The Mercedes 230SL made its public debut at the Geneva Auto Show in March 1963, although Mercedes-Benz PR officials also rented a small French racing circuit just across the border to ensure that journalists would have the chance to drive as well as see the new car.
It was immediately clear that despite its weight, the 230SL was a great step forward from the 190SL in straight-line performance. Although the factory’s 124 mph (200 km/h) claimed top speed was slightly optimistic, the 230SL was capable of 120 mph (193 km/h) or better. The 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) sprint took around 10 seconds with manual transmission, a bit longer with automatic. (Uhlenhaut insisted the automatic SL was just as quick as the manual, but that claim was not supported by independent testers.) Either way, the 230SL was about 3 seconds quicker to 60 mph (97 km/h) than the 190SL and might have been quicker still with different gearing; both available transmissions suffered awkwardly spaced ratios that exposed the engine’s shortage of low-end torque.
Nonetheless, the 230SL was no match for the now-discontinued 300SL or for the Sting Ray and E-type, either of which could simply walk away from the Mercedes. In fact, the 230SL was only slightly quicker than the big 300SEL sedan, which had a commodious back seat and air suspension. There was certainly nothing wrong with the 230SL’s performance, which was brisk by European standards, but it suggested that Mercedes was deliberately opting not to vie with high-end sports car rivals.
If the 230SL was not among the first rank in acceleration or top speed, its roadholding was another matter. The W113’s suspension was softer and less sophisticated than an E-type’s, and its ultimate limits were not extraordinary, but it could be driven hard over unfamiliar real-world roads with considerable assurance. With relatively low spring rates, lots of sprung weight, and a rigid body structure, the roadster also provided a remarkably civilized ride, particularly given its short wheelbase. In contrast, many small sports cars of the time handled little better and suffered a punishing ride on anything but a completely smooth road.
Another point in the 230SL’s dynamic favor was the optional power steering. Its availability raised eyebrows with critics — power steering was rarely offered on sports cars in those days, and even Corvette buyers seldom ordered it — but the 230SL’s power steering put the manual setup to shame, offering a faster ratio and less effort with no noticeable sacrifice in precision or feel.
THE MERCEDES AUTOMATIC TRANSMISSION
If the Mercedes 230SL fell short of its mission as a relaxed and unflappable cruiser, the culprit was the optional automatic transmission, announced at launch but not actually catalogued until later in the year.
Like most elements of the W113, the transmission was shared with the W111 and W112, where it had become available in late 1961. Designed by Hans-Joachim Förster, it had four forward speeds and used a two-element fluid coupling rather than a torque converter. The Mercedes automatic was frequently compared to GM’s early single-coupling Hydra-Matic, but the similarities were superficial. The Mercedes unit weighed about half as much as the older GM automatic, used only two planetary gearsets to Hydra-Matic’s three, and drove its fluid coupling impeller directly rather than routing power through the front planetary gearset.
The design nonetheless flew in the face of contemporary American thinking on automatic transmissions, which increasingly favored three speeds supplemented by a torque converter for added flexibility. Mercedes rejected that approach, presumably in the interests of maximum efficiency; the engineers claimed the lightweight automatic consumed only 8 hp (6 kW). Shift quality was firm but not lightning-fast, probably for the sake of band/clutch longevity. The staggered shift gate (which would be much imitated in the years to come) allowed full manual control of second and third gears, either of which could be held all the way to redline.
If you treated the automatic as a sort of semi-manual gearbox that could shift for itself when required, it worked reasonably well. Where it performed less adroitly was in gentler driving, where it tended to shift with the same sort of jerk GM had spent millions of dollars engineering out of the Hydra-Matic. This was compounded by the widely spaced ratios, which made for big changes in engine speed with each shift.
An added annoyance was the fact that the automatic would only start in first if you floored the throttle or moved the shifter to ‘2’ — which was tempting, since few Mercedes engines of the time had enough torque to make a second-gear start anything other than lethargic. Even with a full-throttle, first-gear launch, the transmission would automatically upshift to second at 28 mph (45 km/h), dropping engine speed about 2,000 rpm in the process. (Admittedly, the four-speed manual transmission was not a great improvement, with an even shorter first gear (4.42:1), widely spaced ratios, long throws, and less-than-satisfying shift action.)
Mercedes would eventually adopt a three-speed torque converter automatic with a Simpson gearset like the Chrysler TorqueFlite or GM’s new Turbo Hydra-Matic, but not until the early 1970s, and not on the W113. In the meantime, the automatic represented a minor but sometimes irritating lapse in the 230SL’s otherwise polished manners.
A NEW (THREE-POINTED) STAR
Initial reviews of the Mercedes 230SL were generally positive. It probably helped that contemporary critics were not overly attached to either of the W113’s predecessors. The press had always been at best lukewarm about the 190SL, and there was a general acknowledgment that whatever its pedigree, the 300SL was past its sell-by date.
Except for the Pagoda hardtop, which provoked a few strong reactions both pro and con, many early reviewers politely sidestepped judgment of the 230SL’s aesthetic virtues while praising its well-trimmed interior and high standard of fit and finish. Similarly evaded was the matter of the SL’s middling acceleration, usually deflected with praise of the car’s roadholding and ability to maintain high average speeds without fuss.
Mostly, the press recognized the 230SL as a well-engineered, quality product: It felt like money, which was appropriate because it was not at all cheap. In West Germany, list price was 20,600 DM (equivalent to $5,150) in roadster form, around 15% more than a 190SL. A fully loaded 230SL with both tops, automatic, power steering, and other options could top 25,000 DM (about $6,250). Admittedly, the 230SL was less expensive than a 220SE cabriolet and substantially cheaper than the old 300SL roadster, but that was hardly a bargain price. It was a similar story in the U.S., where the 230SL’s base price was around $6,500 POE, about $1,000 more than an E-type or fuel-injected Sting Ray.
Perhaps hoping to bolster the 230SL’s sporting credentials, Karl Kling, the manager of the very successful Mercedes rally team, added the roadster to the team roster. In late August, a single 230SL, driven by 1962 European Rally Champion Eugen Böhringer and co-driver Klaus Kaiser, entered the 1963 Spa-Sofia-Liège Rally and won outright. Of course, the rally car was not quite stock, using a bored-out engine with about 165 PS (121 kW), a beefed-up suspension, and 15-inch wheels, but the win was a testament to the inherent ruggedness of the W113 platform.
Mercedes trumpeted the victory in its advertising, but the 230SL was never as important to the rally team’s efforts as the 220SE and 300SE sedans, which garnered the lion’s share of the team’s eye-opening array of triumphs. The 230SL’s rally career was also short-lived. Several 230SLs ran in the 1964 Spa-Sofia-Liège Rally, but this time the victory went to an Austin-Healey 3000 driven by Rauno Aaltonen and Tony Ambrose. Mercedes withdrew from rally competition at the end of the 1964 season, but the 230SL had one final factory-backed outing at Greece’s 1965 Acropolis Rally, although a navigational error consigned driver Dieter Glemser and co-driver Martin Braungart to a fifth-place finish.
All this made little difference to buyers, who responded strongly to the 230SL from the start. The 230SL had its limitations, but, as we noted at the outset, there were almost no direct alternatives. There were precious few luxury cars in that era that could match the SL’s road manners, and even those that approached them, like the Jaguar Mark X and Mercedes 300SE, were far less sporting in flavor. There were cheaper sports cars that could outperform the 230SL, but none was as comfortable or as easy to drive. (Just clambering into the low-slung E-type, with its wide sills, was a test of coordination for middle-aged owners.) As a result, average annual 230SL sales were at least 50% better than the 190SL had ever done. Demand exceeded Daimler-Benz’s comparatively limited capacity, leading to lengthy waiting lists.
That popularity allowed the 230SL roadster to remain in production for four years with almost no cosmetic changes, although there were various mechanical refinements, including wider wheels (from 5.5J to 6J), a relocated spare tire, and a larger fuel tank (expanded from 17.2 gallons/65 liters to 21.7 gallons/82 liters).
One of the most intriguing was the addition in March 1966 of an optional five-speed gearbox. Made by ZF, it had a taller first gear than the Mercedes four-speed and an overdrive fifth gear for more relaxed cruising. (There was also a close-ratio gearset with a direct top gear, but we don’t know if any were installed in W113s.) While the five-speed sounded ideal on paper, its shift quality was nothing special, and it was both hard to obtain and quite expensive: 1,200 DM (around $300) in Germany, a hefty $464 in the U.S. It was generally available only by special order, and is very rare today.
In August 1965, about two years after the introduction of the 230SL, the W111 and W112 sedans were replaced by the new W108 and W109 series. The W111 and W112 two-door models, which the new sedans strongly resembled, continued with few changes, but all now had larger four-wheel vented disc brakes and a new 2.5-liter (152 cu. in.) six.
Called M129 in fuel-injected form, the new engine had a substantially new block with seven main bearings for greater smoothness. It combined the 82mm (3.23-inch) bore of the 230SL’s 2,306 cc six with a longer 78.8mm (3.10-inch) stroke for a total displacement of 2,496 cc (152 cu. in.). The cylinder head was similar to the 230SL’s, albeit with bigger valves, and Bosch multiport injection was again specified. Peak output was the same 150 PS DIN (110 kW, 170 bhp SAE) as the 230SL’s 2,306 cc engine, albeit with 159 lb-ft of torque (216 N-m, 174 lb-ft SAE). An oil-to-water oil cooler and a viscous-coupling fan (which became optional on the 230SL in 1966) were also included.
It was more than a year before Mercedes began installing the new engines and brakes in the SL. The revised car, now called 250SL, debuted in Europe in late February 1967. Except for its engine and brakes, the 250SL was very similar to the late 230SL — a point Mercedes advertising took pains to mention — but the four-speed manual transmission had slightly taller ratios and the axle ratio was lowered from 3.75 to 3.92:1. A taller 3.69 axle was now available by special order.
In Germany, the bigger engine and four-wheel disc brakes brought the 250SL’s base price to 21,600 DM (equivalent to about $5,400). U.S. cars cost about $300 more than the last 230SL. A fully loaded U.S. 250SL now topped $8,000 — not quite in the realm of exotics like Aston Martin, but in the same range as the new FWD Cadillac Eldorado.
The 230SL remained in production through early 1967 and was still on sale for some time after that, particularly in the U.S., where the 250SL wasn’t introduced until April and wasn’t available in substantial numbers until summer. Midway through the year, the 250SL received an interior makeover and other minor changes to comply with the new U.S. federal safety standards scheduled to take effect January 1.
Otherwise, the 250SL was not easily distinguished from its predecessor unless you were close enough to read the emblems. The extra 190 cc (12 cu. in.) still didn’t make the six particularly muscular at low speeds, but its additional torque meant that a 250SL with automatic was now about as quick as a 230SL with manual transmission, a modest but useful improvement. The M129 was also smoother than was the M127, although some owners complained that the bigger six was prone to fouling its spark plugs in slow traffic.
Nonetheless, the 250SL was well received by critics. Like the 230SL, it didn’t really excel in any single area, but it offered a unique blend of virtues wrapped in an aura of quiet but unmistakable affluence that provoked period automotive writers — and no doubt many buyers and observers — to fits of covetous eloquence.