The 1960s-era Mercedes-Benz SLs were sporty tourers rather than out-and-out sports cars, and popular because of it.
Contrary to oft-repeated statements, the W113 Mercedes-Benz SL, introduced at the Geneva auto show in March 1963, was not a direct replacement for the 190 or 300SLs. Instead, it was a ground-up project, an up-to-date sports tourer with 190 size and performance but somewhat more luxury.
Like the 190, this new SL borrowed its chassis and running gear from a volume sedan -- here, the finny W111/112 series that began appearing in 1959. Power was supplied by the overhead-cam six of the contemporary 220SE, with a 2-mm bore increase lifting displacement to 2306 cc and new multiport Bosch fuel injection (replacing the previous single-point manifold system) boosting output by no less than 30 DIN horsepower.
Retained from the 190 were monocoque body/chassis construction and coil-and-wishbone front suspension; new was a "low pivot" swing-axle rear suspension with transverse camber-compensating spring. Brakes were Girling front discs and Al-Fin rear drums with vacuum assist.
Dimensionally, the 230SL compared almost inch for inch with the 190, with a similar wheelbase and only 1.5 extra inches in overall length. Curb weight was the exception: 2850-3200 pounds depending on equipment (versus 2500-2600 pounds), though the W113 structure would prove to be one of the sturdiest then in production.
Speaking of equipment, it now included the first automatic transmission ever offered on a sporting Mercedes, the new 4-speed Daimler-Benz unit with a simple fluid coupling instead of a torque converter. Fully synchronized 4-speed manual remained standard. Final-drive gearing was initially 3.75:1, but 3.69 and 3.92 gearsets were also offered from September 1965.
The typical 230SL could run the standing quarter-mile in 17-18 seconds and reach 100 mph from rest in 27 seconds -- not Corvette-ferocious but more than adequate. As proof, a 230 won the prestigious Spa-Sofia-Liege rally in its introductory year, the first of several rally wins for these SLs. In all, they were rugged cars that could certainly take the rough with the smooth.
Styling was completely fresh -- conservative, angular, and obviously related to that of contemporary D-B sedans -- though the SL grille and big tristar emblem were carried over from earlier models. An interesting new element was the optional hardtop’s "pagoda" roofline, curved upward slightly at the sides to increase rigidity and glass area.
The leather-swathed cockpit offered a pair of large, comfy reclining seats and D-B’s then-usual dash motif, with big, round speedometer and tachometer flanking a bank of vertically reading minor gauges. New features included windows-up fresh-air ventilation and one of the industry’s first multi-purpose control stalks for lights and wipers. The standard soft top folded away beneath a hinged cover, and the square-cut styling made for considerably more trunk space than on previous SLs.
All this signalled the W113’s primary mission as a luxury sports tourer, not all-out sports car. Yet its road manners garnered considerable praise. Bernard Cahier found the 230 "free of handling vices...almost neutral with very slight understeer" in sharp corners. Said Hansjorg Bendel: "Body roll is quite pronounced, but the driver never feels it; the steering remains light, accurate and smooth near the limit. . . . This is one of those cars that [impresses as] having [a] center of gravity below road level." Cahier concluded that this SL was "one of D-B’s very finest cars."
And so it would remain through a relatively long eight-year production life. There would be only two major changes: a pair of larger engines to counter the extra weight and reduced performance of mandated American safety and emissions equipment.
The Mercedes-Benz SL sported a noteworthy concave windshield header as part of its "pagoda-roof" design.
The first arrived in late 1966 with a revised 250SL. Changes included a 6-mm stroke increase, bringing displacement to 2496 cc, plus a switch from four to seven main bearings and adoption of rear disc brakes, improved seatbelts, and a collapsible steering wheel. Horsepower stayed the same, but torque rose by a useful 15 lbs-ft. Final drive was now 3.69:1 exclusively.
After just 12 months and some 5200 units, the 250 bowed to the 280SL, powered by a new bored-out M130 engine with 2778 cc and 180 bhp (SAE gross) in U.S. trim or 170/180 DIN for Europe. Styling was again basically unchanged. New "federal features" included energy-absorbing steering column, three-point inertia-reel seatbelts, removable top latch handles for the windshield header, and side-marker lights outside.
Torque swelled by another 19 lbs-ft, which enhanced low-speed tractability if not mileage, and a new 5-speed ZF manual option helped exploit it. Alas, the 280 had more rubber and thus "slop" in its suspension, and the 5-speed option was pricey ($500), like the car itself. U.S. models came with 4.08:1 final gearing, though the 3.69 and 3.92 ratios were available "upon request."
By 1971, the W113 was old hat, having been denied recent D-B developments like a revised 4-speed automatic, anti-dive front suspension geometry, and new semi-trailing-link rear geometry. All would be rectified with the new R107 generation introduced late that year, a different breed altogether.
In fact, the W113s would be the last two-seat Mercedes true to the original meaning of SL (sehr leicht, very light). They were also far more successful than their '50s forebears, with annual sales of about 6000 units. So in retrospect, these cars are a bit like the Roman god Janus -- looking backward and forward. Today they’re valued for precisely that reason: pleasant, well-rounded sporty cars with a certain timeless grace, and an important step in the evolution of Mercedes two-seaters.