The Mercedes-Benz 230SL, internally designated the W113, was the company’s first sports car of the 1960s. Without doubt, M-B had designed some fine postwar cars, and the Fintail sedans were quite modern for their time (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 somewhat 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.
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 (perhaps less iconic, but vastly easier to get into and out of!), it remained by anyone’s standards a beautiful car–but one whose 1950s roots were well in evidence.
Shortly after the Gullwing set the motoring press afire, a more prosaic version, the 190SL, entered the scene. While sporty in appearance (and beautiful in its own right), 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. (Remember the bad guys chasing James Bond at Auric Enterprises in Goldfinger? Those were Pontons). While not particularly speedy, it was well-built and comfortable, with a dash of 300SL panache. But its flowing curves, like those of its big brother, wouldn’t age very well as the Sixties dawned, 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 Cabrioletl is shown above), whose timeless design carried on all the way to 1971 (it remains my favorite Mercedes, ever, though I slightly prefer the hardtop coupe to the topless variant). Soon, the same clean lines and subtle elegance would adorn the 300SL/190SL replacement.
In March 1963, at the Geneva Salon, the Mercedes 230SL debuted. It was clearly a car designed 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 brand-new 230SL in the grueling Spa-Sofia-Liege rally. The 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 famous W196 racers, it was a first on a production Mercedes-Benz. 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 gear lever for both the manual and automatic transmissions. A column shift on a sports car? Of course not!
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 of availability. 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 itself!
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 somewhat polarizing. 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 of 2013, just as the cool old cars were coming out of hibernation from a long Midwestern winter. Ironically, I had slowed down to look at a showroom-new 1993-96 Cutlass Cruiser station wagon when I spotted the SL nearby. I forgot all about the Olds!
It was sitting adjacent to Marquis Harbor, but unfortunately I couldn’t find an owner to answer my questions about it. At any rate, the 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 the separate sealed beams. I’ve always liked the clean look of European lights, and they look great here.
It’s been 51 years since the last W113 230SL came off the line, yet it still looks quite clean and modern. Although I’ve seen a few in the past, it’s probably been a good ten years since I last saw one in the metal (though I did see a red 280SL in traffic about a year after sighting this car), Seeing this car made my day!
(Note: Brochure pictures are from lov2xlr8.com, which offers an extensive collection of European and Asian car brochures for your viewing pleasure. If you enjoy wasting an afternoon looking at old car brochures, be sure to visit lov2xlr8.com here. Other brochure images came from the great Facebook group, Car Brochures and Adverts.)