It’s early and the adolescent sun is just about making its way up through the mountains. Yet the morning dew has long disappeared and the sultry air blowing between my fingers and around my neck is telling me that the inescapable heat of high summer has arrived, while smoke escaping from chimneys in the distant landscape completes the picture postcard. We are headed out of town, and riding in Amir Ali Jetha’s 1951 MG TD, I am experiencing my very first encounter with a car from this era. It’s an astonishing date with the past, like having dinner with Marilyn Monroe. The TD’s twin carburetted four-cylinder engine is distilling 54 horses under the hood and dispensing them through the rear wheels. But the MG’s soundtrack is being drowned by the pupil-widening exhaust of the Mercedes-Benz SLK. It seems that the boxes in the ‘makings of a memorable day’ checklist had all been crossed.
But the point today, apart from testing the SLK, is not to compare the two, but to see how different or similar open top motoring has become over the past fifty years.The Ford Model T may have put America on wheels, but MG put them behind the wheel. It’s easy to see why. Unlike the softly sprung, numb-steering American barges, the MG (especially the earlier generation TC) offered at least the illusion of speed and handling. Add to that those stripped-for-action looks defined by the flowing front fenders, cut-down doors and a hood that has more feet than engine. Throw in an ol’chap wearing a tweed cap and a coat with suede elbow patches driving on a twisting two-lane road in an elbows-out driving style, and you would have a poster child for classic fifties British motoring.
But if ever there was a poster child for extreme makeover, it’s the new SLK. Once the softest, smoothest, and most conservative two-seater, Mercedes has given it fast, contemporary lines grafted from the intoxicating SLR, making it the most aggressive car in their stable this side of the supercar. The success lies in the fact that it makes the Boxster and the Z4 look dull.
The long bonnet helps it maintain the roadster’s proportions while the sharply upswept waistline and the tiny glass house convey a good sense of athleticism. Top up or down, the visual appeal remains as a small grand touring roadster rather than a hardcore sports car, something that the old SLK also did beautifully. If looks mean anything – which in this sort of car can mean everything – the SLK is a winner before it’s even turned a wheel.