Today’s Mercedes Benz SL series is a wonder of modern style, groundbreaking technology, safety and innovation. To understand the roots of those attributes is to understand the lineage that has been shaped by such influential models as the W198 300SL and the W121 190SL.
When the W113 was introduced at Geneva in 1963, many wondered how it could compete with the game changing 300SL. The 198’s looks alone were enough to secure it an elevated position amongst the worlds finest automobiles. The subsequent 190SL was in turn a strong statement from Stuttgart to say Mercedes Benz were building the best cars in the world.
The W113 SL was designed by Paul Bracq. Bracq went on to be responsible for a wealth of automotive design classics including the E24 BMW 6 series. Also credited is Bela Barenyi, often known as the grandfather of passive safety best known for the development of the crumple zone and the collapsible steering column. Barenyi designed the distinctive concave hardtop of the W113 giving rise to the car’s ‘Pagoda’ nickname.
The basic dimensions of the car enabled it superb handling as a result of the relatively wide track chassis and short overall length. It had a powerful straight six cylinder engine and coupled with lightweight aluminium panels it was a brisk performer. Barenyi worked hard to achieve a very strong structure for the vehicle with crumple zones and a rigid passenger ‘safety cell’ common to most modern cars but for it’s time many years ahead of the competition.
The 230SL was the first vehicle in the range to be built with a production run of 5 years from 1963 to 1967. Nearly 20,000 vehicles were produced in this period with around a quarter destined for the US market nearly all equipped with the excellent 4 speed automatic transmission. The M127 6 cylinder engine of 150bhp was offered giving strong and dependable performance. There is a famous account of a 230SL putting in an impressive lap time on race circuit against a v12 Ferrari of only two hundredths of a second less.
The 230 was succeeded in 1966 by the 250SL. This particular vehicle was only produced for one year making it a rare and sought after derivative. There were various suspension and mechanical upgrades, most notably the 6 cylinder M129 engine which now had a longer piston stroke and a stronger 7 main bearing crankshaft. The increased stroke length helped to increase torque but peak power was unchanged. An interesting model was the California Coupe, with a detachable hardtop and no folding roof. As expected this was a popular choice in the US particularly in, as it’s name would suggest, California. In the late sixties numerous safety enhancements were introduced as a result of Barenyi’s research. Softer materials were used in the dash area and a collapsible steering column was standard.
The 280 SL was introduced in 1967. By this time the car had gained some weight and in contrast to the earlier models was now more of a convertible grand tourer than a sports car. A manual gearbox was offered to maintain some driver involvement but on the whole most cars were automatic suiting the now matured W113’s character. Engines were upgraded now producing 170bhp and providing relaxed and effortless performance.
Production ended for the W113 in 1971. By this time Mercedes Benz were poised to introduce the R107 SL setting the template for what became the definitive SL shape. The W113 will be remembered by many as an iconic car with Bracq’s legendary design standing the test of time well. It is often said that the W113 is from a time when Mercedes Benz were ‘building their cars properly’, this has certainly helped the SL build an enviable reputation as one of the most prestigious and recognisable open top sports tourers in the world.