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.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1969 Mercedes-Benz 280SL

The ’69 280SL featured here was sold at Christie’s London, England, sale December 3, 2002, for $18,448. It was presented with a fair repaint and new carpet but dirty original interior, hardtop included and, oh yes, the automatic gearbox was struck in drive.

The catalog mentioned that the car had been on display, according to the auction company, had not been used for some time, and that refurbishing may be needed to make it roadworthy. It’s not good for any car to sit unused, and the SL’s fuel-injection pump really does not fare well. Seals dry out and rebuild costs run up to $2,000. The transmission problem could be something simple or the new owner might be facing a complete rebuild. Overall, the price seems high considering the car’s so-so appearance, expensive deferred maintenance needs and potentially high repair costs.

Buying a good used 280SL should not be extremely difficult, owing to its high build quantity and its inherently robust nature. Rust is the car’s Achilles’ heel; the unit chassis box sections are structural and checking them is critical. Poor body damage repair is next, as each panel is welded to exacting standards, making it hard to replace or repair correctly. Add in the typical improper use of Bondo and judicious use of undercoating and the show car you think you’re purchasing might be a beautified rust bucket. Quick clues to a good example are the hood and door fit, and doors that give that solid “thud” when closed.

Engines have a normal life of at least 100,000 miles, and will last much longer if properly maintained. The car should start quickly and, when at operating temperature, pull smoothly from an idle of 600 rpm to the sweet spot of the torque curve at just about 4,000 rpm, and then right on up to 6,500 rpm. A properly sorted-out suspension should feel taut and agile. Don’t let mileage alone be your guide; proper use and maintenance are more the determining factors of a worthy purchase. Most mechanical and body parts are available: Some trim pieces are becoming harder to find and expensive, but many drivetrain parts are shared with sedans, coupes and convertibles of the same vintage.

The market for 113s has been steadily climbing. You must be very careful to accurately assess condition instead of paying too close attention to the asking price. Buyers seem comfortable paying $20,000 for a decent 113, which has resulted in many rough cars being fluffed up to reach that price point. As with so many relatively inexpensive sports cars, the price you pay may bear no relation to the condition of the car you get. When buying a 280SL, take your time, go over everything carefully and get a second opinion. Write a check if everything checks out, and walk away if it doesn’t.-Scott Featherman

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