I have a friend who owns a small stable of largely sub-$100,000 sports cars from the 1950s and ’60s. He is a brilliant engineer and tends to look at things in stark contrast to the way I do, which is to say he actually thinks them through, often on a molecular level. He came to me recently with a philosophical and well-considered line of questioning regarding his next potential acquisition. He recently retired and wants to celebrate the milestone with the purchase of a Shelby 289 Cobra or a Mercedes-Benz 300SL roadster. Each is an aspirational car that he’s always admired; now he wants to know if he should do something about it.
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My humble thoughts are that a decision of this magnitude deserves some honest reflection on what the owner wishes to do with the car - what is he or she looking to accomplish by owning the car - factors beyond merely what the car 'might' be worth to the next person to buy it afterwards. If the car will rarely be driven, and is purchased mainly for its appreciation value, it would be hard to go wrong with either choice - both are considered "Blue Chip" collectibles. In fact, the Gullwing variant of the 300SL was called the "sports car of the 20th Century" by a jury of trade journalists. It's highly doubtful either car will depreciate much, if at all.
If the car was used for track events, the choice is pretty clear, the rip-snorting Cobra has the requisite sights, sounds, and stripes. (Although the 300SL was also based on a very successful race platform that won LeMans outright in the 1950s).
On the other hand, if the car is intended for touring on the open road, especially with a Significant Other - the choice is also clear - the 300SL with its roll up windows, hard top / soft top choices, more comfortable seats, better storage space, etc.
And with the 300SL, bystanders and others would never mistake or assume a real one for a clone or replica, unlike with Cobras, unfortunately.
Finally, regarding documentation, not only is Mercedes-Benz factory support still very strong for the 300SL series, (unlike Ford for the Cobras), there are also several strong, close-knit 300SL support groups as well (GullwingGroup.org for one). Even the factory (the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center - located in California) can directly document, restore, consult on, or just service 300SLs.
Well, how about more comments from people who use the cars? How did you use your 300 SL? and what did you replace it with? I drove a late 80s 500 SL from Seattle to San Diego back in 1998. There were no problems and excessive power, to be sure. I subsequently test drove a 1990 Jaguar XJ-S V-12 Classic Collection which was and is vastly superior in all driving conditions. Any purchase of such a sophisticated vehicle should include a first year careful set up period with a great mechanic and sophisticated parts. A Jag sent to the US might have soft rubber bushings and a detuned engine with parts chosen for reliability not performance. It takes many hours and careful technique to change to tougher bushings, but crisp cornering and high speed control result. The wondrous V12 engine is world famous, often for grand touring, but also for high speed capabilities. I found a mechanic who worked for the Jag race team who rebalanced the engine components. After that the engine runs first click every time and acceleration is crisp and confident. When these cars were built finding a capable transmission for so much power was a major challenge. The big farm equipment GM transmission needed minor adaptations to do the job. There are many good reasons why most sports cars favor light weight and smaller engines. Bottom line: I still own and use this 30 year old beauty. The buyer backstory is confusing. Nobody in the family's younger generations wants a classic car. Yet, the would be buyer claims to be concerned about value retention. If the buyer leans toward a Cobra, well, hey! Get a modern Corvette for weekend track use. Ford doesn't support its classic cars, Mercedes and GM and Jaguar do. Better yet, user groups, local hobbyists should be checked. These cars can require tending. That means know your local support options and consider where you might move. Google support info. The Jaguar model above was in production for over 15 years, so there are many owners with real experience using and maintaining real examples. Mercedes makes yearly changes, complex, sometimes baffling changes, and all the examples are worth owning and driving. If a collector wants a vehicle that can be used on a whim out on common roads, examples a bit newer than from the 50s are more likely to please. If a collector just wants to take bridge guests out to the garage for a look around, well either Blue Chipper will astound. If the owner will drive it, then the Cobra disqualifies most people over 40 and anybody whose physical condition is challenged by injury, weight or endurance. I loved a 1976 Maseratti Merak, mid engine, very light, amazingly capable in the corners, no clearance underneath, so watch out for gas station tank filler caps. And be an expert in several languages and fluid dynamics. Why would someone in Seattle want such an exotic machine? Not many did, so the local price was depressed, affordable. Check out sourcing of parts and information. Oh, the world HQ for Maserati is east across Lake Washington, in a warehouse near the train tracks near Overlake Hospital. They stock the complete manuals for the Merak. It uses hydraulics from the Citroen ownership, so that part is in French. The body components manuals are in Italian. Some braking issues are described in German. There is an elegant summary manual in English to loan to friends, you won't miss it. I mention this because I think purchasing a Cobra might have similar challenges to purchasing a Merak. When I was under 50 and still sailing old wooden boats and wind surfing across Lake Margaret, the Merak was just another daily challenge. My body changed. Has yours? One day you might also be 77, or even older. As to ten years from now ... oh come on, don't rush it.
Hi All! Thanks for the insightful comments so far. Absolutely some great considerations and all were part of the much longer conversation I had with my friend on the subject. For example, since 1,000 mile rallies are one of the desired uses we discussed how comfortable a 300SL is vs. how the wind in a Cobra will wear you out, not to mention the more relaxed cruise manners of the SL which is certainly more of a grand touring car than the race-bred (and ox-cart based) Cobra. That said there is an excitement factor one gets when driving a Cobra that can't be denied. They are far more racy and alive, with blistering acceleration on tap at any speed. That, coupled with the fact that if you can walk to a NAPA store and find a blunt rock and perhaps a sharp stick you can fix just about anything that might go wrong on the side of the road. Not so much with the technical marvel that is a 300SL...and yes, I speak from experience with both! 😉
Either car would be a halo car in most any sports car collection, and truly a difficult decision for sure. Seems to me the thing to do is buy both. The worst words you can say are "If I had only...." If he can’t buy both at the same time (I know that’s a first world problem). He could buy one at a time. Being recently retired gives him the opportunity of time to research and evaluate every opportunity in each car and make the best purchasing decision for him at the time. If he falls in love with that car, and If he’s like me, he’ll won’t be able to recall the other car he didn’t buy, because wasn't even worth remembering. On the other hand, if he doesn’t, move on to the other car, then he has had the opportunity to own and enjoy both cars. The science shows he should be able to do that. The interesting part of the article is that “his grown daughters, have no interest in taking over stewardship of any of the cars when the time comes”. I can assume they have no interest now too. If having his family more involved is something that he would like, has he ask them what car (and maybe it's not one of theses) they might like to see him buy that they might enjoy? Maybe that’s the car to buy. I don’t have a stable at all, just one ‘90’s largely sub-$10,000 sport car, so what do I know.
I don't see how the car's investment value is going to be his problem. If you're in a position to buy one of them, take some test drives. How much longer will you be able to get in and out of a 300SL convertible than a 289 Cobra roadster? How much more comfortable will you be while you're driving it? The Ace/Cobra was always a car for athletic young racing drivers. The 300SL convertible was built to be a more comfortable and accommodating way for rich people to enjoy the performance of the Gullwing. Which group does the collector see himself fitting into today?