Some cars can be understood only in the context of their time; others were puzzling in their day, but now make perfect sense. When the six-cylinder 230SL debuted 50 years ago this past March, it was a considerable departure from previous Mercedes sports cars and some observers weren’t quite sure what to make of it. However, it established a very successful niche that’s still going strong today.
In this installment of Ate Up With Motor, we examine the origins and development of the Mercedes-Benz W113 series: the 1963–1971 Mercedes-Benz 230SL, 250SL, and 280SL.
In its day, the 1963–1971 Mercedes-Benz 230SL, 250SL, and 280SL (known internally by their chassis code, W113) had a unique capacity to both impress and perplex critics. While the W113s were attractive, superbly built automobiles with many virtues, contemporary reviewers were often driven to distraction trying to figure out how to appropriately assess those virtues and to what they might be compared.
Past competition glories aside, the Mercedes-Benz name connoted luxury cars and the W113 certainly carried a luxury price tag. On the other hand, since it was a close-coupled two-seat roadster whose designation recalled the legendary 300SL, there was a natural impulse to regard the W113 as a high-end sports car like the E-type Jaguar or the Chevrolet Corvette. However, direct comparisons to either other sports cars or other high-end American or European luxury convertibles generally left the Mercedes seeming a little out of place.
Perhaps the W113’s nearest analogue was the original two-seat Ford Thunderbird: a sporty-looking “personal car” that emphasized dignity and comfort over outright performance. Of course, the Mercedes was a good deal more expensive than the T-Bird had ever been, but the two were certainly similar in concept.
Mercedes-Benz during this era was nothing if not sternly rational, so we must assume that positioning the 230SL, 250SL, and 280SL in this way was deliberate. To understand the reasoning, we must step back a few years to the mid-fifties and the introduction of Mercedes’ four-cylinder 190SL.
THE STILLBORN W127
As we’ve previously discussed, the 190SL (known internally as the W121) was the brainchild of Mercedes-Benz’s U.S. importer through 1958, the inimitable Max Hoffman. Introduced at the 1955 Geneva show, the 190SL was a cheaper companion to the bigger, raced-drived Mercedes 300SL. Based on the contemporary Mercedes 180 “Ponton” sedan, the 190SL featured new styling by Walter Häcker and a 1,897 cc (116 cu. in.) SOHC four with 105 PS DIN (77 kW; 120 bhp SAE).
The 190SL was cute, but its public acceptance was hampered by a combination of high price and modest performance. The 190SL wasn’t tragically slow by the standards of the time — and straight-line performance was not necessarily the first priority of fifties sports car buyers in any case — but the price tag made it hard to ignore the fact that the little roadster could be handily dispatched by an Austin-Healey 100 or a Triumph TR3, either of which cost substantially less. Even Mercedes engineers acknowledged early on that the 190SL was underpowered.
Extracting more power from the 190SL’s M121 four-cylinder engine was feasible, but for the era, its specific output (63.3 bhp/liter) was already ambitious and raising it further would have meant significant sacrifices in refinement and tractability. A more promising alternative was to substitute the 2,195 cc (134 cu. in.) six from the 220 (W180 sedan). In stock form, with two Solex carburetors, the small six was actually less powerful than the four, albeit with more torque, but experiments showed that Bosch mechanical fuel injection would provide a healthy increase in power without any loss of smoothness.
In 1956, engineer Erich Waxenberger shoehorned the injected six, dubbed M127, into the modified engine bays of several 190SL test mules. Testing at the Nürburgring revealed that the marriage of engine and platform was still not ideal, but the six was much more pleasant than was the M121 and provided much-improved performance.
Technical director Fritz Nallinger recommended the six-cylinder 190SL for production and assigned the car a new W127 chassis code, but the project was shelved in the spring of 1957. The idea of a smaller six-cylinder sports car was promising, but passenger car development chief Rudolf Uhlenhaut was already planning to phase out the aging Ponton in favor of a newer and much more modern platform (known internally by their W110/W111/W112 chassis codes). The new cars would have substantial structural differences from the Ponton — they would be true monocoques incorporating front and rear crumple zones, a safety innovation devised by design engineer Béla Barényi — and so it didn’t make sense to launch another derivative of the outgoing car.
Since the basic idea of the W127 had been sound, the board decided to shift the project to an all-new six-cylinder sports car that would be based on the W111 platform. That car, initial planning for which began in October 1958, would be known internally as the W113.
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.
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 largely 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 acknowledgement 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 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 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 unmistakeable affluence that provoked period automotive writers — and no doubt many buyers and observers — to fits of covetous eloquence.
The 250SL was in a sense an interim model: In late 1967, Mercedes switched from the M129 six to the bigger M130, also used in the latest W108/W109 sedans. The new engine retained the M129’s stroke, but had re-spaced bore centers, allowing the bore to be expanded from 82 to 86.5 mm (3.23 to 3.41 inches) for a displacement of 2,778 cc (170 cu. in.). Adding this engine to the roadster created the third and final iteration of the W113 platform: the Mercedes 280SL.
The new engine’s additional power and torque were blunted somewhat by the W113’s steadily increasing weight, which now approached 3,200 lb (1,450 kg) with automatic and power steering, but the 280SL was nonetheless the quickest W113. With 23% more torque than the original 230SL, an automatic 280SL was now capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) times in the mid-9s, although top speed was little changed, limited mainly by gearing. The ZF five-speed was still nominally available, but not common. It disappeared from U.S. options lists in 1970, although it was catalogued in Germany to the end of production.
Depending on your point of view, the 280SL felt either more mature or a trifle lazier than the early 230SL. The suspension was also noticeably softer (thanks in part to the adoption of rubber suspension bushings to reduce the need for chassis lubrication), although by this point nobody except the occasional errant journalist expected the W113 to drive like a Corvette. The engine was less eager to rev as well, although with an extra half-liter of displacement, there was also less need to.
One might have expected that by 1969 the W113 would be in its declining years, especially considering that the exterior styling had changed almost not at all in more than five years, but based on the sales figures, the SL had found its niche. 1969 production topped 8,000 units — not a lot in absolute terms, but more than double the total 1955–1963 production of both the 300SL coupe and roadster.
One reason for the 280SL’s continued strong sales was that by the late sixties affluent American buyers were discovering Mercedes in growing numbers. In 1964, toward the end of Daimler-Benz’s distribution relationship with Studebaker, Mercedes sold around 11,000 cars in the U.S.; by 1970, Mercedes-Benz of North America was approaching the 30,000-a-year mark. The 280SL represented a relatively small fraction of that total, but was something an intrepid dealer could sell to a customer who already had a Mercedes 300SEL or wanted to show up their golf partner’s 280SEL 3.5 coupe. Such buyers appreciated the W113’s build quality and durability and were not troubled by its high maintenance costs and other minor foibles.
QUEST FOR POWER
Despite the Mercedes W113’s growing popularity, there was obvious room for improvement. The M130 engine still didn’t have an abundance of torque and was not especially quiet when pushed. In a drag race, the 280SL wasn’t far behind comparably priced American personal luxury coupes like the Cadillac Eldorado or Lincoln Mark III, but extracting such performance required more screaming 6,500 rpm manual upshifts than the average Mercedes owner was likely to tolerate. The automatic transmission, now ordered by more than 60% of customers, was short on finesse considering the SL’s price and clientele and still didn’t start in first, an irritation Mercedes had already addressed on the sedans. There was also a growing threat from BMW, whose new six-cylinder 2800CS coupe was aimed at the same market as the Mercedes 280SL.
In the summer of 1967, Erich Waxenberger tested at the Nürburgring a W113 test mule into which he’d stuffed the big M100 V8 from the Mercedes 600 and 300SEL 6.3 sedans. The 6,332 cc (386 cu. in.) V8, which had 250 PS (184 kW; 300 bhp SAE gross)) and 370 lb-ft (502 N-m; 435 lb-ft SAE) of torque, made the SL a real hot rod, but jamming the enormous M100 into the W113’s engine bay wasn’t easy and the V8’s substantial extra weight spoiled the roadster’s handling. The project was subsequently abandoned and the test mule scrapped.
The following year, Daimler-Benz engineers explored a more radical idea, creating several W113 prototypes powered by the M50F, a three-rotor Wankel rotary engine with 203 PS (149 kW). Since the W113 was nearing the end of its production life, there was little chance of a rotary W113 being offered for sale, but the M50F was seriously considered for the W113’s planned successor, which was designed with provision for the rotary engine.
A V8 W113 would have been possible had Daimler-Benz been so inclined. In the fall of 1969, the S-Class sedans and 280SE coupe and cabriolet had received the new M116 engine, a 3,499 cc (214 cu. in.) SOHC V8 with 200 PS DIN (147 kW; 230 bhp SAE gross) and 211 lb-ft (286 N-m; 231 lb-ft SAE) of torque The M116 was more compact and considerably lighter than the M100 — in fact, the smaller V8 was only a little heavier than the M130 six — so installing it in the W113 to create a “280SL 3.5” would probably not have been a difficult exercise.
Had the “Pagoda” line continued for a few more years, we assume Daimler-Benz would have offered such a car, which might well have been the most desirable W113. However, by the time such a car would have been ready, the W113’s successor, the R107 roadster, was very close to production, rendering the older car redundant.
W113 production ended in March 1971, although the 280SL remained on sale for the rest of the model year — mainly in the U.S., where the new R107 350SL was not introduced until August. Total W113 production was a respectable 48,912 units, including 19,831 230SLs, 5,196 250SLs and 23,885 280SLs. The six-cylinder Jaguar E-type still outsold the Mercedes, but the W113 figures weren’t bad at all considering the Mercedes-Benz cars’ much higher prices. The W113 also outsold the 190SL and 300SL combined and was probably more profitable than either.
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.
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.
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. 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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, https://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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