Motoring | Features

The classic Mercedes Pagoda

It wasn't the most popular Merc when it was launched in 1963. But, W113 series SL roadsters are much sought-after by classic car enthusiasts around the world today.

  • By Sony Thomas, Senior Sub Editor, wheels
  • Published: 09:55 July 19, 2012
  • Wheels

The Pagoda
  • Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • The Pagoda took some time to gain acceptance among Merc fans due to its listless lines and small size.
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Replacing a highly successful model in its line-up is always a tough proposition for a carmaker. So when it debuted at the 1963 Geneva motor show, the 113 series Mercedes-Benz SL had the most unenviable task of replacing not one but two immensely popular models — the gorgeous 190 SL and the powerful, iconic 300 SL sportscar.

And unsurprisingly, the initial reactions weren't too positive, and its diminutive size and not-so-appealing lines, together with the peculiar ‘pagoda' roof that was lower in the middle than the edges, polarised opinion among car lovers.

It didn't seem to share any of the great characteristics of its illustrious predecessors — it wasn't anywhere near as powerful as the 300 SL, and looked like an unfortunate cousin of the 190. At launch, the W113 series was powered by a 2.3-litre straight-six that developed 150bhp at 5,500rpm and, mated to a four-speed transmission, took 9.7 seconds to hit 100kph from standstill.

From early 1966 onwards, the 230 SL, as the first model was known, was available with a five-speed ZF manual transmission, as well as an optional automatic ‘box.

By the end of that year, a new 2.5-litre engine was introduced, and with that the model name was also changed to 250 SL.

While the 250 SL had a larger displacement engine, the car's output remained unchanged, until the 2.8-litre with 170bhp debuted in the 1968 280 SL. The Pagodas featured gas shock absorbers and were the first in the SL series to wear radial tyres.

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Although the car drew flak from fans of the marque, who found the design and the diminutive dimensions — at 4,285mm long, 1,760mm wide and 1,320mm high — hard to digest, they eventually started warming up to the model.

A major catalyst for this change in perception came in the form of victory for a 230 SL driven by Eugen Böhringer and Klaus Kaiser at the 1963 Spa-Sofia-Liege Rally. This win helped counter criticisms of the Pagoda being too soft to be termed a sportscar.

In fact it was a conscious decision by Mercedes-Benz to make the W113 SLs ride more softly than their predecessors. Positioned as a comfortable high-performance two-seater touring car, the Pagoda SLs offered a fine balance between a hard-nosed roadster and a temperate boulevard cruiser.

Karl Kling, former Mercedes-Benz racing driver, probably best summed up the series when he said, “This is a car for driving individualists for whom sportiness without a comfortable ride and exclusivity without worldwide service are simply not good enough. It is for those who expect one model to provide everything.”

By the time production ceased in March 1971, a total of 48,912 Pagodas were built, with the 280 SL making up almost half of those. With just over 5,000 examples produced, the 250 SL is the rarest in the W113 series, while the 230 SL comes a close second in terms of popularity.

A 230 SL today can cost anything between Dh50,000 and Dh160,000, depending on its condition. While most of the mechanical and electrical parts as well as the body panels are easy to source even today, you might have a hard time finding interior trim for the 230 SL.

And some parts like the radiator grille, fuel injection pump and windscreen wiper motor can prove very costly to replace.

Also make sure that the SL you zero in on is equipped with a power steering, as the ones without could give you a hard workout at low speeds. Finally, keep an eye out for rust in the hardtop, which is a double-skinned steel sheet.

If all these fall into place, then you needn't think twice before sealing the deal, for what you get is one of the most widely recognised models in Stuttgart's historic line-up.

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