Geneva Salon 1963: The Pagoda Debuts

July 10th, 2013

Mercedes-Benz Chief Engineer, Dr. Fritz Nallinger addresses the global motoring press in the grand ball room of the Chateau des Eaux Vives overlooking Lake Geneva. Blue covers draped over all the new SL debutantes kept the drama on high.

The Pagoda Debuts in Geneva
Leaving the ’50s behind

March 1963: The gravity of the event was amply illustrated by the venue in which the new Mercedes-Benz model, obscured by a deep blue car cover, sat amongst the gathered automotive journalists, Mercedes-Benz top brass, and servants delivering champagne to one and all. The historic and richly ornate 18th century Chateau des Eaux Vives overlooking Lake Geneva was host to an historic event of the automotive variety, the release of a new generation of Mercedes-Benz SL. All the new SLs arrayed around the picturesque grounds were still under cover and keen observers could discern a design with sharp edges tugging at the corners of the car covers but not a trace of the curvature they had become accustomed to envisioning when hearing the words: Mercedes-Benz SL.

Chief Engineer Professor Dr. Ing E.H. Nallinger’s comments summed Mercedes’ philosophy on the new car succinctly, “We maintain the opinion that, in particular in this time of large mass production, a genuine need of individual vehicles exists, which not only make possible transportation from place to place, but which are also in a position to impart real motoring happiness. I believe that in particular the European automobile industry, which initiated automobile manufacture, is predestined for the production of such cars, as has been proven by the sales of European sports cars achieved in the United States.”

Nallinger’s hubris was reasonably well founded and thinly cloaked: who could argue with the European automobile industry’s (Nallinger’s and Mercedes-Benz’) position as a pre-eminent sporting automobile manufacturer and, by the way, the creator of the automobile itself. And based on the success of the 300SL and 190SL abroad, the US market for motoring happiness indeed beckoned.

Left image: Rudi Uhlenhaut (L) and his assistant cast a knowing eye over their creation. Note the absence of a firewall pad and the matte black cam cover. Uhlenhaut’s high speed driving prowess and vast technical knowledge insured the new SL behaved properly when pushed to the limit. Ewy Rosqvist and Ursula Wirth are front and center in the right image. The two Swedish rally experts won the 1963 Swedish Rally aboard a fintail.

An SL for the ages revealed.

Off came the covers and the motoring world was treated to an SL unlike any other preceding it. Contrary to the response at the debut of the 1954 300SL Gullwing, the new design was not unanimously applauded, something today’s Pagoda enthusiasts no doubt find puzzling. Muscular in some aspects and effeminate in others, the new 230SL design was going to require an open and progressive mind. After all, this was 1963, the year the tumultuous ’60s essentially began and an era when our values and expectations were to be seriously challenged.

It was a design whose utility anyone wishing a mode of quick, elegant and confidence inspiring motoring soon began to appreciate, particularly after a drive. As journalists circulated Lake Geneva in the new SLs – some curiously devoid of wheel trim rings and firewall pads – the brilliance of the overall design began to emerge. Driver’s enjoyed a spacious and airy interior offering superb visibility via the uniquely designed hardtop’s vast glass area, sure-footed handling afforded by radial tires designed specifically for the car and lively performance from the 4 main bearing 2.3 liter inline six. The SL that would soon be referred to as the Pagoda due to the subtle concavity of its roof line was beginning to win over the skeptics and has continued to do so for the last 50 years. Happy motoring at its best.

Showtime: The new SL is the talk of 1963’s Geneva Salon and a two-tone black over signal red model is the center of attention. In the right image we see journalists testing the W113’s abilities around the Lake Geneva. Note the absence of wheel trim rings and the drooping bulge of the vertical spare tire well showing beneath the rear valance. The spare tire would soon be relocated and lie horizontally in the right corner of the trunk.

Roy Spencer, editor
Photography from Mercedes-Benz (in aller Welt)


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