1969 Mercedes-Benz 280SL

The third-series Mercedes-Benz roadster, the 230SL, was introduced in March 1963 at the Geneva Show, succeeding the highly regarded 1950s-designed 300SL and 190SL. This new SL (type 113), nicknamed the “pagoda” after the silhouette of its distinctive detachable hardtop, ushered in what Mercedes-Benz felt the automobile market desired and required: a “civilized” sports car. A balanced package, it provided superior engineering, comfort, safety, reliability and proper road manners. Styled by Paul Bracq, its conservative and handsome design has endured well and is a timeless classic.

Rudi Uhlenhaut-the engineer who joined Mercedes-Benz in 1930 and was responsible for its highly successful competition department and 300SL coupe-became the driving force behind the chassis design of the 113. The all-new chassis was a solidly constructed steel monocoque (unit body) hull with the main body shell made of steel. The doors, hood and deck lid were formed out of aluminum alloy to save weight. The front suspension was a double-wishbone coil spring with telescoping shocks. The rear suspension was coil spring and telescoping shocks controlling the much-maligned “low-pivot” rear swing axle. Power steering and power four-wheel disc brakes (rear drum brakes on the first 113s) and radial tires rounded out the specification. Some journalists scoffed at the “softly sprung” set-up and uninspiring six-cylinder 150-hp powerplant pushing 2,850 pounds of curb weight. Uhlenhaut’s philosophy was that each essential element should work together as a balanced whole, using a chassis and suspension that matched the capability of the engine. Uhlenhaut proved this theory by personally lapping the Montroux race track in a 230 SL only .2 second slower than a V12 Ferrari 250GT.

The engine was an iron block, aluminum-cylinder head, single overhead cam inline six-cylinder, similar to the engines in Mercedes’ contemporary sedans. The SL series had the upgraded six-plunger mechanical direct fuel-injection pump that was smoother and more powerful. The engine displacement and horsepower rose with the succeeding 250SL/280SL series although, due to an increase in curb weight, there was a negligible gain in performance. The last of the series, the 280SL, had 170 hp and did have the advantage of a bit more low-end torque. Most 113s were delivered with the four-speed automatic transmission (fluid coupling). A four-speed manual gearbox was standard, while a few rare examples were delivered with a 5-speed ZF box. The automatic starts in second gear and kickdown at times can be jerky, but with its floor-mounted gated shifter it gave the driver good control and seemed well suited to the SL demeanor. Optional air conditioning was available in the US as a dealer-installed option.