Ken Garelick, Bruce Kelly, John Olson and a few other Twin Cities' souls share a passionate interest in pagodas. But not real pagodas. These folks have more than a passing interest in the SL (for "sport leicht") "pagoda roof" models that Mercedes-Benz made from 1963 to 1971.
The sporty cars connecting these three men - the cars are nicknamed "pagodas" because of a concave hardtop, often removable, that made the windows larger - are part of Mercedes' continuing SL line that started in 1954 with the famous 300 SL "gullwing" models.
The pagoda SLs had less power and flash than the 300 - production started with the 230 (2.3 liters) and ended with the 280 - and most came with automatic transmissions. Though they are two-seaters, we're not exactly talking sports cars when the conversation turns to six-cylinder pagodas.
So what's the appeal? Ken Garelick, who inherited his 1969 SL 280 from his father, who bought it as a 50th birthday present to himself, says pagodas are "just a pleasure to drive when they're in top condition. You also appreciate the cars' craftsmanship," he adds, "and the tremendous attention to detail that went into making them. I like the styling, too. It's classic with simple, clean lines."
Called "the most civilized roadsters of their day" by Men's Journal magazine last year, the "gentleman's" cars had, the magazine says, a "silken ride, elegantly weighted steering, roomy cabins and styling evocative of Newport mansions and lots and lots of money."
While the cars aren't cheap, their prices aren't out of sight, either. Considered collectible even before production stopped, the cars, if maintained, haven't depreciated in value. Models today run from about $15,000 to $75,000 (most are $30,000-$50,000). Buy one at the low end of that range and you can easily invest $30,000 to restore it, however, even with parts still plentiful.
Interested in meeting other area pagoda owners, Garelick and two others formed "The Pagoda Pack" in March 2004. This "enthusiasts group," which is part of the Twin Cities Section of the Mercedes-Benz Club of America, now counts about 40 members.
The relatively low-key group, connected by a newsletter, gathers as many SL pagodas as possible on the second Saturday of June for the German Car Fest at Rice Park in downtown St. Paul. Last year, 18 of the 100 or so SL pagodas thought to be in Minnesota were on hand.
What about Kelly and Olson? Well, Kelly, who's retired but likes to fix cars at his "hobby," Lake Country Classics, has worked on many pagodas. Owner of a '67 SL 280, he describes it as "a nice driving car. It's dependable and drives like a modern car. It was 20 or 30 years ahead of its time." For him, the pagoda also holds a special place because, he explains, "it looks better than other cars."
Olson makes part of his living from the SL. The author of the book "The SL Experience," he also regularly publishes "The SL Market Letter," keeping everyone current on the cars' value. Less than 49,000 pagodas were made, with about half imported to the U.S., mostly to the coasts. Olson says that models in good condition appreciate about five to 10 percent every year. n