From 300 and 190 to the Pagoda that merged the best of both…
Mercedes was already well into its post-war resurgence by the time the 300SL Gullwing arrived in 1954, but few vehicles more neatly encapsulate German industry’s restored self-confidence than this fast, glitzy and technologically advanced two-seater. But iconic or not, it was replaced in 1957 with the 300SL roadster that really set the mould for one of Mercedes’ most enduring model lines.
While the Roadster had comparable performance and gained improvements to the Gullwing’s sometimes scary swing-axle rear suspension, it was decidedly more luxurious than sporty. And that basic template for the SL remains true to this day.
From that first unveiling in 1954 it was clear the 300SL was going to be very expensive and exclusive, Mercedes presenting an early prototype of a more affordable version at the same time. This was the 190SL, a small roadster cashing in on the glamour and desirability but based on the more prosaic underpinnings of the four-cylinder ‘Ponton’ saloons. With more than 25,000 sales and a significant proportion of those in America, the 190SL was a commercial success and remains a beautiful car, if lacking somewhat in sporting stature.
The goal of the next SL was to combine the qualities of both into one model. Launched in 1963, the W113 shared much of its mechanical make-up with the contemporary saloon cars, but the delicate Paul Bracq design has a sense of style and proportion that still stands. Commonly known as the Pagoda SL, the W113 launched as the 230SL with a sweet and free-revving 148bhp 2.3-litre fuel-injected straight-six and four-speed manual gearbox. The option of an automatic rather underlined that Mercedes wasn’t going after sports car buyers, the 250SL of 1967 introducing disc brakes all round and a more robust and torquey engine.
Accounting for nearly half the total production run of 48,912 cars, the 280SL introduced soon afterwards is considered by many the definitive model, the 2.8-litre engine delivering 168bhp and the automatic gearbox by now a near-default option. Sales were strong in America, where its easy-driving nature and chrome chintz worked well in combination with the SL’s air of European sophistication and glamour. To this day there remain few more stylish and enjoyable ways to cruise around, the Pagoda SL’s handling, performance and ease of use making it an easy classic to enjoy in modern traffic conditions.
Price new: £4651 (300SL Gullwing), £2734 (190SL), £2975 (Pagoda) Price now: £1.5m+ (300SL), £175K+ (190SL), £150K+ (Pagoda) Rivals: Ferrari 250 California (300SL), Austin Healey 100/4 (190SL), Jaguar E-type (Pagoda) Heritage: Road racer turned chromed cruiser, a definitive Mercedes model line
SPEAKING TO HOWARD WISE
Dealer, 300SL owner and long-time Pagoda expert on the 1960s SLs that matter
190SLs have started to creep up, but they’ve taken their time because they’re harder work to drive than Pagodas. I just sold one to Japan for £185,000 with a power-steering conversion. 300SLs are now knocking on £2m and Pagodas are in six figures, too. Right-hand-drive cars are hard to find and in Europe Mercedes is selling restored cars for €300,000; I’ve got a UK car, matching numbers, totally original and it’ll be up for £150,000. If you study Pagodas in depth you realise they’re one of the best Mercedes sports cars ever, the build quality is just amazing. There isn’t a better car for quality, for touring ability, for luggage or performance – they’re just gorgeous.