1963: Pagoda Ante Portas
A living legend is history continued. If the father of the Gullwing was a racing car, its successor’s mother was a sedan.
The new one – called 230 SL – was first to be seen at the Geneva Motor Show in the spring of 1963. First opinions about this newly created sports race, seemingly having nothing in common with its muscular predecessors, ranged from straightforward disapproval – especially of the avant-garde styling – to tentative liking.
Sports two-seater with punch
The engineers had intended to create neither a tough, old-style sports car nor a good-natured ladies’ car (like the 190 SL). They had set their sights on a sports two-seater with high performance, state-of-the-art handling and refined comfort. This once again fueled the discussion on the true spirit of a sports car – and it did not stop until the new SL scored the first successes in motor sport, for instance victory in the Spa – Sofia – Liège rally by the team of Eugen Böhringer and Klaus Kaiser, shortly after its launch.
The hallmarks of its exterior included its clear, straight, masculine lines and the unmistakable SL face with the Mercedes star conspicuously positioned in the middle. The engine hood slightly bulged in the center to accommodate the upright six-cylinder engine. Its trunk was generously dimensioned. With its high windows and roof carried by narrow pillars, the hardtop conveyed a sense of serene lightness that had little in common with the cliché of sports cars. What’s more, the roof’s concave curvature was reminiscent of Far East temple architecture. And that’s why the car acquired its nickname before it hit the road: the “Pagoda”.
This SL, designated W 113 internally, was available from the summer of 1963 as a roadster with a soft-top that was child’s play to operate – a minor sensation in itself, as a roadster with hardtop and as a coupe with hardtop. The latter had neither soft-top nor soft-top compartment but all the more space for luggage or an occasional seat in the interior. All three versions offered open-top motoring pleasure.
Safety – the new issue
The Pagoda was the first SL to combine speed with safety. Since it shared the frame/floor unit with the famous “tail fin” model, the world’s first sedan with safety bodywork, the SL, too, had a rigid passenger cell and crumple zones, i.e. easily deformable front and rear sections. Like the sedan, the interior compartment of the SL was designed so as to reduce the injury hazard in accidents; there were no sharp edges and corners; as in the predecessor, seat belts were optionally available. The steering gear was moved from the front end, the crash section, towards the firewall; the steering column was offset and additionally fitted with a joint to prevent the dangerous lance effect in an accident. From 1967, the safety package was complemented by a telescoping steering column and an impact absorber integrated in the steering wheel.
Suspension, engine and transmission
The car’s suspension, adopted from the 220 SE sedan, was adjusted to the roadster’s characteristics. It also featured recirculating ball steering, dual-circuit brake system and disc brakes on the front axle. Its springing was firm, though almost untypically comfortable for a sports car. The damping was taken care of by gas-pressure shock absorbers, and the 230 was the first SL running on radial ply tires.
The six-cylinder engine, equally adopted from the sedan, had to go through a number of incisive modifications, the most important being the change from two-plunger to six-plunger injection pump. As a result, the fuel was “fired” directly into the combustion chamber through opened injection valves and a pre-heated intake port – rather than merely into the intake manifold. With a displacement enlarged to 2.3 liters, the engine developed 150 hp at 5500 rpm and a torque of 20 mkg at 4200 rpm. This sporty drive system was to be operated at high revs – low engine speeds were not to its liking.
The four-speed transmission – equally taken from the sedan – had only been modified in first gear, its lower ratio permitting more powerful acceleration. The latter came to 9.7 seconds from standstill to 100 km/h. From the fall of 1965, a five-speed manual transmission (from ZF) was available, and those going for ultimate comfort were able to specify an optionally available automatic transmission! Perfectly shocking for the purists and virtually immoral for a sports car. Nevertheless, when all was said and done, i.e. after the discontinuation of Pagoda production, the proportion of cars ordered with automatic transmission was around 77 percent. Much the same applied to power steering – it was not fitted as standard but if you insisted …
The successor of the 230 was the 250 SL, also with an output of 150 hp; due to its higher weight, however, it did not quite reach the 230 SL’s top speed of 202 km/h. This model became available in January 1967 and, with just a few minor modifications, corresponded to its successful predecessor of which as many as 19,831 units had been built. Its clearly more flexible engine boasted a higher torque with a flatter torque curve. A new brake power regulator prevented excessive braking on the rear wheels which were now also equipped with disc brakes. Even a differential lock was optionally available.
The car featured in the price lists for just one year; the 5,196 units built of this model therefore rank among the rarest Mercedes-Benz sports cars, alongside the 300 SL. From January 1968 until March 1971, the 280 SL continued the Pagoda era. Its modified, highly responsive 2.8 liter engine developed 170 hp at 5750 rpm and reached its maximum torque of 24.5 mkg at 4500 rpm. The radiator fan was for the first time fitted with a viscous coupling. The car accelerated from standstill to 100 km/h in nine seconds and its top speed was back at 230 SL level. Its suspension, designed for even greater comfort, was made softer. And its servicing intervals were extended from 3,000 to 10,000 kilometers.
The fast and reliable 280 SL came to a production volume of 23,885 units. Altogether, 48,912 Pagodas were built – a remarkably high figure for an elite sports car. Due to their high quality, elegance and clear lines, they are much-coveted objects of restorers and collectors today. With modern emission control technology under the sheet metal skin, they are back in everyday use again, decades after their launch.