Driving always feels more exciting when there is a destination. With another vacation abroad canceled and the green, yellow and red trip still confused, I want to see the only traffic light in England on a road trip this summer.
As you know, I’m a huge fan of English fizz so we have planned a three day tour of three glorious vineyards in East Sussex and Kent. Goal set, which car should we take?
I’m a big fan of electric cars, which are exempt from the £ 12.50 daily fee to enter London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez). This is to be expanded on October 25th from the existing toll zone to the northern and southern district roads.
I have owned electric cars for 12 years and I know their limits. Unfortunately, the infrastructure is not yet there, especially in rural areas. I recently confronted Grant Shapps on my TalkRadio show. If we were all electric, the transport minister doesn’t seem to know that the 25,000 charging points he is so proud of won’t serve the country’s 30 million vehicles.
Aside from the range restrictions until someone builds a convertible electric vehicle, they are not attractive for this type of recreational outing.
One of the reasons I sold my Tesla was because it was soulless, driving around like a doctor’s waiting room. My current electrical companion, the Jaguar I-Pace, resembles a footballer’s living room. Unfortunately, the panorama glass roof cannot be opened. Its only function seems to be to highlight when your car needs washing (when it’s covered in bird droppings, in case you’re wondering).
To drive around the garden of England, I wanted to drive openly with a gasoline engine soundtrack and a huge trunk to stash any crates of champagne we wanted to buy.
James Max’s Mercedes 380sl turned out to be the perfect drive for his tour of three vineyards in East Sussex and Kent © James Max
If, like me, you have a number of cars, they have different uses. The electric jag is ideal for humming between our homes in London and the north Essex coast. My Aston likes a remote overseas adventure. It’s epic for unlimited freeway and hill driving, and perfect for posing outside of luxury hotels and villas. It is changeable, but not agile enough for an English country road.
The Rolls is good for a trip to the chippy or a nice breakfast run, but far too unreliable for the long haul. Fortunately, Lockdown allowed me to add another vehicle to my fleet – a Mercedes SL.
The Mercedes R107 sports car produced between 1971 and 1989 was the automaker’s second longest single series after the G-Class. They made over 300,000 of these. Before you conclude that they are common, remember that the volume of production means an abundant supply of spare parts.
Many vehicles have landed in the US so they are not as productive on the UK’s roads and they are a television icon of the 1980s. Bobby Ewing had one. Radio 1’s Greg James too, so they have to be cool.
Like many classic cars, they have a rust problem. Early models weren’t electroplated, and they’re all prone to rusting the bulkhead (an inaccessible part behind the engine bay and under the windshield). If it rusts, you know, because your carpets will get damp and the car will honk – but not “toot”. It’s repairable, but expensive, so you need to be careful when buying it.
When you have all the money in the world, go to the official SL shop. They currently have a late 1989 300 SL on sale with just over 12,000 miles on the clock for (wait for) £ 80,000. Fine if you’re looking for an investment, but it’s too much for a viable classic.
During the lockdown, I was obsessed with The Market, the online classic car auction website that was just snapped up by Bonhams – perfect for drooling over bed. Registration is easy and their process of profiling cars with hundreds of detailed photos and video footage is light years ahead of conventional auction brochures.
While browsing the website, I was distracted by a Triumph deer. Throaty, rippling, and practical when you find a well-stocked example. I had an earlier one though – a close runaway a few years ago with one who had more filler than a faded TV personality. It didn’t go well, wasn’t particularly comfortable, and rattled and creaked like an old British Rail car.
After doing some homework, I came to the conclusion that the first generation Mercedes SLs built before 1979 were cheap for a reason. They were often full of problems. The last series from 1986 are generally the best, but they are also the most expensive. Vehicles from the early 1980s are the best value for money, especially when they have over 100,000 miles on the clock. Plus, they are only a few years away from becoming a historic vehicle (40 years old) when they are exempt from road tax and exempt from Ulez. Bonus!
As for engine size, the 560 series is a bit amateurish like the US market it was aimed at. I prefer the 300 series; It’s fast enough to cruise on a freeway and powerful enough to drive through the countryside.
The R107 is particularly beautiful on a winding country road. The seats and the driving position are super comfortable, the roof mechanism easy to use and the large steering wheel ensures a floating yet relaxed driving experience.
Don’t be fooled by men in tweed jackets who tell you you need a little pushchair with wheels
Don’t be fooled by men in tweed jackets telling you they need a small, manual pushchair. They are the type of people who drive MGBs, a car that is only suitable for short people with a waist size under 34 inches who don’t care about looking undignified falling out of the low cockpit.
The car I eventually bought for just over £ 17,000 was a 1982 Mercedes SL 380 with 102,000 miles on the clock, previously owned by John Menzies, great-grandson of the founder of the newsagents group and later a Scottish artist. The provenance was excellent and the file was thick with invoices for maintenance, repairs, upgrades, and paintwork.
The running costs are low and the £ 268 insurance is very valuable. And the first time the key was turned, it came to life. What a car!
Back from the fantastic wineries of Busi Jacobsohn, Balfour at Hush Heath Estate and Gusbourne, we will certainly not miss out. The basement is filled with garden parties for a summer and an SL like mine went online for £ 28,000 last week.
But there is one more thing to note here. After 2025, Transport for London has signaled that there will be no more tax savings for electric vehicles. It could be that historic vehicles (or a mobile crane if you own one) are the cheapest way to get around town.
James Max is a radio host and real estate expert. The views expressed are personal. Twitter: @thejamesmax