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L J K Setright

March 2005

There was nothing new in the confusion that reigned in 1963 about how to define or for that matter to recognize a sports car. Early English perpendicular notions (a sports car is one into which it is impossible to enter without either stooping or removing one's hat) and late American Horizontal (a sports car is one in which the front seats fold down to form beds) had been dismissed as insufficient, while objectively practical suggestions such as that of the late L. E. W. Pomeroy (a sports car is one which prompts its driver to handle it in sporting fashion) were too vague in the scope they left for the imagination of the unfledged and the cynicism of the experienced. There was also a general tendency, becoming particularly evident in the early 1960s, for sports cars to be supposed cheap and impractical versions of stodgy family saloons produced by cutting off the roof and shortening the wheelbase. All over the world it became common practice for manufacturers to exploit their parts shelves by putting the most surprisingly mundane bits into the most unjustifiably expensive sporting machinery.


This could be observed on every scale the from minute MG Midget to the monstrous Ford Mustang, and in almost all cases the humble origins of such cars were betrayed by a humiliating inability to match the comportment (however much they might match the speed) of better-bred sports cars made by competition-oriented specialists. Nevertheless this trend encouraged, and was encouraged by, the multitude of customers and critics who by this time were at least agreed that sports cars had progressed from the days when they were cramped, uncomfortable and devoid of weather protection or any amenities. The, modern idea had become that the sports car was a fully equipped sophisticated vehicle, designed for covering long distances at reasonably high speeds in all kinds of climates and having ample accommodation for the luggage of two people with expensive tastes. Thirty years earlier, perhaps even only fifteen years earlier, when a sports car was still a noisy and draughty agglomeration of RSJs and flying buttresses, such a vehicle would have been categorized as a GT- gran turismo, voiture de grand tourisme or even, if you insisted long and hard enough, a car in which to undertake the Grand Tour. Mercedes- Benz did not mind unduly: they were con- tent to describe their new 230 SL as a sports car.



Low, wide, and handsome, SL proportions were an assurance of good stability.
Large glazed areas gave excellent vision from within the coupe top


A few of the press critics who saw it make its debut at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1963 challenged this description. They were diehards who doubtless felt it necessary to prove them- selves such by being a bit sniffy about the elegant little Mercedes, which was not as fast as the mighty 300 SL and, dash it, could be bought with automatic transmission and power steering! Everyone else, including most notably the pressmen who had already driven it, was quite content with the car's popular appellation. Did not the use by Mercedes-Benz of the suffix SL constitute sufficient guarantee?


According to the Stuttgart code, the letter S might stand for either Sport or Super, and the L stood for Leicht (meaning light in weight) more often than it stood for Luxus (which, of course, stands for everything imaginable and nothing that can hurt). Any and all of these terms would be fair when applied to the new 230 two-seater; whatever people thought, it was a sports car.


In fact, the specification for the 230 SL actually started with cornering power, and the rest of the design extended from that premise. The 300 SL may have been shockingly fast in a straight line, but the deficiencies of its rear suspension geometry, with two swinging half-axles producing a most undesirable variation in wheel camber and roll-centre height as the suspension was deflected, forced the driver to rely and indeed to tread heavily on his brakes before negotiating a corner. One might come out fast but only if one went in slowly, and any attempt to be more enterprising would lead only to sudden and incorrigible unstable oversteer. As for the mechanically more humdrum 190 SL, the lower-priced roadster that had so little in common with the 300 SL apart from the general styling of its bodywork, the poor thing was scarcely powerful enough or fast enough to get itself into any kind of trouble anyway, and might comfortably be dismissed from any consideration of what a sports car ought to be able to do.


Too much brightwork and not enough legibility


What Uhlenhaut expected of a sports car was that it should reflect the experience and progress gained and made in recent racing car engineering; in other words, it should accept the standards that racing can always be expected to set. The 1960s was a period in which the contemporary grand prix racing car had a chassis that was, so to speak, faster than the engine, and so long as it were fast enough, a sports car fashioned with similar priorities ought to be unexceptionable in almost any market. What was wanted was that both the 300 and 190 SL models should be replaced by one car that was as much as possible a combination of those two, a comfortable two-seater that was neither too big nor too expensive, one that was fast enough to be exhilarating and perhaps even exciting but not necessarily so fast as to be frightening-but above all, one that was beautifully sprung for a comfortable ride and yet sensational in corners. Back in the days around 1931 when Uhlenhaut had started work with Daimler-Benz as a technical assistant in the carburation department, the Englishman Maurice Olley had been starting the modern science of roadholding and handling in the experimental workshops of General Motors; and by the mid- 1950s Uhlenhaut knew, not only from studying the theories first propounded by Olley but also from practical experience, that with properly competent engineering whatever is done to improve roadholding ought also to improve ride qualities. It was not an impossibility that he sought, therefore, but something that demanded no more than his own professional expertise and some glutinous modern tyres that would provide the kind of cushioned grip that he sought.


As installed, the engine's air manifold without carburettors was the most unusual feature

Look for the next installment in the April newsletter!


Mercedes-Benz SL & SLC by LJK Setright published by Osprey AutoHistory, Osprey Publishing Limited, 1986


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