” says Karlheinz Preiss. “It is always met with spontaneous affection.” In addition to his 280 SL, he drives a classic sports car of another German car manufacturer, which this year also celebrates its 50th anniversary – in this, however, people’s reactions tend to be one of envy rather than affection.
Grande finale at the Mühlenkopfschanze.
On the fourth and final day of the rally, the Pagoda drivers meet at the Mühlenkopfschanze, said to be the largest ski jumping hill in the world, which attracts tens of thousands of winter sport enthusiasts to Willingen. It’s another chance to talk shop, and the last chance to ask club sponsor Martin Hoffmann, who Mercedes-Benz Classic has sent to the Sauerland event, about spare parts. Before the Pagoda fans disperse (the next annual meeting of the Mercedes-Benz SL-Club Pagode takes place in 2014 in Goslar; the next event of the Pagoda Group is in September in Williamsburg/Virginia), there is one more highlight: a helicopter flies through the Ittertal and sets down a newly restored 230 SL at the bottom of the Mühlenkopfschanze ski jump.
See you in Goslar. Or in Williamsburg. Or ...
Not least because of this furious finale, the 2013 rally is sure to stay in the memory. “It’s a wonderful event,” says Peter van Es, President of the International Pagoda Group, which boasts around 2,650 members and brings together “real friends” across the globe. The Group started as an Internet forum, as did Pagodentreff.de, which now boasts 7,500 registered members. “Whether it’s a club, forum or anything else – we all share the same hobby,” says Pagoda founder, Detlef Hahn. It’s a hobby that has connected the Pagoda fan community around the globe for 50 years.