As humans, we often scratch our heads when we are deep in thought, perplexed, or just straight up confused about something we’re experiencing. I’ve never stopped to think about why that’s the reaction we revert to, but perhaps it’s a primitive effort to stimulate our brains in a way that suggests “is this thing on?”
Recently, I was looking into purchasing a classic SL for some summertime top-down fun, so I set off to find that perfectly spec’d (read: inexpensive), well maintained (read: least headachy), classic Mercedes Convertible (read: expensive headache) available. What I found instead was a listing for a car that left me scratching my head for quite some time.
The Craiglist ad in question was for a decently presented Tobacco Brown over Cognac manual 1970 Mercedes 280SL Pagoda listed in Sherman Oaks, CA. with 50,000 miles and an even $60,000 price tag. Sounds standard enough right? I had not initially set off to find a Pagoda, but this one looked interesting.
Right off the bat my attention was drawn to the California issued “TRBO SL” license plate - huh? Did this person somehow turbocharge a perfectly fine M130 engine? Perhaps they swapped in something more radical like a new 416hp 2.0liter M139 four cylinder from the newer AMG lineup? Ok that second one was hopeful, but doesn’t sound like a bad idea now that I think of it (Think “Outlaw” SL).
Examining the photos I noticed what appeared to be Mercedes’ Original Equipment “300D” and “Turbo diesel” trunk emblems and began to second guess my off-hand knowledge of Mercedes model history. Did they make a Turbodiesel SL from factory? Am I seeing something undoubtedly rare here that I have never heard of? [Head Scratching Intensifies]
The rest of the photos provided no further clarity on the subject whatsoever. A pair of sheepskin seat covers, a Nardi steering wheel, and an outdated aftermarket head-unit didn’t strike me as having the workings of anything particularly special. The glaringly incorrect and intrusive looking gear shift firmed up my belief of this likely being someone's adulthood science project. [Un]surprisingly not a single photo of the engine bay was included, so I continued on.
"I’m not interested in hearing what an asshole I am for changing engines. Interested parties call me"
The brief description left me equally uninformed and frankly more confused. It read: “This [has] been my daily drive[r] car for 42 years it is mechanically perfect body in excellent shape interior needs work... I’m not interested in hearing what an a**hole I am for changing engines. Interested parties call me.” Truthfully, for $60k I would have expected a little more effort on the seller's part. What interior work did it need exactly? What engine was it changed to? At least include a photo or two of said engine. To polish it all off, the listing ends with the highlighted title status: Salvage. This is Craigslist after all.
So what was the story here? I called A.J (the seller) to get the scoop (and you know, some basic info that I probably should have already known at this point). The story I was told was surprisingly more interesting than I had anticipated. He had purchased the car during a tumultuous period of US history where “odd-even rationing” meant you could only purchase gas on certain days depending on the last digit on your license plate. AJ’s solution? Swap the motor out for a diesel and re-fuel whenever he chose to do so. (He also finally sent me a photo of the engine).
He fondly told me how he'd originally fitted a motor out of a 240D, which he had run on Vegetable oil for some time. At some point in the early 2000’s he upgraded to its current motor, a 3.0L which is said to run very well (although admittedly not in any consistent fashion over the past few years). I curiously asked him if he was able to smell the diesel during top-down driving, which he assured me he hadn't noticed.
The "interior needing work"as he explained, consists of an aged dash in need of some TLC, as well as dried seats that will need replacement (hence the sheepskin covers). I had initially assumed the Salvage title would have some relationship with the engine swap, but when I asked the seller about it his voice went low as he muttered something about a front end collision that happened within the past few years. At that point I felt I had heard all I needed to know, and carried on with my search.
So if you are still scratching your head about what to make of this $60,000 Salvage Titled, Engine Swapped, Brown on Brown mechanical uncertainty in need of some interior work, give AJ a call. I’m still scratching my head on it.
Bonus: Here is the SL I ended up with, a Milan Brown R107 450SL with just under 70,000 miles (and its original gas motor!)