Mercedes-Benz Sports Cars

Mercedes-Benz managed to survive some early hardships to become one of the most recognized producers of luxury cars. See more pictures of Mercedes-Benz Sports Cars.

Mercedes-Benz is now a household name, but it wasn’t always smooth sailing for this automaker. In the years following World War II, Daimler-Benz’s first priority was to get their factories running again, producing the pre-war models they’d already developed. As you’ll learn in the following article, Daimler-Benz was back on its feet and innovating by the mid-1950s.

Their first postwar models were sports cars were the Mercedes-Benz 190SL and Mercedes-Benz 300SL, and -- like many other companies of the day -- Daimler-Benz made use of an existing model as the base for these machines. Both of these models were well-received, but while the 300SL was more powerful, the 190SL was more profitable. Eventually, though, they were both supplanted by the built-from-the-ground-up Mercedes-Benz 230SL (and later the 250SL and 280SL), which introduced the “pagoda” roofline and provided Daimler-Benz with an attractive, high-performance sports tourer.



The next step was the Mercedes-Benz “R107” family, named for the internal code used to designate the project. The line updated the Mercedes-Benz look and made many improvements under the hood, giving the cars more than 15 years of production.

There’s more to the story, of course, and you can learn about it in the following pages. Inside you’ll discover the history of Daimler-Benz through detailed car profiles and photos.

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The great Mercedes-Benz 300SL was a LeMans-winner brought to the road. The high sills of its tube frame necessitated top-hinged doors for the celebrated “gullwing” effect.

The Mercedes-Benz 300SL once stood tall over its competitors. Over time, impressions of the classic Ferraris, Jaguars, Lamborghinis, and Porsches tend to swirl into a single golden sports-car memory, their pecking order indistinct. But step back into the mid-1950s, and it’s clear the Mercedes-Benz 300SL was in an orbit of its own.

"We can state unequivocally...the 300SL coupe is the ultimate in an all-round sports car," said Road & Track in April 1955. Gushed Walt Woron in the July 1956 Motor Trend, "If there’s a better production sports car in the world than the 300SL, show me the way to it!" Only Ferrari approached such accolades, but it couldn’t blend around-town gentility with open-road speed the way the 300SL could, and it certainly couldn’t match the Benz’s impeccable workmanship or even its unique design.



S for Super, L for Light, 300 for the engine’s 3.0 liters, the Mercedes-Benz 300SL was conceived not as a road car but as a 1952 sports-racer. It promptly took first and second in the Carrera Panamericana, the 24 Hours of LeMans, and the Nürburgring 1000 Kilometers. American import baron Max Hoffman convinced Mercedes to issue a production version, which it did in 1954.

The steel and aluminum bodies employed a robust frame of triangulated tubes. The structure’s tall sills precluded ordinary doors, necessitating the top-hinged "gullwing" portals that were the coupe’s signature design feature.

The Mercedes-Benz 300SL's fuel-injected inline-six took 16 quarts of oil and produced a peerless blend of power and poise.

The inline-six was drawn from that of the big Mercedes 300 sedan, but was canted 50 degrees left to clear the 300SL’s hood. It was made of aluminum, used Bosch mechanical fuel injection, and had 220 hp -- 54 more than the LeMans-winning version. An optional cam brought 240.

This flexible six worked through an all-synchro four-speed and propelled the most-aerodynamic road car of its day to 140 mph with the 3.42:1 gearing, and to near 160 with the available 3.25:1. A coil suspension furnished a stable ride and spirited handling, but swing rear axles could prompt vicious oversteer.

In 1957, Mercedes replaced the Gullwing with the 300SL Roadster. Its modified space frame permitted conventional doors and its reworked rear suspension was friendlier at the limit; it was built through 1963. Time has softened the impact of the Gullwing, but to the sports-car enthusiast of the mid-1950s, nothing else could touch it.

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The Mercedes-Benz 190SL resembled the 300SL, but didn’t have gullwing doors or supercar performance.

The 1950s sports-car establishment never could come to terms with the Mercedes-Benz 190SL, an aristocratic European.

It had the proper sporting cues: dashing two-seat styling; all-independent coil-sprung suspension; floorshifted four-speed; even a slightly temperamental overhead-cam four-cylinder engine. But cars of this specification -- and this price -- were supposed to rip out to the road course on the weekend, go fender-to-fender with XK 120s, then terrorize the populace on the way home. Ferraris could. Porsches could. But this roadster from mighty Mercedes-Benz could not.



"It’s a dull-but-expensive piece of transportation in sports car clothing," wrote Jerry Titus in Sports Car Graphic. "While this opinion may infuriate some proud 190 owners, we doubt it will even raise an eyebrow at the factory, as we suspect this is exactly what they had in mind."

Precisely. Daimler-Benz had made a remarkable postwar recovery, rising from Stuttgart’s bombed rubble to resume auto and truck production and even to go racing in 1952 with the purpose-built 300SL. Road versions of that competition coupe reached showrooms about the same time as the Mercedes-Benz 190SL, which was styled inside and out to resemble the exotic 300, but was never intended to duplicate its performance.

Power from the tweaked sedan engine was merely adequate for the Mercedes-Benz 190SL.

Like most sports cars of the day, the 190SL was bred from a sedan platform. Its engine was tweaked with twin Solex carbs, but they were difficult to adjust and power was only adequate for the car’s weight. The suspension, tuned to fight the snap-oversteer tendency of M-B’s swing rear axles, delivered a compliant ride and relatively modest cornering.

There was a removable steel hardtop option, and eventually, a fixed-roof coupe. In all of them, passenger and luggage space were unusually generous for a two-seater, and workmanship was of the highest order.

Judged as the sports tourer it was designed to be, the Mercedes-Benz 190SL delivered at least as much as it promised. In fact, said Motorsport in 1956, "Proper use of the gears will propel a 190SL faster than most pilots can safely drive, and they will survive thanks to an overall dynamically balanced design."

By 1963, Mercedes would offer only one two-seater, the "pagoda-roof" 230SL. It was more like the suave 190 than the fierce 300, settling any debate about the sports-car philosophy of this German giant.

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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.

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The R107-series Mercedes-Benz SL saw little external change in its 16-year run.

Strictly speaking, the R107 Mercedes SL isn’t a sports car but a two-seat GT. You may or may not consider that A Good Thing, but it’s precisely what Daimler-Benz intended.

D-B began contemplating a successor to the "pagoda-roof" W113 SL in the mid-60s. The firm was in an expansionist mood, seeking increased profits (though not necessarily more sales) especially in the lucrative U.S. market. Management realized that bigger, plusher, costlier cars were the way to go. Kicking off another design cycle for the entire Mercedes line, the replacement SL, internally coded R107, was the first model to embody this new philosophy, from which D-B has reaped vast rewards ever since.



Bigger and plusher the R107 certainly was, and very much designed with America in mind. Compared with the 230/250/280SL, it was longer overall (by 3.3 inches) and in wheelbase to provide a little more space behind the cockpit and room ahead for air conditioning, standard for the States.

It was also wider to accommodate Washington’s required door guard beams as well as bigger tires -- almost a necessity, as a switch from aluminum to steel body panels added some 300-400 pounds to curb weight. The extra beef undoubtedly contributed to passive safety, though several other features did more: a fuel tank tucked out of harm’s way over the rear axle, safety door handles and steering wheel, new-design seatbelts.

The R107 certainly looked heavier, with none of the previous SL’s lithe simplicity. A lift-off pagoda-style hardtop was retained (and even mimicked by a slight trunklid concavity) and there were functional features like ribbed taillamp lenses and A-pillar troughs that shed rain and muck to help the driver see and be seen. Overall, though, the styling was not readily accepted. One U.S. magazine initially described it as "Americanized" and "Anti-agile."

And this weightier Mercedes-Benz SL was less agile than its predecessors, though more civilized. Yet its chassis was quite capable, evolved from that of the late-60s "New Generation" compact sedans, with D-B’s typical rear swing axles (altered to function like semi-trailing arms) and excellent recirculating-ball power steering. To counteract the greater heft and enhance refinement, D-B specified its smooth 3.5-liter V-8 as standard for Europe.

American SLs got a 4.5-liter enlargement that emission controls rendered no more powerful. A clumsy four-headlamp treatment, instead of single flush-mount lights, also marred the U.S. version, as did protruding 5-mph "impact" bumpers, federally mandated from 1972-73.

The R107 SL was plusher inside, one of many aspects of the car designed with the American market in mind.

Though far removed from the original "Sports Light" concept, the R107 sold like no previous Mercedes-Benz SL, and has remained popular for a remarkable 16 years without major alteration. Not that Daimler-Benz has ever advocated change for its own sake but, with sales consistently strong, there’s been no need to monkey with this assured, polished, and solid sports tourer -- timeless in its open-air appeal and always decently quick, sometimes exhilarating.

Which brings us to the changes that have been made, mostly in engines. Let’s start with Europe, where a 2.8-liter twincam six-cylinder version was added in 1974 as an Energy Crisis special. This ran through 1985, when D-B substituted its new 3.0-liter sohc six (from the W124 sedans) for a new 300SL (though it was nothing like the hallowed Gullwing).

A hot 500SL appeared for 1980 -- just in time for "Energy Crisis II," though inflation had lifted all Mercedes into such rarefied price territory by then that sales were hardly affected by a mere fuel shortage.

Meanwhile, America got a smaller version of this all-aluminum 5.0-liter V-8 for a 1981-model 380SL, whose tame acceleration led to a "black market" demand for European 500s that frankly embarrassed Mercedes-Benz of North America. This plus an eventual oil glut persuaded D-B to develop a 5.6-liter replacement as a U.S. exclusive for ’86. Like the 500, it boasted improved anti-dive/anti-squat control, Bosch anti-lock brakes, and front chin spoiler (but no rear spoiler), plus driver’s airbag, limited-slip differential, and upgraded trim and equipment. In Europe, a 420SL replaced the 3.8-liter as the mid-range offering.

Today, the R107 is the senior citizen of the Mercedes line, and engines alone, no matter how good, aren’t enough against younger, higher-tech, more aerodynamic competitors. D-B is ready with a new R129SL, for 1989-90, and the R107 will be retired at last.

Many will be sad to see it go, but it will not be forgotten. Good Things never are.

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The hardtop on the Mercedes-Benz SLK folds and stows automatically, giving the car a conversation piece.

The Mercedes-Benz SLK brought true sport performance back to the German luxury manufacturer. Two-seat roadsters from Mercedes-Benz had grown less sports-car-like after the original 190 and 300. By the late 1990s, the flagship SL600 was a $120,100, 4455-lb luxo-cruiser with a 389-hp 6.0-liter V-12. It could do 0-60 mph in 5.9 seconds and run at 155 mph, but even Mercedes didn’t call it a sports car. It called the new SLK a sports car.

Translated from German, SLK is an acronym meaning "Sporty, Light, and Short." Introduced to America in early 1997, this roadster is Mercedes’s answer to the BMW Z3 and Porsche Boxster, and is distinguished from both by its engine and roof.



The SLK rides a shortened Mercedes C-class sedan platform and has a new, all-steel body. Retaining the compact sedan’s independent suspension and generous wheel travel gives it good ride quality, while judiciously firming up the damping, replacing recirculating-ball steering with rack-and-pin-ion, and fitting more aggressive tires -- wider in back than in front -- produces curve-hugging handling.

The most unique feature is a fully automatic retracting hardtop. Pushing one button transforms the SLK from a closed coupe to an open convertible in 25 seconds. The electrohydraulic roof cleaves at the rear pillars, the trunklid opens backward, and the top retracts into a rear compartment. The trunklid then works conventionally, though luggage space shrinks from 12.3 cubic feet to 5.1 with the roof stowed. Still, the roof gives the SLK weather protection, security, and a conversation piece its rivals don’t have.

Mercedes returned to sports cars on its own terms with the SLK and gave all U.S. models a supercharged 2.3-liter twincam four.

"Kompressor" fender script signals presence of a "compressor," making this the first supercharged Mercedes since the 1930s. The crankshaft-driven blower fortifies a 2.3-liter iron-block, aluminum-head four-cylinder. European SLKs can have a naturally aspirated 136-hp 2.0 four-cylinder and a five-speed manual gearbox, but all U.S. cars get the supercharged 2.3 and a five-speed automatic that electronically adjusts shifts to suit driving style.

The American combination produces fine power through a wide rpm range. There’s little supercharger whine, but the exhaust emits a swaggering snarl. Simulated carbon-fiber interior trim substitutes for traditional Mercedes wood. Tube bars behind each seat offer rollover protection, and a special child seat is available that disarms the passenger-side air bag. Forty-three years after the original SLs helped rejuvenate one of the world’s great automakers, Mercedes-Benz is back in the sports-car business.

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