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Best of 2012: At age 56, Mercedes-Benz still holds the curves

Published December 25, 2012

I drove some very nice new cars this year, but my best drive was in a wonderful old one. Mercedes-Benz launched its 2013 SL550 in Spain, a model that traces its heritage to the iconic gull-wing coupe of the 1950s. At the end of the event, there was a 1956 300SL in the parking lot.

“Wow!” said I.

“Would you like to drive it?” said they.

Would I! Does a bear … well, you know.

I own antique cars, but nothing like this. The 300SL is the car that set the motoring world on fire. If one comes up for sale these days, it would probably fetch more than $600,000.

The Mercedes rep had opened the door and was holding out the key.

What you may not know is that the famous top-hinged door design was created to fix a problem. The SL had an unusual tubular frame, which created a very tall and wide sill that wouldn’t accommodate a conventional door.

There is simply no way to get over that sill gracefully. To my dying day, I will be grateful that I was not wearing a skirt. But once I was in, oh, my!

Any collector who buys one of these and doesn’t drive it is a fool. The route was a winding road up the side of a mountain, but that 56-year-old Benz held the curves like a new car, and its six-cylinder engine had a rumble that was sweeter than any music.

They gave me the better part of an hour with the car, but I could have stayed behind the wheel all day. I even offered to trade it for my Studebaker. Although I don’t speak German, I was still able to figure out that “nein means nein.”

Alas, at dinner later that night, a fresh sardine turned out to be less so than it should have been, and the trip ended with a horrible case of food poisoning. You win some, you lose some, but it was still my most memorable event of the year.

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