Chalk and . . . chalk?
A shorter article similar to this was first published in the Mercedes-Benz Club magazine.
Sports cars are the great joy of motoring. I’ve owned an MGTC, an MGB, the vastly underrated Ginetta G32 and, until five years ago, an absolutely gorgeous TVR Chimera.
The picture shows my Chimaera. The grill was as supplied to the original owner but is unique. The colour was specific to the car, described by Gerbil, the paint shop boss at TVR, as ‘Subaru blue, some white and an extra couple of handfuls of sparkles.’ For four years I edited the TVR car club magazine and this allowed me to drive every type of TVR produced, from the S-Type onwards. I went to Spa to report on a race in a T350 demonstrator. The T440, the homologation special for the racing T400R, belonging to Lawrence Tomlinson, who later bought Ginetta, was a highlight.
When an old back injury meant that declutching became very painful I had to face the prospect of selling my Chimaera and having my next car choose which gear I should be in. This was a difficult decision for someone who had only just stopped regarding automatic advance and retard as a frippery.
I bought an automatic 2005 350 SLK.
On the face of it, there was quite a difference between the Chimaera and the SLK.
TVRs are not so much in your face as down your throat. Brilliant paintwork with lots of sparkles is the norm. Some of them change colour before your eyes, which must explain why Schrödinger never owned one. The interiors are stunning: bespoke shiny switches all over a startling dash and acres of cow wherever you look. Subtle they aren’t. The seats are extremely comfortable, almost sucking you in. Many owners felt the cars wanted you to drop your concentration so they could bite you.
My 350 is dull in comparison. Black is the dominant interior colour, something that is only allowed on tyres in TVRs, and then reluctantly. The seats, albeit equally comfortable, lack padding and if you dropped a chip on the floor the carpets are so thin that you would be able to see it.
Who would love to be behind a Cerbera dash? It is stunning the first time you see it and the feeling doesn’t wear off. Image courtesy of Andy Hills.
Once underway things change.
The 350 is surprisingly chuckable. You can place it to an inch. The same goes for the Chimaera. Both cars have slight initial understeer. I find the little slide, and the extra lock, reassuring and sensible. Once over the initial turn in, both are neutral, the Chimaera letting you know if the road surface is bumpy.
What is remarkable is how quickly the SLK goes without fuss. I am forever apologising for getting to meetings too early. The satnav is way off in its estimates of arrival time, yet I feel as if I am going much slower than in the TVR. The reading on the speedometer often comes as a surprise. I get the feeling that I will have to repeat this paragraph to a police officer sooner or later.
Few drivers seemed to resent being overtaken by the Chimaera, or any TVR come to that. Cars move over and drivers will wave. There were a number of occasions where I’ve been surprised by a sudden slowing of a car in front, their intent being to let me pass.
When in a Tuscan we were looking for a parking space in Le Mans one November when attending a LMES race. We stopped to consider a gap about a foot too short when a police van pulled up behind us. Two Gendarmes got out and directed us to park on the footway.
The fear that we would return to an empty space proved unfounded.
The SLK on the other had seems to bring out the worst in drivers. Rather than slow, they will often accelerate just to block me overtaking. I somehow doubt the French police would be so accommodating.
I was fed stories of the reliability of the R171, how Mercedes-Benz had solved the few teething problems of the earlier model. In my first two months of ownership I had a massive water leak into the passenger footwell, the noise from the heater fan drowned out the radio, the automatic gearbox required a new plate, something rather expensive I’m told, and after a dash warning light came on I was told, incorrectly and deceitfully, that two crankshaft sensors had given up the ghost. This turned out to be the disintegration of the balance shaft sprocket, a known fault, and the engine was broken. See later.
It is all the more ironic as in my seven years of ownership, apart from service items, all I bought for my TVR were a new boot strut and a rear calliper. So much for Clarkson.
One thing that I miss is the camaraderie of ownership. The vast majority of MG owners wave at one another. TVR owners remember you if you don’t wave back, and if you meet them later they will mention it, possibly with tears in their eyes.
On the occasions that I have waved at other SLK owners all I’ve received in return is a look of confusion. It is very disappointing. The police have these lists nowadays and I’m worried I might appear on one.
The gearbox has convinced me that an automatic change does not spoil a sports car. Whilst I have to say that I still miss the satisfaction of slotting into a gear at just the right revs, not to mention the little blip when changing down just to wake up those dozing, the auto box picks the most appropriate gear. At least most of the time.
It has one feature that irritates me. It persists in changing gear mid corner, just at the time when I am on neutral throttle, normally just before accelerating away. Despite the car remaining stable, it is disconcerting.
A simple way around the problem is to go manual from the beginning of the corner, keeping it in gear and then going into auto once things have straightened out.
I have tried driving in full manual mode but with the seven speeds it seems I am for ever pressing buttons at the back of the steering wheel. Now I leave it in auto unless I am enjoying myself or going around a testing corner. Further I’ve found the gearlever more convenient than the paddles. It is probably an age thing.
The 350 is used as an everyday car so ends up being driven in traffic fairly frequently. The automatic gearbox shines in such situations. I once got cramp in my left calf when in an M25 traffic jam in the TVR. Despite having to lie on the hard shoulder in front of my car to stretch my calf muscle, no one called the police. Too busy laughing I suppose.
The convertible top of the TVR had a solid centre section which stowed in the boot, with a double duck bit around the rear window. It almost, according to the testers, turned the car into a coupé. Now I know they are wrong. The ability of the SLK to go from an open two seater to the closed coupé is a tremendous feature. No wonder other manufacturers copied the design.
Despite my age, and free bus pass, I only consider myself reasonably mature, although before I went self-employed I had a responsible job. I have to say, though, putting the roof up or down has to be done when there are spectators. It really is cool.
After the Chimera’s two sets of golf clubs boot, my wife was a little shocked with the capacity of the SLK’s. I could not suddenly change to saying that size isn’t everything. My suggestion of squashy bags was met with disdain. It would appear that the roof stays up en route to a hotel.
She also felt the lack of interior storage required a comment or two. In the TVR our big fluffy dog, a Bouvier, could lay down behind the seats with luggage around it. In the SLK there’s no place for a Yorkshire Terrier or handbag.
As you can see, Peter Wheeler didn’t receive the accolades that his coachwork deserved.
Other big differences between the Chimaera and the SLK:
You feel a little yobbish when driving the Chimaera, so a massive tick there.
In the SLK I feel part of the establishment, and a successful part.
Every journey in a TVR is an event.
In addition to being the faster car, the SLK is easier to drive fast. The Chimaera has a torque curve, the 350 SLK a torque flat.
Pedestrians wave at you in a TVR. Petrol consumption increases at traffic lights at school turn-out time as the kids demand that you ‘rev it up, mister’. And on the subject of fuel costs, the SLK recently returned a remarkable 33mpg on a 200 mile journey on mixed roads. It was easy to get the Chimaera down to 17, although overall I managed 21.
The SLK exudes quality and does not smell of fibreglass.
Minor difference that needs mentioning:
The lack of instruments in the SLK. Oil pressure, in particular, and water temperature are not so much of an instant but how the readings change over a period of time. They can give early warning.
Both are sports cars, fun to drive, and give pleasure in ownership.
It is a never ending thrill to open the garage door to reveal the 350. Just like the Chimaera.
So, if I could declutch, would I go back to my TVR? Despite it being an absolutely superb car, cheap to own and buy, I have to say that the jury is out.
One year on
After 10 months or so ownership, just after I’d submitted the above article to a magazine, I found that the engine was broken. The camshaft fault was in fact a disintegrating balance gear, explained in the SLK Guide. I took my car to a Mercedes-Benz specialist and they said that the engine would have to be removed, and the fee would be around £3000 even if they found nothing else wrong.
There were problems with oil consumption and the oil pressure was low. They felt this might be due to damage from the bits of sintered metal as the gear was on the ‘wrong’ side of the filter.
Another garage, and £50, later I was told that it might be a rebore and a new oil pump.
“If it was me, I’d go for a replacement engine.” Like that would be affordable.
I couldn’t sell a damaged car privately so I found a garage with a spare 350 V6 which made me an offer.
I’ve now got a 2004 170 SLK with a 3.2 V6 engine. It is significantly less powerful than the 350, which is both surprising and a disappointment. But it is still a sports car and still fun to drive. I still like the car. Would I go back to an automatic Chimaera? Oh, yes.
I can’t close without mentioning one point. It might seem a small one but to me, it was infuriating and unprofessional. I received no pay for the article. I knew I would not, but I asked the editor if he would run a link to this website for the SLK Guide. He agreed. Imagine my surprise to see, just under the link for ‘a book on the SLK’ a further note to say that members could find a guide to the SLK in the club’s online archive. There was a big difference between the few pages on the club site and my 60,000 words and over 100 pictures. That brief one line betrayal meant I would not write for the magazine again.
I’m still irritated by the trick. I pulled some moves I’m not proud of when I was an editor, but they were all for the good of the magazine. I’d have not stooped that low.