The cars we loved.
The post war period of the 1950s and ‘60s was fertile ground for sports car builders. American GIs spoiled by the small sporty cars they drove in Europe had money to spend after the war. Some of that new discretionary income went to well established manufactures like Healy or Jaguar from our primary wartime ally, who it seemed was invading our twisty two lane roads. While Americans were buying fussy little English cars, the Germans were gearing up for a different kind of invasion, one based on the solid engineering and technology that nearly won them The War. Fortunately for us (and them) this time the attack on the high end status quo of the sports car landscape.
Mercedes had two street legal sports cars by the late 50s that were at two extremes of the performance scale. The mighty race bred 300 SL was the gull-wing petro darling of Motorsports and became the aspirationl car for the brand. While what was then the world’s fastest car was out of reach to many, Mercedes responded with a car that was similarly styled called the 190 SL. It had some of the 300’s good looks, but with none of its performance. It was nothing more than a comfortable well-engineered GT car.
In 1963 Mercedes would introduce a replacement for both its gull-winged wonder and the humble 190 SL counterpart. The new car, code-named W113, would spawn three variants, all front engine with rear wheel drive. The first called the 230 SL would be a showcase of German technology with levels of comfort and refinement that was up to that point not likely to exist in one car. The 230 SL would be an early example of the slowly evolving modern Mercedes style that lasted well into the age of cable tv. The angular design with few sheet metal embellishments would become a recognizable Mercedes if not German automotive design trait.
The styling was elegant, muscular and purposeful. While the original Paul Bracq design was controversial when new, Mercedes asked Pininfarina to create its version of the coupe. The one-off design tha resulted resembled a Ferrari 250 GT, one of the 230’s competitors. Needless to say, Mercedes stuck with its in-house design. And what a design it was.
One of the 230 SL hardtop’s most enduring features was its slightly concave roof, giving it the nickname “pagoda”. In addition to the hard top, the 230 was available as a convertible with a removable steel roof. When in place it looked nearly identical to the fixed top version. Color keyed wheel covers on arch filling 14 inch tires made for an aggressive, yet somehow subdued look.
The 2.3 liter straight six (providing its namesake 230) was a SOHC design with a cast iron block. While the engine produced only 170 hp, it was robust and better engineered than the typical sports car engine of the day. Multi-port fuel injection was rare on any car in 1963 and was key to the 230s smooth power deliverery and drivability. The inline-six cylinder engines of the W113 series was well suited to all out highway sprints as well as casual drives in town. As the first SL with an optional automatic transmission, it signaled the growing importance of the automatic friendly American market to Mercedes-Benz. Unlike most cars, the four speed auto shifter was floor mounted, just like the four and later ZF 5 speed manual versions.
Speaking of floor mounted, the W113s featured a san-console interior with a simple dashboard designed around a 60s style steering wheel. Very few changes occurred to the basic look of the interior. This is where the “pagoda” cars would show their age, especially as its production ran into the 70s.
In 1966, a new SL would emerge with an enlarged version of the 2.3 liter. Now called the 250 SL, its 2.5 liters was rated at the same 170 hp as before, but had more lower end torque. While the 230 SL had disc brakes up front and drums in back, the 250 would have discs all around. Other features that were added to some cars included a small bench seat on the removable hardtop coupe that could be folded down. These 2+2 cars called “California Coupes” are extremely rare. The 250 was available for only a short time (mostly during 1967) and is the rarest of the three variants with just over 5,000 built.
The third and final variant, unveiled in 1967 was the most powerful and common of the three with more than 23,000 built. The engine was enlarged again, this time to 2.8 liters and power went up to 180. The smooth and free reving 280 SL was often fitted with an automatic transmission, although a the ZF 5 speed manual was still an option. Styling was little changed, as was the basic suspension setup of dual wishbone/coil spring front and swing-axle with coil springs in the rear. The suspension provided a comfortable ride that was also responsive.
The 280 SL was expensive. As a roadster it cost about $600 more than a Cadillac convertible de Ville. That was a big deal in the 60s when $600 could be the difference between a V6 or V8. As a luxurious car, the Mercedes nearly match the Cadillac in creature comforts with modern features we take for granted today like power steering and air conditioning and a heated rear window defroster (on the hardtop).
The low wide stance of the SL series is a hallmark of modern sports car design. While the charms of the 230, 250 and 280 SL have gone un-noticed by collectors for a long time, they are just starting to generate interest. The 300 SL gull-wing has been the poster child of pre 70’s era Mercedes sports cars for so long that it easily overshadowed the once common W113 cars. That could change as many discover how this timeless design earned its reputation as being as good to drive as it was to look at.