Subtle Sport: The 1963-1971 Mercedes W113 Roadsters

THE STATUS SYMBOL

The Mercedes R107, which bowed in 1971 as the 350SL, was an obvious and logical extension of the W113’s basic concept: bigger, heavier, and more modern inside and out, with new features like integral air conditioning. A V8 engine was now standard — the 3,499 cc (214 cu. in.) M116 for non-U.S. markets, the low-compression 4,520 cc (276 cu. in.) M117 for the confusingly badged American 350SL 4.5 — and U.S. cars came standard with a new and much smoother three-speed torque converter automatic. (The six-cylinder 280SL would be revived in some markets after the OPEC embargo, this time powered by a DOHC 2,746 cc (168 cu. in.) engine.)

Aesthetically, the R107 fell short the W113’s uncluttered elegance, but the design had legs, surviving through 1989 in a bewildering number of variations. Its performance waxed and waned over the years, seldom with any great impact on its popularity. Like the Pagoda, it could be driven in a sports-car-like manner without embarrassing itself, but canyon-carving wasn’t really the point. We suspect that many buyers were attracted to the SL because it was rakish enough to earn envious stares at the country club or valet stand, but didn’t ask its owner to suffer for the privilege. The SL was not the sexiest or most exciting two-seater, but it gave away nothing to any competitor when it came to luxury or prestige.

1977 Mercedes 450SL (R107) front3q.jpg
Although the Mercedes W113 is commonly known as the “Pagoda,” the distinctive hardtop was also adapted for the R107, seen here in U.S. 450SL form. Although all U.S. R107s through 1980 used a 4,520 cc (276 cu. in.) V8, first-year federalized cars were badged 350SL 4.5, which was renamed 450SL the following year.

The SL Class, as Mercedes now calls these cars, has remained true to that formula for 50 years, with great and undoubtedly lucrative success. Although the SL’s role has become clearer over time, there have been surprisingly few direct imitators, the most obvious probably being the Cadillac Allanté and XLR. Of course, there have been numerous sporty, luxurious coupes, like the BMW 6-Series and Jaguar XJ-S and XK, but those are closed four-seaters (which Mercedes also has) and not really the same thing. Given the stature and longevity of the SL, rivals may be missing a bet.

Still, the SL Class might never have gotten off the ground if the W113 had not been so adroitly executed. Its styling has aged remarkably well; while it obviously doesn’t look like a modern car, its purposeful simplicity and lack of ostentation still do it credit. It isn’t cheap to run, repair, or restore, but the W113 was built to last and it’s better suited to modern traffic than many of its contemporaries. The term “classic” has been much abused in recent years, but we think the W113 is among the handful of postwar cars that can wear that label without irony.

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NOTES ON SOURCES

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Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2006), pp. 76-80; Béla Barényi, “Motor Car Formed From a Base and a Top Section,” U.S. Patent No. 2,723,154, filed 7 January 1950, issued 8 November 1955, and assignor to Daimler-Benz AG, “Vehicle Top Structure,” U.S. Patent No. 3,233,937, filed 19 March 1963, issued 8 February 1966; Hansjörg Bendel, “Mercedes 230SL,” Road & Track Vol. 14, No. 10 (June 1963), reprinted in Mercedes 230SL – 250SL – 280SL Ultimate Portfolio 1963-1971, pp. 19-22; Stuart Bladon, “Road Impressions: Day out with the new Mercedes V8,” Autocar 2 April 1970, reprinted in Mercedes-Benz S Class & 600 Limited Edition 1965-1972, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2006), p. 81; Martin Buckley, “Mercedes, Meet thy maker,” Classic & Sports Car August 2009, reprinted in Mercedes 230SL – 250SL – 280SL Ultimate Portfolio 1963-1971, pp. 177-181; Bernard Cahier, “Road Test/10-63: Mercedes-Benz 230 SL,” Sports Car Graphic May 1963, reprinted in Mercedes 230SL – 250SL – 280SL Ultimate Portfolio 1963-1971, pp. 31-34; Simon Charlesworth, “Restrained Decadence,” Classic Cars November 2008, reprinted in Mercedes 230SL – 250SL – 280SL Ultimate Portfolio 1963-1971, pp. 182-188; Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); Daimler AG, “A stylist with a strong sense of aesthetics and proportion: Friedrich Geiger” [press release], 28 March 2012; “Historical SLs in the wind tunnel” [press release], 18 June 2012, “Master of SL design: Bruno Sacco” [press release], 28 March 2012; “Mercedes-Benz, model range W 113, with eight-cylinder engine” [press release], 26 March 2012; “Mercedes-Benz SL, W113 series – the first sports car with a safety body” [press release], 26 March 2012; “The design of the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class” [press release], 28 March 2012; “The motor sport history of Mercedes-Benz” [press release]; “The rotary piston engine in Mercedes-Benz SL W113 and R107 experimental vehicles” [press release], 26 March 2012; and “Two biographies: Richard Seaman and Rudolf Uhlenhaut” [press release], 13 June 2007, media.daimler. com, accessed 14 February to 10 April 2013; “Prof. Dr.-Ing. h.c. 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Beverly Rae Kimes (Princeton, NJ: Automobile Quarterly/Bonanza Books, 1979), pp. 88-97; André Ritzinger, “Mercedes 190SL 1955-1963,” RitzSite, n.d., www.ritzsite. nl/ 190SL/ 01_190SL.htm, accessed 12 February 2013, “Mercedes 300 SL 1952-1963,” RitzSite, n.d., www.ritzsite. nl/300SL/01_300SL.htm, accessed 12 February 2013, and “Mercedes 280 SL – 1968,” RitzSite, n.d., www.ritzsite. demon.nl/ 280SL/ MB280SL.htm, accessed 12 February 2013; André Ritzinger and Naj Jesani, “1964 Mercedes 230 SL Pininfarina coupe: the mystery car,” RitzSite, n.d., www.ritzsite. demon.nl/ 230SLPF/ 01_SLPF.htm, accessed 12 February 2013; André Ritzinger and Derek Jettmar, “Modified 1968 Mercedes 280 SL: 6.3 litre muscle car,” RitzSite, n.d., www.ritzsite. nl/ 280SL63/ 01_SL63.htm, accessed 12 February 2013; “Road & Track Comparison Test: Four Luxury GTs,” Road & Track Vol. 20, No. 10 (June 1969), reprinted in Mercedes 230SL – 250SL – 280SL Ultimate Portfolio 1963-1971, pp. 134-139; “Road Test: Mercedes-Benz 230SL,” Sporting Motorist August 1965, reprinted in Mercedes 230SL – 250SL – 280SL Ultimate Portfolio 1963-1971, pp. 76-78; “Road Test: Mercedes-Benz 250SL,” Sports Car Graphic August 1967, reprinted in Mercedes 230SL – 250SL – 280SL Ultimate Portfolio 1963-1971, pp. 96-98; “Road Test No. 23/65: Mercedes-Benz 230SL,” Motor 5 June 1965, reprinted in Mercedes 230SL – 250SL – 280SL Ultimate Portfolio 1963-1971, pp. 56-60; “Road Test — The Mercedes-Benz 230SL,” Motor Sport June 1965, reprinted in Mercedes 230SL – 250SL – 280SL Ultimate Portfolio 1963-1971, pp. 65-67; Bill Sanders, “Mercedes-Benz 280 SL: The Limousine Sports Car,” Motor Trend Vol. 20, No. 10 (October 1968), reprinted in Mercedes 230SL – 250SL – 280SL Ultimate Portfolio 1963-1971, pp. 132-133; Rainer W. 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R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1990), pp. 18-23; Brock Yates, “Viewpoint: Mercedes-Benz 250,” Car and Driver Vol. 14, No. 2 (August 1968), reprinted in Mercedes-Benz S Class & 600 Limited Edition 1965-1972, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2006), 52-55; and an email to the author from Eric Buckle, 13 February 2013.

Some historical exchange rate data for the dollar and Deutschmark came from Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange Rates Between the United States Dollar and Forty-one Currencies” (2011, MeasuringWorth, http://www.measuringworth.org/exchangeglobal/, used with permission). Exchange rate values cited in the text represent the approximate equivalency of German and U.S. currency at the time, not contemporary U.S. suggested retail prices, which are cited separately. Please note that all exchange rate equivalencies cited in the text are approximate and are offered solely for the reader’s general reference; this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!


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19 Comments

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  1. Aaron,

    Thanks for the mention as a source. Glad I could assist! As a former owner of a 190 Heckflosse, I really enjoyed the write-up!

    Keep up the excellent work!

    EB

  2. Thanks for another good read.

    In the second paragraph of the 250SL section is this line:
    “…combined the 82mm (3.23-inch) stroke of the 230SL’s six with a longer 78.8mm (3.10-inch) stroke for a total displacement of 2,496 cc (152 cu. in.).”

    You’ve got two numbers listed as the stroke. Am I correct in guessing the 82mm number is the bore of the engine?

    1. Oops! Yes, that should have been "the 82mm (3.23-inch) bore."

      Thanks for the correction — I’ve amended the text.

  3. Thorough and judicious as always, you capture perfectly the virtues and drawbacks of the113 with a fine sense of historical context and the competition.

    I may be wrong, but I believe the dark blue 230SL you show has replacement US headlight frames from a 280, with the much larger orange turn signal lens, instead of the narrow orange strip at the bottom–a not uncommon thing to see, as are replacement tail lights with orange blinkers, instead of the full red lenses. Not nit-picking here–in the eternal restorers’ debate between aesthetics and accuracy, I am an aesthete. I have a 67 pseudo-250SL: originally a 230 (as VIN indicates), but a replacement block from previous owner from a 250SE. He also put on a 250SL trunk badge, which is one of many hard-to-find-so-absurdly-expensive parts for 113’s. I’ve further mucked it up for purists by installing European headlight units on an originally US car, but they express the clean original Bracq design much better to my mind.

    Market values for the 250SL (real, not pseudo, like mine) remain oddly less than one would think, given their short production run, and what at least some consider its combination of superior power to the 230 and lighter weight and less squishy suspension than the 280. The latter seems to have been modified with more of an eye to the US market, particularly in the increasing prevalence of automatics over manual gearboxes. With the 107 firmly aimed at American tastes, the manual all but vanished from US-spec models, and Mercedes certainly cashed in. There’s an interesting (arguably saddening) history to be written about the evolution of Mercedes in response to the US market, from the 70s to the present, as they’ve recalculated designs according to customer tastes, changing technology, and (perhaps most dramatically) the rise of Lexus in the 90s.

    For all the drawbacks of the long throws, the engine noise from gearing ratios at high speed, and so forth–about which you’re spot-on–the manual in my 113 is so much fun to drive, and the exhaust note is wonderful (the sound of engineering, not “sound engineers” fiddling with the muffler or (laughably, to me) electronic tweaks to the stereo system, as in some new sports cars. The 113 as a whole can be a money-pit far beyond the 107, given the complexity of welded body work around the grill, hood, and fenders (none bolted on, as with 107’s); aluminum hood, trunk lid, doors, and use of metal instead of plastic in so many places (grill screen, dash, door sills, and on and on); complex, difficult-to-fit wood and other trim on the dash; literally countless grease fittings (and I do mean “literally” in the dictionary sense; even experts on SL forums seem to discover new ones); and antiquated rust-proofing on a body that seems designed to collect water rather than drain it in certain spots. The mechanical fuel injection needs adjustment beyond the skills of all but specialists, including MB dealers, and front-end body work is both expensive and, unless very well executed, will give itself away immediately in panel gaps around that lovely hood design. A 107 is a much saner and cheaper collector choice. But with a fairly well-sorted solid “driver,” by no means fully restored, I’ve never regretted getting my 113, which feels like a machine, not an appliance, yet is utterly easy to drive and rides better than many cars designed decades later. And the shape and proportions are to my eye almost perfect; next to it, the far-more-modern 107 sacrifices character for sleekness. In Dallas, I get happy waves from people who would never notice a 107 (which are all over the place) or a late-model SL that cost 5x what mine did to buy.

    Apologies for self-indulgent response. And thanks again for your work!

    1. Thanks, Rick! I think you’re right about the lights and have amended the caption. I was so distracted dealing with the paste-up (typing HTML img tags by hand — don’t ask) that I missed that.

      I would be very curious to know how many European W113s of each generation had automatic. Based on the comparative U.S. and rest-of-world production figures and the various estimates I’ve seen for the percentage of cars with automatic, it can’t have only been American buyers opting for it. Still, the fact that the U.S. R107 was offered only with automatic is noteworthy.

      For better or worse, the R107 is still too ubiquitous to really stand out. In this part of Los Angeles, it’s hard to go outside without seeing one and the longevity of the design means that it registers as an older car rather than an Old Car. (The C107 is considerably less common.)

      On the fuel injection system, I suppose it’s only fair to point out that most mechanical injection systems of that time were similarly intolerant of shade-tree mechanics. On Triumph’s 2.5 PI engine, for instance, the factory service manual included stern warnings not to even try adjusting or resetting the metering unit’s diaphragm springs, which required very fine tolerances.

      1. One would assume that since the R107 was offered only with automatic in the U.S., a majority of American W113 owners had ordered automatic. But there’s another wrinkle, which Road & Track mentioned in their first road test of the R107. Smog-certifying both manual and automatic R107’s for the U.S. would have been that much more expensive. Road & Track gave a figure (which I no longer remember) for the percentage of W113’s sold with automatic in the U.S. and said Daimler-Benz “had to go with the majority.”

        As an indication of one demographic to which the W113 appealed, I read an article around the time the BMW 325 Cabriolet was introduced. The writer said that until the advent of the 325 Cabriolet, the W113 was really the only game in town for doctors’ wives.

        To my eye the boxy look is fine on M-B sedans but not on the R107. The W113 is so much more graceful.

        1. The separate emissions certification cost is a major reason why we no longer get a lot of cars with manual transmission even if they’re sold that way in other markets — or if we do, the manual actually costs more than the automatic. (That said, it’s interesting to note that some Japanese cars have been sold here with manual transmissions that weren’t offered in the home market.) In any case, the newer three-speed torque converter transmission was probably better suited to U.S. driving styles anyway, particularly with a V-8 engine.

          I have a feeling the R107 was intended to look more “masculine.” I don’t recall offhand if the designers specifically said that (although they were certainly conscious that it was bigger and bulkier than the W113), but it would make sense from the results. I don’t know how the demographics of the R107 differed from those of the W113 overall, but at least in L.A., it seems the R107 had a fairly unisex appeal.

          I think perceptions of the R107 end up being skewed somewhat by the model’s longevity. Its lifespan overlapped several generations of Mercedes-Benz sedans, each of which became progressively sleeker while the roadster stayed (at least visually) the same. Not that the R107 isn’t objectively bulkier and less graceful than the W113, but having viewed it against cars of the late ’80s as well as the ’70s, the effect is exaggerated.

  4. This was a fascinating and quite comprehensive read. At the last Frankfurt Auto Show and more recently the Essen Techno Classica there were many W113s present. It is apparent their values are increasing, unlike the not particularly liked successor. A number of specialists here in Germany have taken to building cars that retain the 230-280SL styling but with modern Mercedes-Benz engines and transmissions. At an impressive price, of course!

  5. i learned to drive on my dad’s ’71 280sl. only negatives were the automatic, 4.08 rear end (felt bad taking her on the interstate), heavy a/c that was never used, and the points constantly frying up.

    love to do a resto-mod if the car would still sound the same. amazing exhaust note. perfect car for going to the golf course.

  6. Thank you for this article. As I’ve only just discovered this website, I am very impressed with the thoroughness and depth that make this article a true gem. Very inspiring.

  7. My grandmother bought a ’72 250C brand new, she kept it for 25 years, and I drove it a lot over that time. The comments on the Mercedes automatic transmission are so spot-on. If you drove it with just the right amount of partial throttle it shifted almost smoothly, anything else and it was jerking and slamming gears. Boy, I miss that car.

  8. Did any of the early 1964 230 SL come with dual carbs instead of Bosch fuel injection.

    1. Not from the factory, but since there were dual-carburetor versions of the 220 and 250 engines in the sedans, it seems entirely possible that someone might have done a swap for some reason.

  9. Owner of 1970 250C …..motor swapped on 76′ to a 280 S/A…..yes yes stamped on the head is S/A ….definitely not a 8 ….block says 130 923 12 001641 …does anyone know this model ? Closest I could come was a 280S a/c or the 280 S/8

  10. The Triumph Stag was aimed at more or less the same market segment as the W113 and R107. Unfortunately for the Stag, it was developed and introduced at a time of extreme dysfunction at British Leyland. It quickly acquired (and never really lost) a reputation for poor build quality and engine problems.

  11. Thanks for that fine article. I recently purchased a 1963 MB 230SL
    standard transmission. The car seems to be treated poorly at sometime during it’s past. The steering wheel cracked, the top of the ashtray is missing, but it is a fun car to drive, I am slowly bringing it back to good form. BTW, any idea where I can get a top to the ashtray? I fear that I might have to get it fabricated.

    1. I’m afraid I can’t help with parts or repairs, sorry!

  12. The Stag was a later car than the W113, and was an occasional 4 seater. Its main competitor , on the UK market a least , was the Reliant Scimitar GTC

    1. All true. On the other hand, the W113 was one of the key inspirations for the Stag (whose development was quite protracted) and Triumph explicitly hoped to make the Stag that kind of car. Obviously, the Mercedes was a lot more expensive (and the R107 350SL was even more so), and Triumph didn’t have that kind of cachet, but that’s the sort of buyer they wanted to court.

      Of course, it didn’t turn out that way, but massive disparities between intention and outcome are a central theme of the Stag story…!

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