Curbside Classic: 1969 Mercedes-Benz 280 SL (W113) – A Fish In The Percolator

Have you ever felt, when re-experiencing something you thought you knew, that it was somehow nowhere near as good as you remembered it? Could be anything – a work of visual or audio art, a piece of pie or a place you visited. In your mind, it was a solid 9, but you listen / taste / see it again and you can hardly give it more than a 5, and that’s being generous.

This is how I felt when photographing this Pagoda. Something wasn’t sitting right. “There’s a bone in the yoghurt,” as the French say. I’m not sure why, of course, but I’ll try to put my impressions into words, string those together into semi-cogent sentences, form paragraphs and hopefully make some sort of sense, at the end of it all.

First off: I love Mercedes-Benzes from this era. All of them. Well, nearly: I do have strong reservations about the Ponton, but the other ones are just perfection incarnate. From the Adenauer 300 to the W123, they never put a foot wrong, in my view. Ahrens, Barényi, Bracq, Geiger, Sacco and all the folks who helped them design these cars did outstanding work, be it on sports coupés, standard saloons or stately limos.

Secondly, I thought the Pagoda was a genius design. And when I see most pictures of it, I still do. In fact, when I caught the above 250 SL on in a Bangkok car park a couple years ago, I was all over it. The photos were mostly terrible, unfortunately, but the car itself was a joy to behold.

But when I happened upon this one, it all fell apart. The W113 I thought I knew had morphed into an evil doppelganger. The sealed beam headlamps were culprit number one. It’s not like the W108 or the W111 coupé, which actually look good with their stacked US quads – so much so that a number of European models got them too. On the Pagoda, those protuberant sealed beams are disturbing. But that’s just a minor detail, relatively speaking. The fishy aftertaste went beyond that piscine stare.

The car’s proportions seemed off, especially from the side. The famous hardtop roof looked too tall in relation to the body, as if it had been stretched upward. I had noticed this before, but it had never struck me as much as when I stood next to this particular W113. I had never figured how tortured the greenhouse looked, either. There are a few too many angles that don’t really work in unison here.

The quarterlight, C-pillar and backlight are really not agreeing with each other (or with the rear end of the car) – they’re all slightly different, as if unable to agree on a direction. The door’s reverse-canted rear shut line, in this confused context, adds another layer of jarring complexity. It doesn’t even attempt to echo the windshield’s angle, yet also fails to work with the rear of the car. If at least two or three of these lines were aware of one another, the result would probably have been more harmonious.

The shape of the Pagoda’s windows and especially of its windshield are very odd indeed. More than they need to be, anyway. The windshield is especially important, as you can ditch the Pagoda hardtop if you want, but the windshield is not optional. Look at the 300 SL roadster’s windshield, by comparison: simple, effective and just as curvy. I said look at the windshield.

The W113’s windshield accentuates the roof’s shape, with those bottom corners digging into the body, while the centre part rises to bridge the bulk of the engine bay — all in marked contrast to the completely flat upper part. I’m not sure this was needed, as it piles on more offbeat angles into the busy greenhouse design. As a standalone panoramic windshield, it’s fine, but in conjunction with the rest, it’s just too much. It’s certainly not a shape that was seen on other Mercedes cars, SL or not.

The main design feature, that famous concave hardtop, is so unusual that it attracts attention and keeps it there, which helps disguise the rest of the greenhouse’s more questionable traits. And this is undoubtedly the car’s tour de force, a real innovation from Paul Bracq. I’m not saying he purposefully designed this roof to conceal the rest of the car’s quirks, but that’s kind of how it functions in practice. (Incidentally, we see from the Yanase sticker here that this car (or at the very least the hardtop) arrived in Japan via the official importer. This sticker is often seen on certain foreign cars here. The sealed beams must have been specified by the original owner – it’s probably not a later US import.)

When time came to replace the W113, the twin-peaked roof came back for a second season. The rear window and the metal top seem pretty much identical on the R107 as they were on the W113, but they did a much better job (in my opinion) of the quarterlights and C-pillar on this version. It’s unclear to me whether the R107’s beefier body balances the roof more effectively, or the R107’s hardtop is less tall overall, but the result is more harmonious than its predecessor. The W113 pioneered the Pagoda roof, but the R107 made it work.

The W113’s rear end is almost flawless. The slight kick up in the beltline is one of my favourite features on this car, as are the two-part chrome bumpers. And you just have to love that back-up light they added between the bumpers for the JDM – I haven’t seen that on other Pagodas, but maybe I missed it. The whole rear end is pretty much a scaled-down version of the W111/112 Coupé, down to the shaved off fins and the rear lights. The lone fly in the ointment is that stupid fuel filler cap, just sitting there like a big purulent pimple on an otherwise handsome derriere. Would it have been too much to ask to hide that thing behind a flap or put it behind the license plate? Apparently so. It’s just the super-expensive SL, after all. No need for Mercedes-Benz to resort to cheap party tricks.

Our feature car’s interior was not picture-worthy: the steering wheel was covered with a blanket. So here’s a 230 SL dash, just to remind us of what Pagoda interiors look like. Can’t fault anything in here – it’s all standard-issue ‘60s Benz, which is to say lovely to look at and faultlessly assembled. The best way to enjoy a W113 is definitely from the driver’s seat.

One last thing: is it just me, or does it seem like this car’s wheels are too big for its body? This is not something I’ve noticed on all W113s, though I’ve had this feeling before when looking at some. Pagodas generally look a tad gangly to me, chiefly because the body is so svelte, but the tyres on this 280 SL seem both too wide and too tall – again, to my eyes – and make this particular car look like a miniature monster truck.

Going back to the Bangkok 250 SL for comparison, I’m not seeing the same issue: the tyres seem to fit the car. So either the Tokyo 280 SL’s Dunlops are bigger than they ought to be, or I really need to get a new pair of glasses. I realize some of you are die-hard W113 fans and know much more than I do about these cars. As I wrote at the beginning, this post is not aiming to criticize the Pagoda’s design, but just to nudge it off its pedestal a bit. I found one that was rougher than most with the wrong face and incorrectly shod, so all the things that unconsciously bothered me about the W113 (The too-tall roof, the afterthought fuel filler, the troubled greenhouse) just became emphasized.

So to end things on a better note, here’s that rare right-hand drive 250 SL again. I’ve come to the conclusion that the W113 is not the best-looking Mercedes ever. It’s not the best one of the ‘60s, nor even the best SL. It’s a hairsbreadth and a wrong tread away from being a cacophony. In pure stock form, it’s fine, but it’s all too easy to upset that balance. Back when I photographed the white 250 SL, I wouldn’t have written this post the way I did here. All it took was a wrong turn in a back alley of Tokyo and things went all David Lynch with the W113.


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CC Capsule: 1967 Mercedes-Benz 280SL – Triste, by Joseph Dennis

Curbside Classic: 1963 Mercedes-Benz 230SL – Big Shoes To Fill, by Tom Klockau