(first posted 9/7/2012) This was the first real Mercedes sports car of the 1960s. Without doubt, M-B had designed some fine postwar cars, and the Fintail was quite modern (well, except for the…fins). In 1961, Mercedes sent the finned look packing, starting with the W111 coupes and cabriolets, which reflected a clean, linear, and very modern design language. Meanwhile, the 300SL and 190SL were getting long in the tooth, and Mercedes decided it was time to apply Paul Bracq’s classic lines to their roadster. And here it is. The Pagoda. The W113.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, the 300SL was what we’d call a supercar today: High performance, fine handling, and lots of gee-whiz technology–including a lightweight tubular chassis and the first use of fuel injection in a car sold to the public. It was the fastest car made at the time of its 1954 debut. Available only as a roadster after the 1957 retirement of the iconic Gullwing coupe, it remained by any measure a beautiful car–but one whose 1950’s roots were quite evident.
Shortly after the Gullwing set the motoring press afire, a more prosaic version, the 190SL, entered the scene. While sporty, it was really more of a touring car than a sports car, sharing many components–including its 1,897-cc inline four-cylinder engine–with the “Ponton” 190 family sedan. While not particularly speedy, it was well-built and comfortable, with a little dash of 300SL panache. But its flowing curves, like those of its big brother, wouldn’t age very well in the new decade, and production ended in February 1963. It was time for a change…
That change was largely due to one man: Paul Bracq. Born in France, Bracq started his career with industrial designer Philippe Charbonneaux. In 1957, he joined Daimler-Benz, as head of the design studio. His touch was evident in the 1961 220Seb coupe and cabriolet (a 1969 280SE model is shown above), whose timeless design carried on all the way to 1971 (it remains my favorite Mercedes, ever). Soon, the same clean lines and subtle elegance would adorn the 300SL/190SL replacement.
The Mercedes 230SL debuted at the Geneva Salon, in March 1963. It was clearly a car for the new decade, and aside from its iconic grille and color-keyed hubcaps, looked nothing like its 190SL and 300SL forebears. It was powered by a 2,306 cc, 150-hp OHC inline six (M180) with six-plunger mechanical fuel injection. Mated to a synchromesh four-speed manual transmission, it provided a top speed of 124 mph, or 121 mph with the available four-speed automatic.
But was it a worthy successor to the venerable 300SL? It was a question asked by more than a few people who considered this new and admittedly attractive two-seater more of a 190SL replacement. Mercedes nipped that thinking in the bud, and quite dramatically, by entering a new 230SL in the grueling Spa-Sofia-Liege rally. The over 3,200-mile race was no cake walk; Starting in in the city of Liege (Belgium), it ran through Germany, Austria, Italy and then back to Liege, via France. Driven by Eugen Bohringer and co-driver Klaus Kaiser, the little 230SL quite handily proved itself by winning the rally. There was no doubt that the handsome little sportster had shown its mettle.
Yes, the W113 was a beautiful and capable machine. It was also about as new a car as you could get from Mercedes in 1963. Beyond its new sheetmetal and engine (essentially a breathed-on version of the W111 220 sedan’s powerplant), it was also the first Mercedes to come with disc brakes (albeit only in front, with Girling 250mm discs; in back were Alfin 230mm drums). In addition, it featured an independent suspension with double wishbones up front and swinging half-axles at the back, tied into a central transverse compensator spring. Although this arrangement had been used on the W196 racers, it was a first on a production Mercedes. It must have been hard for Daimler-Benz engineers to let go of their beloved swing axle rear suspension!
Inside, the traditional large-diameter white M-B steering wheel with a chrome horn ring dominated the driver’s view. Bucket seats came standard equipment, as did a floor-mounted shifter for both the manual and automatic transmissions. A column shift on a sports car? Perish the thought!
In place of a rear seat, the 230SL provided a parcel shelf for odds and ends. As was expected in a Mercedes-Benz, all interior materials were of extremely high quality appropriate to its premium price. The 230SL was produced until 1967, though only 185 were built in its final year. Total production totaled 19,831 units, 4,752 of which were destined for the U.S. market. Nineteen sixty-seven might have marked the end of the 230SL, but most certainly not that of the W113.
In March 1967, the 250SL replaced the 230. Except for a new, chrome-plated “250SL” deck lid badge, its exterior was identical to the earlier model. But the really big news was a new version of the Mercedes OHC six (M129), now with 2,496 cc and seven main bearings. It produced 170 hp @ 5750 rpm–about the same as its predecessor– but also about 10% more torque, thanks to revised valves and ports that made for livelier performance. The brochure photo above also shows off the iconic “Pagoda” roof, so named because the sides are taller than the middle.
The Pagoda hardtop was polarizing, to say the least. While many people liked the distinctive look, others thought it made the car appear squashed or cramped. In fact, its outboard edges were not designed so much for aesthetic appeal as for improved ease of entry and better outward visibility. At its midpoint, the roof offered ample room for most drivers despite the optical illusion that suggests otherwise. That it was also handsome was a happy side effect.
The 250SL also replaced the 230’s front disc/rear drum setup with ATE front and rear disc brakes. The 250SL’s rather short run lasted from December 1966 to January 1968. Only 5,196 were built, making it the rarest of the W113s.
The final version of the W113 was the 280SL, introduced in 1968. The engine was the next stage of evolution (M130) for the venerable six that started its life in 1951. A larger bore increased displacement to 2,778 cc, and was rated at 180 SAE horsepower and 193 lb-ft of torque. It also featured new, flatter wheel covers–as well as less chrome on the instrument panel and door panels, in compliance with new 1968 safety standards. Otherwise, it was essentially the same car. A total of 23,885 were built through 1971, after which it was replaced by the R107 SL.
I was extremely pleased to find this 230SL on River Drive in Moline back in May, just as the cool old cars were coming out of hibernation. Ironically, I had slowed down to look at a showroom-new 1993-96 Cutlass Cruiser when I spotted the SL. I forgot all about the Olds.
I found this one parked near Marquis Harbor, but couldn’t find an owner to answer my questions about it. In any case, this car was in really nice shape–not perfect, but above and beyond mere “driver” status. Interestingly, it appears to be a European model, having integrated headlamp/parking lamp units instead of separate sealed beams. I’ve always liked the clean look of European lights, and they look great here.
It’s been 45 years since the last W113 230SL was built, yet it still looks quite clean and modern. Although I’ve seen a few in the past, it’s probably been a good five years since I last saw one in the metal. This car made my day!
(Editor’s note: All brochure pictures are from lov2xlr8.com, which offers an extensive collection of European and Asian car brochures for your viewing pleasure. If you enjoy oldcarbrochures.com, be sure to visit lov2xlr8.com here.)
Good find. These are about the only Benzes I get excited about. Love that yellow one in front of the Colosseum in its skinny whites.
The 70s roadsters have kind of a bleach-blonde rich old lady vibe to me, while the new ones are driven to the links by their husbands. (Totally shallow and biased of me – if you like yours, enjoy, it’s just not my thing.)
But out of all the SL models, this was the most bland and ugly to me. Almost like a Dodges Aries K Car convertible from Chrysler from the 80’s.
Just cannot find the appeal in this car.
An acquaintance in Vancouver has one. I had to fly back to Saskatchewan in June because my mother passed. I had a long layover there before resuming my journey inland. Cruising around and being dropped off at the airport in this made a sad event just a little less sad.
I am sorry to hear about your mom, Roger.
One of the things I most miss about the 1960s is that the distinctiveness of brands. Mercedes’ SL might as well have been designed on a different planet than the Jaguar XKE. Today much of that distinctiveness has been washed away into a sea of globalized muck.
Marketing and the automotive press.
Teams designing cars instead of one person, the odd thing is most cars we regard as classic,come from the hand of one man.
Like this Benz does.
It’s not muck, it’s laws! The laws of aerodynamics affect all car companies the same. It’s up to the designer to make the car distinctive. The same is true for the rules that require cars not to mangle pedestrians.
And yet at the speeds we are allowed to drive/supposed to drive, how much effect does aerodynamics actually have? I’d gladly swap some aerodynamic effect I can’t legally benefit from for a bit of style.
I have always liked these, although I know virtually nothing about them. I much preferred this series to the generation that followed. One of my favorite features was that big steering wheel with the fat padded hub.
I also think that the car looked much better without the roof. The proportions of the roof (glass height, and the super thin look of the metal over the windows) just never looked quite right.
great history lesson. thanks.
One of my all-time favorite cars. It bounces in and out of the top spot for what I will buy when AOL buys CC for big bucks. 🙂
In my MMing, it will have the rare 5 speed, and I will commit heresy and put in the DOHC version of the 2.8 six out of a European-spec R107; with about 200hp.
And what other cars bounce in and out of the top spot?
Depends on what day you catch me. Porsche 356 is right up there too.
Nice write up and pics Tom. I’m one of the few who prefers these cars with the round US-spec headlamps. That ties the look back better to the classic Gullwing and I find the Euro lamps look too bug eyed. And this is weird… I also prefer the side marker lamps and bumper guards on the 280SLs over the cleaner look of the earlier models. European cars from the 60s and 70s that lack US bumpers and lamps always screamed gray market to me.
FWIW I believe the W113 still had a swing axle rear suspension.
I like the round lights too, as it gives the car a bright-eyed cheery expression. The flush lamps seem sort of gray and misshapen until you turn them on. Of course, I may be the only person who preferred the US quad rounds on the XJ-S, so what do I know?
Actually, I like them both, but it’s rare to see a Euro-headlight version in the U.S. – especially in Moline, Illinois!
What surprises me most about this one is the normal passenger plates. I would’ve expected AV plates on it, given the age.
Nice find over there in the Quads.
Absolutely agree on the quad rounds on the XJS. The Euro lense looks awful in my opinion.
Around 1990 I worked for a parts house that had parts for Mercedes and BMW. We sold a lot of European headlamp (and bumper) conversions for older Mercedes. I thought the US version of the lamps were better looking as well. I have heard in Europe some actually prefer the US lamps, and some people overseas change over to the US version. No one liked the US battering ram bumpers, though.
I used to park next to one of these in the office parking lot about 20 years ago. It was also a white one, in immaculate condition.
Pictures don’t do these cars justice. They’re drop-dead gorgeous in person.
Excellent article with great pictures and brochure layouts.
Up until last year I was still commuting into the city from out here near the beach in SoCal and I used to see one of these as a daily driver in traffic on Wilshire each morning. Pristine, bright red, and a caramel interior if I recall correctly. One of the great joys of living here is seeing so many CCs on a regular basis. Some of those ladies of a certain age and hair color mentioned above can still be spotted tooling around BH in one of these. I’m pretty sure M-B must have had SoCal as a target market for these cars because they were still quite plentiful when I arrived here in 72. Was A/C an option from the beginning?
In the brochure layout above, the window cranks are clearly visible. It appears that the CC above also has manual windows. A good reminder that power windows were not ubiquitous even in this market segment back in the day.
The Pagoda never had power windows even in 1971 its last year. In fact it never had factory-installed A/C either but the port/dealer-installed unit by Fridgeking was designed with help by Mercedes to fit nicely into the car.
So I was looking at the right rear fender of a Pagoda, and not the left rear of an XJ…nice clue! (Should have known when I didn’t see the gas cap.)
There are a few well-preserved examples of these around LA, though they are far outnumbered by the nice-but-not-so-graceful107s.
The shot of the Mercedes in the CC clue is actually of the right front fender. If Tom had shown even a bit more of the car it would have been too easy to guess. I also thought it might have been a Jag at first.
I meant right front (but too late to edit)! Thanks for catching that.
Not to take over someone else’s engine swapping theme, but when I was younger I always wondered what one of these would be like with the 3.0l turbo-diesel.
Now, I wonder what one would be like with an LS6 and a 6-speed.
I don’t know of another design as pristine as this. Look at the subtle kickup just aft of the doors. Just the slightest hint of homage to the rear fenders of Benzes past. Some might say a Jaguar is more beautiful, but I don’t know that they were ever as clean, honest, and well executed in design as the 230SL. White is the perfect color for this car.
E-type Series 1 coupé I guess.
I was quite taken with these cars, and one day in 1972 when I was on the way home from looking at a 1955 Facel Vega I saw one with a sign on it. I ended up trading my gray-primer 1960 Chevy pickup plus some cash for it. It was a 1964 4-speed car, serial number 2750, which in spite of having been imported from Pennsylvania by a sailor didn’t seem to have any rusted-out spots, even under the wheel cutouts. It had a paint job of dubious quality exemplified by the 3-inch bubble on the top of the deck lid and a smaller one on the hood. It was at least the original dark blue color, and like most older SL’s I had looked at the soft top was a rag although the hardtop was in nice shape, a slightly lighter blue color.
When I first had the car on a lift I noticed that many of the body bolts were bent toward the back of the car, making me wonder if someone had been using it for a brush rig or something. I think I’ve already told the story here about how my gas station guy, with a little help from me, redid the brakes. I went to the Benz dealer to get O-rings and was informed that only trained Mercedes mechanics were allowed to disassemble the front calipers. I ended up getting the O-rings from a hydraulic-cylinder specialist: “Do you want those in neoprene or Buna-n?” “Whatever works best with brake fluid….”
We kept the car for most of the summer, and while it was reliable and we had some great times with it, we ended up letting it go. We already had the 1958 Plymouth convertible for top-down cruising, and in truth the 230SL needed a complete restoration, which would have been beyond our means even if we’d only had one other car. As happened with several other cars we sold it at the very bottom of the market…I was beginning to think that my selling any particular car was the actual impetus for the market on that model to start going up.
I love the look of that pagoda roof– so distinctive. I really love the design goal– to make a roofed car seem more open and visually spacious. Too bad every modern car is styled in the opposite direction. I’d probably have a Mini if their domed roofs didn’t squeeze the windows down to cellar-like proportions. But so many large vehicles seem cramped and gloomy, too.
Now is the time for all good men to stand together and ask for, nay, demand… just what, exactly? What’s the antonym for “tumblehome”?
I always loved these cars, but one thing really strikes me now, and it’s that you can actually SEE out of them.
As a child it seemed like the families who had been driving a Suicide door Lincoln were likely to buy one of These After 1970
I’ve always thought that these were the nicest of all the SL generations for aesthetic reasons – for the record, I also prefer the contemporaneous W108 S class above the others.
The subsequent SLs are certainly more luxurious, but they seem to miss the mark on both the “sport” and the “leicht” components, and so they don’t really seem to meet my definition of “roadster.” I also don’t like their squashed down look as much. My aging parents have a relatively immaculate later R107 version, and while it’s a wonderful car for what it is, the overall driving feel is too ponderous for my tastes. I suppose the roughly 800 pounds of additional weight and the mandatory autotragic are responsible for that.
I haven’t driven either, but I can’t help wondering if the SLK wasn’t the real successor to these 113s.
Looking at the front-on shot, and the rear three-quarter, I’m seeing a bit of 55 T-bird influence. Does anyone else see that?
I drove a W113 once, and seem to recall that the automatic shifter is reversed, in the sense that Park is all the way to the back, not all the way to the front, per the norm. Beautiful little car.
I bought a raggedy R107 (560SL) once for $1000…212,000 miles, rusty, dirty, nasty, but a great summer ride. That was a much bigger, heavier car, but cool nonetheless. Traded it for a bass boat…that’s a story for another time.
The story of this one has a happy ending.
Or maybe it’s more accurate to say a “HAPPIER” ending… 🙂
Beautiful proportions, elegant appointments, sound engineering, and first-rate Mercedes quality. But I would still rather have an E-type Jag, or a Corvette.
What I understand is that Paul Bracq was inspired by the greenhouse and the low-door level of the Corvair Mk 1.
The Corvair Mk 1 is actually a design icon inmy opinion, its wide low looks and large windows, the ‘floating roof’ you can see on the Range Rover, many car design of the sixties was inspired on the Corvair.
In my eyes, one of THE ten most beautiful cars ever made (while I still think the Cord 810 is the most beautiful, it’s by a hair’s breadth and the other nine are essentially in a tie for second).
Modern car designers need to be dragged (at gunpoint if necessary) to the pagoda and taught that THIS is how you do a roofline.
Mine’s a work in progress–11 years now. Not much to add except that since some major (and expensive) engine work the year after I purchased it (fuel injection pump, valve job), it has run like a top, with only regular maintenance. An incredibly solid machine, and while noisy by modern standards, the sound it makes under hard acceleration is pure music. Oh, and the euro headlights are not original.
Serendipity: the car (now residing in Dallas) originally came from upstate New York. When I was looking for one to buy, my best friend would talk about how much she loved the one driven by her elementary school principle when she was a kid in upstate New York. When I bought this, it turned out that it was not just the same model but the very car she remembered. Made it seem like it was meant to be!
Off topic, but just wondering: Why did Tom quit writing here?
Contributors come and go. Tom and another former CC Contributer now administer a Facebook page “The Brougham Society”.
The other one was Richard Bennett, right? I asked about Tom because he was a very frequent contributor… The variety of contributors is one of the things I most like about CC, actually 🙂
I’ve loved these cars ever since their debut. To me, all Sixties Benzes represent taste, elegance and quality in a way that no cars – including newer Mercedes – have since. Make mine a 250SL in that Tobacco Brown color that was popular then.
The parents of a childhood friend drove a 1969 230S. It may have been at the end of the sixties, but I do remember it as an elegant car. It was black over red and the back seat was very comfortable for my 6’9″ self. Very nice cars from MB in the sixties indeed.
I don’t know much about these except they’re pretty…and I’d want one with a manual transmission.
I’m reminded of my one and only M-B experience. The car was a ’63 220 sedan with a paint job that looked as if it had been applied with a brush. The interior was ripped up. it smoked every time it shifted gears (4-speed manual on the column). But it was built like a tank and was utterly reliable.
The parents of a friend of a friend had one, along with an XJ12. The MB seemed elegant but discreet. Nice with the top down or off, but the pagoda was really stunning. The Jag was more in-your-face. I think the W113 has aged exceptionally well, while the R107 just looks bloated and boring. For me, nothing MB has done since the W113 and 300SEL 6.3, except the G-Wagen (make mine diesel, please) and a few C-Class and 230 SLK’s from the early 2000’s have any appeal.
The 230SL and its later derived relatives, the 250Sl and 280SL are fundamentally more delightful and safer to drive than the 300Sl Gullwing due to fundamental superior design changes in the swing axle rear suspension design.
In the 300SL Gullwing there are higher twin swing axle pivot points giving a higher rear swing axle center of gravity. Additionally in the 300SL design there are no localizing trailing arms with the fore-aft localization of the rear swing axles achieved only by the coil springs. This resulted in a fore-aft axle small migration steering effect which, when combined with the off throttle swing axle jacking, exacerbated the sudden off throttle snap oversteer that surprised novice 300SL drivers with their first and hopefully last spin-out–and hopefully without collision damage to the car. The rear end of the 300SL always felt looser compared to the subsequent W113 design.
Interestingly many current 300SL drivers are timid in driving their Gullwings (if they even drive them at all) likely for this very reason of swing axle jacking. They are probably afraid of damaging their perceived now too valuable to drive Gullwings, especially compared to the many Porsche 356 owners who still drive their cars energetically.
Like other similar swing axle cars, i.e 356 Porsches, you learned never to lift the throttle in a corner but to keep steady or increasing throttle on to tame the swing axle jacking.
The W113 SL Roadster series cars had a more advanced single low pivot swing axle lower center of gravity design with solid longitudinal axle localization by trailing arms. The rear suspension coil springs now only had to provide a springing function, not additional fore-aft localization in this design. Additionally there was a superiorly mounted camber compensator coil spring to additionally minimize swing axle jacking and minimize off throttle snap oversteer in cornering. This design made the 230-25–280SL series of roadsters inherently safer, easier to drive, and, believe it or not, more fun compared to the predecessor 300SL Gullwing.
Camber compensation springing was also applied to later versions of the first series Corvair and for swing axle designed Triumph Spitfires and Triumph Heralds. (Interestingly, as an aside, there was a funny common expression for the Herald: “Hark the Herald’s Axles Swing” as a description for the notorious swing axle jacking of the Herald)
This more advanced 230SL rear suspension swing axle design is demonstrated in the schematic.
Woops, here is the W113 rear suspension schematic:
I’ve had to think about that hardtop. I’ve decided I like it. It very much seems like the European aesthetic of simple, modern, practical design, sans most American influence. It’s this European aesthetic that collided with the American manufacturers in a big way after 1973 that eventually caused major shifts in American vehicle design.
Getting pedantic here, what is with the air vents outboard on the dash? Mercedes calls them intakes, where these would be HVAC output on just about any car – especially by the time this car was designed.