x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Reinventing a classic

Can the new SLS AMG live up to the heritage of that most desirable of Mercedes-Benz supercars? Jay Leno finds out.

Jay Leno takes to the road in the new SLS AMG from Mercedes.
Jay Leno takes to the road in the new SLS AMG from Mercedes.

There are certain cars I've always admired but never thought I wanted to own. One was the Mercedes 300SL with the gull-wing doors. For some reason, I don't know why, I thought they were heavy. It looked heavy to me. Combined with them being extremely expensive, I'd never driven one. I used to work in a Mercedes dealership and we took one in trade. While it was at the dealer, and me being aged 19 so not allowed to drive it, I remember sitting in it and turning the wheel and thinking how cool it was. Because the steering felt heavy I guess that's why I thought it was heavy for so long.

Anyway, I got more and more intrigued with gull-wings, reading all the books. Then I heard there was one that might be for sale. But it was in the desert in a container. It looked interesting. The engine was out of it and the transmission was too. I asked if we could push it out in the light. I opened the door and I sat in it. It was a classic beautiful dashboard - analogue gauges, laid out logically.

Even though it was a race car, I would be only the third owner. It was put away in about 1980. But even 30 years on, all the switches went ker-click, ker-click. Everything had a nice solid feel. The guy selling it said it needs a lot of work and I told him I had a shop so that's OK. It's the best way to buy a car. I've never bought a car that doesn't need totally redoing. So I thought this would be perfect, needing redoing from the outset.

When the second owner got it, it was a nice old sports car, expensive but not stupid money. He took it down to a place called Junior's House of Colour. Junior was the hot rod painter and still is. He put a beautiful candy apple red paint job on it. Then the car was taken to a man named Tony Nancy, who was a legendary hot rod upholstery guy. It looks beautiful. So I decided to buy it, and when we brought it back to the shop we got it up on the lift and it was amazingly sound. We did the brakes and master cylinder, flushed the petrol tank and went through the motor, including getting it up on the dyno.

I'd heard scary stories about electrolysis between the aluminium and steel parts of cars. Luckily rust is not an issue here in California, especially in the desert, and this one was in very solid condition. The nicest surprise was not its condition but how it drove. After all these years of thinking it was heavy, I realise it is one of the greatest cars I have ever driven. I was astounded how light on its feet it was. It only weighs 1,270kg, and 240hp is more than enough to move it down the road. It's a car that gathers speed quickly. That might be a strange way of phrasing it but I think that's a good description. In its day, nothing accelerated faster. Even now, this is still pretty quick and, at 100 miles an hour, it's rock steady.

This must be the greatest car of the 1950s. It had incredible build quality and rigidity. It is comfortable, quiet and smooth. I took it out on the freeway and the speedo said 100mph. I presumed it was wrong but a guy out with me on his bike said we were at 105. Now it's my favourite car to drive. For now, I am not going to restore the body. I like it as it is. It's a perfect, classic daily driver. I remember reading a magazine where the writer reported seeing a Lamborghini Countach parked with the interior littered with crumpled crisp packets and discarded soda cans. I remember thinking, that's kind of cool.

Having the ratty paint job, you can take it into a fast food joint and park it. Some say it's a sin and it should be perfect. Maybe one day I will restore it, but you could spend $300,000 making it brand new and it will still drive like it does now, unrestored. Timing is everything. Having only just got the original gull-wing, Mercedes asked if they could show the new one, the SLS AMG Gullwing, to some guests at my garage. I was happy to oblige.

This car is Mercedes-Benz's way of saying they value and respect their heritage. And they want to see if they can make a modern classic. There is no other reason to build it but for pride and showing that lightning can strike twice. You can't compare the two. You can only live in the time you live in. In some ways it is superior to the original. In the Fifties, they couldn't put a five-speed gearbox in because it would have pushed the price through the roof, and they wanted to have disc brakes.

With the new one there are none of those limitations. You have ceramic brakes and a seven-speed, double-clutch transmission, so on that sense they started at a higher level. It's made by AMG, who are hot-rodders with engineering degrees. Like the original, it handles beautifully and has great performance. But to me, the quirkiness of the gull-wing doors is the key selling point of the car, just like the original. When you say gull-wing, it only means one thing: Mercedes. motoring@thenational.ae