300SL IN TWILIGHT
In the meantime, buyers who wanted a more powerful Mercedes-Benz sports car than the 190SL had another option: the mighty 300SL (W198), the street-going derivative of the Le Mans-winning W194. With its fuel-injected 2,996 cc (183 cu. in.) six, the 300SL had more than twice the power of its 190SL sister and cost close to twice as much. With the right axle ratio, the 300SL was among the world’s fastest cars and certainly one of the most attractive.
Handsome as it was, the 300SL was not for everyone. Entry and exit were awkward, ventilation was poor, and the swing-axle rear suspension had unpleasant characteristics at the limit. The roadster, which replaced the coupe in mid-1957, had a better-behaved suspension and conventional doors, but was still complex and finicky for street use.
While Mercedes continued to make functional updates to the 300SL almost until the end of production, there wasn’t much incentive to create a direct successor. The 300SL helped to sustain the luster of past racing victories, but Mercedes had withdrawn from Grand Prix competition in 1955 after the accident at Le Mans that killed works driver Pierre Levegh and dozens of spectators, which left the 300SL as a pretty but aging orphan that was undoubtedly expensive to build and sold in tiny numbers: no more than a few hundred cars a year. From a practical standpoint, a milder, less-expensive six-cylinder sports car seemed a much better bet. However, that project would have to wait its turn.
THE HECKFLOSSE SHEDS ITS FINS
At the Frankfurt Auto Show in the fall of 1959, Mercedes launched the first of its new sedans, the six-cylinder (W111) 220b, 220Sb and 220SEb. All had the 2,195 cc (134 cu. in.) six with between 95 and 120 PS (70 to 88 kW) and all sported stubby tailfins that earned the new models their nickname: Heckflosse, or “fintail.” The fins, a nod to contemporary American styling themes, were omitted from the subsequent two-door coupes, the first of which debuted at the 1961 Geneva show.
The W113 sports car was the last major Heckflosse derivative to be developed. The sports car’s basic engineering “package” was not approved until about four months before the W111 sedans went on sale and full-size clay models were not ready until the summer of 1961, three months after the debut of the 220SE coupe. Production approval followed later that year.
There’s a certain irony in the fact that many of the people responsible for the design of these resolutely Teutonic automobiles were not actually German. Mercedes-Benz chief stylist Friedrich Geiger was originally from Baden-Württemberg, but chief body engineer Karl Wilfert, who had ultimate responsibility for passenger car design, was Viennese, as was Béla Barényi. Designer Paul Bracq, who is typically credited with the W113’s design (along with that of the W111 coupe), was from Bordeaux, while future Mercedes design chief Bruno Sacco, who had joined the design office in Sindelfingen in early 1958 and was involved in the W113’s development, was Italian. Technical director Fritz Nallinger was from Esslingen, but Rudi Uhlenhaut, chief engineer for passenger car development, had been born in London to an English mother.
Nonetheless, the fruit of their labors could hardly have been more Germanic. Where Jaguar’s new E-type was a voluptuous showstopper, the W113 was upright and boxy, almost severe. Paul Bracq’s coupe design was already very clean, but the roadster was a masterpiece of minimalism, stark in a way that only the cheapest or most expensive cars can really pull off. Whether you found it attractively restrained or just bland was a matter of taste, but it looked classy and more grown up than the 190SL, which had always had a vaguely cutesy air.
Structurally, the W113 had a great deal in common with the Mercedes 220SE coupe and rode a modified version of the same floorpan. The roadster’s wheelbase was shortened from the coupe’s 108.3 inches (2,750 mm) to 94.5 inches (2,400 mm), but the W113 retained the coupe’s 58.5-inch (1,482/1,484mm) tread width. Thanks to the wider track and squared-off fenders, the W113 looked bigger than the 190SL, but that was largely illusory: In fact, the new roadster was only 0.8 inches (20 mm) wider than the four-cylinder SL, although the W113 was 2.7 inches (70 mm) longer overall, probably to allow the installation of the M127 six without the firewall modifications required by the stillborn W127.
Although the W113 was described as a roadster to distinguish it from the 220SE cabriolet, in standard form the sports car was a proper convertible with wind-up windows and a well-padded top that stowed beneath a folding metal tonneau cover. Optional was the W113’s most distinctive and controversial styling feature: the so-called “Pagoda” hardtop. Based on a concept Barényi had developed and patented in the mid-fifties, the hardtop was concave, higher along its outer edges than in the center. The design had some practical advantages, including greater load-bearing strength, but it was none too aerodynamic and even some Daimler-Benz engineers and executives were dubious about its aesthetics. Chief body engineer Karl Wilfert was not troubled by the love-it-or-hate-it reactions, arguing (correctly) that the Pagoda roof would become a conversation piece and the defining detail of the W113’s design.
220 to 230
Except for the steering wheel and instrument cluster, the relationship between the W113 and the 220SE coupe was not obvious, but there was considerable kinship under the skin. The roadster’s recirculating ball steering and independent suspension were substantially the same as the coupe’s: a conventional double wishbone layout in front, still lacking ball joints and suspended with coil springs and an anti-roll bar, and Mercedes’ now-familiar Eingelenkpendelachse system in back, with trailing arms, low-pivot swing axles, coil springs, and an auxiliary transverse coil spring acting as a camber compensator. The main departures from the coupe were 14-inch wheels, radial tires, and a faster steering ratio.
The W113’s commonality with the W111 coupe had both pros and cons. On the plus side, the roadster’s body was impressively stiff, with a solidity that would embarrass some open cars designed 25 or 30 years later. Like the W111/W112 cars, the W113 also had front and rear crumple zones to protect the occupants in a collision, a very novel feature for a sports car of this period. The roadster’s cabin was also roomy for a close-coupled two-seater; a single transverse rear seat was optional to make the roadster into a 2+1.
The major downside was weight. With its smaller dimensions and aluminum doors, hood, and decklid, the roadster was about 250 lb (115 kg) lighter than the 220SE coupe, but still weighed over 2,900 lb (1,315 kg) with a full tank of fuel — and that didn’t include the 101 lb (46 kg) hardtop. A fully equipped W113 was a good deal heavier than the E-type and only about 100 lb (45 kg) lighter than a Corvette Sting Ray.
The W113’s mass led to last-minute second thoughts about its engine. Originally, it was to share the 220SE’s 2,195 cc (134 cu. in.) six, but Uhlenhaut decided that to be competitive in the marketplace, the sports car needed more than 120 PS (88 kW, 134 bhp). The result was a heavily revised M127.981 engine with a new cylinder head, bigger ports and valves, a higher compression ratio, and a revised camshaft. The block was also revised with an aluminum crankcase and wider cylinder bores, bringing displacement to 2,306 cc (141 cu. in.). Topping this off was the latest Bosch multiport fuel injection system with a separate injector for each cylinder, positioned in the intake port almost directly above the valve.
The result of all this was a healthy increase in power, from 120 PS to 150 PS DIN (110 kW; 170 bhp SAE) at 5,500 rpm. Torque was also increased about 5%, to 144 lb-ft DIN (195 N-m; 159 lb-ft SAE gross) at a rather high 4,500 rpm. Both figures were a dramatic improvement from the 190SL, but still well short of the 300SL’s 225 PS (165 kW; 250 bhp SAE gross).
The larger engine provided the W113’s official name: 230SL, “230” from the engine capacity in deciliters and SL for “Super Leicht” — although calling the 230SL “Light” was probably stretching the point.