THE MERCEDES-BENZ 230SL
A 120-m.p.h. Sporting Car of Great Refinement, Capable of High-Speed Travel in Extreme Comfort, Now Available With Power Steering and Automatic Transmission
IN 1959, during a visit to the Daimler-Benz factories at Stuttgart and Sindelfingen, I was able to enjoy a drive to Frankfurt and Koblenz in a Mercedes-Benz 190SL, and to sample this sporting Mercedes-Benz round the Nurburgring, before going on to Dusseldorf, Hanover and Bremen, then returning to Stuttgart in this fine motor car. The impression lingers of a beautifully appointed, very comfortable, essentially predictable fast car.
However, time marches on, car performance improves, and the 190SL became out-moded, so Daimler-Benz introduced the 230SL, using a modified version of the well-established 220SE fuel-injection six-cylinder overhead-camshaft power unit. By increasing the bore-diameter 2 mm., to 82 mm., using a six plunger instead of a two-plunger Bosch injection pump, and raising the c.r. to 9.3-to-1, a power output of 150 b.h.p. is obtained at 5,500 r.p.m. and the engine runs safely to 6,500 r.p.m., giving 559-lb./ft. torque at 4,500 r.p.m.
This fine and complicated looking power unit in a typical Mercedes-Benz, with coil-spring and wishbone i.f.s., low-pivot swing-axle coil-spring i.r.s., Girling disc front and Alfin-drum rear brakes with ATE Servo assistance, and a very stylish, low two-seater body having the concave-top hard-top, adds up to an extremely handsome and effortlessly fast sporting car, which, on the road, provides a great deal of satisfaction tempered with some disillusionment.
The interior exudes the quality and convenience one expects from a Mercedes-Benz. The big separate ventilated leather-upholstered seats (this leather costing an extra £151) have reclining squabs and are amongst the most comfortable I have sat in for a long time, although tending to hug one tightly. Unfortunately, the knob for squab-setting is uncomfortably close to the door, nor did the squab of the driver’s seat always re-set accurately after having been hinged forward with the side lever to give access to the rear compartment, which is more fitted for canines than humans, leg room being restricted. A transverse seat can be supplied for this shelf if required, and presumably customers who order it have their legs amputated free of charge. . . .
Although Mercedes-Bens have a specialist wood-working shop for producing finely-veneered fillets and cappings, they prefer not to endow their cars with weighty wooden facias, and on the 230SL such woodwork is used merely to trim a metal facia, shallow in itself and well provided with crash padding. The centre of the steering wheel and the sun-vizors are also padded.
With the hard-top in place there is all the comfort of a fixed-head coupe with extremely good visibility through the generous window area. Six turns are needed to fully open the driver’s window, The driver is confronted with a big, somewhat slippery wheel with hall horn-ring, and hooded instrumentation, comprising a 140-m.p.h. Vdo speedometer (possessing total and trip odometers, the figures of the latter difficult to read, and the first one flanked by the speedometer needle when stationary) and a Vdo tachometer recording to 7,000 r.p.m., with a red blob at 6,600 r.p.m., these dials having between them an instrument cluster containing a fuel gauge (labelled “Tank”) calibrated 4/4, 2/4, 0, with a warning light at R. and oil gauge below this calibrated 0, 15, 30, 45, its needle remaining habitually on the upper stop when the engine was running, and, in the matching panel, a trio of warning lamps above a thermometer going to 250F but normally showing just under 180F. A small knob at the base of this Vdo panel provides rheostat variation of facia illumination.
The facia is otherwise uncluttered. It has adjustable fresh-air vents and aircraft-style smaller vents at each end, air-flow being shut off and controlled by horizontal-quadrant levers. Discreet knobs operate the very quiet heater-fan speed adjustment cigar lighter, and map light, and a tiny turn-button for the lamps, is set too far under the steering wheel. There is an accurate Vdo clock. The heater controls in two quadrants occupy the facia centre, over the ” 230SL ” insignia, the turn-indicator warning lights are at the top of the central instrument cluster, and a r.h. stalk combines the functions of operating the turn-indicators, Lashing the headlamps, and putting on the wipers (but depressing Its knob) and washers (by pushing the stalk down), a button on top of the knob providing for the 2-speeds of the wipers. Very handy, and not quite so complicated as it sounds !
The hand-brake lever is somewhat inaccessible on the n/s of the transmission tunnel, on which there is an open, wood parcels’ container, with lidded ash-tray in front of it. Rigid grab handles are provided on roof and doors, typically neat Mercedes flush-fitting pull-out internal door handles are used, with equally neat door-locks, there are sensibly-shaped arm-rests-cum-“pulls,” big rigid pockets on the doors, the side windows are devoid of ¼-lights yet can be opened without creating any draught, big grips provide for easy fore-and-aft scat adjustment, and the hard-top is released and the hood exposed by operating a series of levers within the car. The hood is effective and free from drumming. The cubby-hole is lockable but wouldn’t take a Rolleiflex camera. Its lid incorporates interior and exterior-map lamps.
Equipment embraces an anti-dazzle mirror, effective two-position roller door “keeps,” foot dipper. Bosch lamps and electrics, treadle accelerator add a brake pedal of conventional size. Although the boot contains the spare wheel, it is of shallow but very generous dimensions and the lid, self-supporting, has its own key. The rear-hinged bonnet is also self-supporting, to reveal some truly impressive machinery. I missed the three-pointed star riding in front of the driver, which is not present on the 230SL.
The car submitted for test by the British concessionaires was the automatic transmission version, with optional power steering. The gear-change is effected by a little central lever moving forward through an irregular, nylon-edged gate in P,R,O,4,3,2 order. 1 here is the usual Rick-down on the accelerator, very positive, and providing impressive acceleration, with a considerable increase in engine noise. The lever can be pushed instantly into ” 3,” or ” 2,” when these gears are held and a change-up in the normal manner is called for when 6,500 r.p.m. is reached; in ” 2 “ bottom gear is selected for starting, when in ” 3″ the car gets off in second unless kick-down is used.
Although this easy selection and hold of the lower gears is admirable, the lever moves very readily and if pulled back quickly as maximum engine speed is reached it is possible to inadvertently go into neutral, or to get ” 2 ” instead of the intended ” 3 ” when pushing the lever forward. Normal motoring is better done in “ 4,” using the hold positions only when really trying, or to prevent hunting in traffic driving. An unusual feature is that the engine can be started with the lever in ” P,” as well as in ” O.” The throttle setting on the test car gave too much creep.
For high-speed driving this 230SL is effortless, predictable and stops well. It does everything very nicely indeed, in a rather characterless manner. Cornering is virtually neutral, and the steering is sensitive in spite of the power assistance, the wheel needing three turns, lock-to-lock, with only a few inches of lost movement. Judder and kick-back are absent, the action superbly light without being over sensitive, this being extremely good power steering. The German Firestone Phoenix tyres are specially made for the 230SL and have an ingenious rubber rim on their walls to protect the wheel knave-plates from damage on kerbs. Like most Firestones they can be made to squeal if the car is cornered close to its limit, but this means very fast indeed. This Mercedes is very stable, although rather lively suspension gives a hint of swing-axle sway if a rough surface intrudes on a corner, and the big wheels can be felt riding road undulations.
The brakes feel indecisive, even spongy, yet retard the car powerfully for light pedal pressures, and are pleasantly progressive. Except when unleashing most of its 65-per-litre horses for accelerating, the engine is very quiet. It gives a top speed of 120 m.p.h. but against the watch acceleration is not particularly impressive, a s.s. ¼-mile taking fractionally longer in this car than in a Daimler Majestic Major, for example. The figures were taken two-up, with the heavy hard-top in place. On the road, however, kick-down disposes very effectively of most of the faster saloons and sports cars and using the ” hold ” positions of the gear-change, the maxima were 28, 50 and 78 m.p.h., change-ups occurring at 5,800 r.p.m.
It is interesting that, wheelspin on take-off being virtually absent, driver-skill counts for nothing, a time of 17½ seconds for the s.s. being obtained repeatedly and the other times being notably consistent. The speedometer was commendably accurate at all speeds up to 70 m.p.h., when it read 2 m.p.h. fast. Petrol consumption of premium fuel averaged exactly 20 m.p.g. and inspection of the accessible dip-stick, which is labelled ” 220SE,” showed that no oil was required after 575 miles. The fuel tank provides an absolute range of 286 miles and the reserve-light, instead of flickering uncertainly, acts as a steady reminder that fuel for only about 37 miles remains.
It was very pleasant to be in a Mercedes-Benz again, product of a company which, in my opinion, makes the best all-round touring saloons and sporting 2-seaters in the world—I have not yet driven their limousine!
It is the manner in which the 230SL runs, its impeccable finish and comprehensive specification, as much as the performance which is available, that makes this a supreme sporting car for the discerning, worth the price of £3,959 that it costs in this country, in the form tested.
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After the automatic 230SL I had a couple of days with an exceedingly smart red normal model, shod with ordinary Firestone Phoenix tyres and a Blaupunkt radio with an electrically-erected aerial. It had a 4-speed manual gearbox controlled by a neat little central lever, positioned a little too far back for drivers who like to sit fairly close to the wheel, but no doubt ideal for those with long legs who adopt the full-arms-stretch position. It functions lightly, with rather long movements, but the change is notchy, somewhat spoiling the speed at which the gears are changed. The lever has no spring-loading, except that protecting reverse. This is a quiet box, with good syncromesh, giving maxima of 27, 54, 80 and 121 m.p.h. The clutch has a long-travel, but is light and smooth. The manual steering takes over 3½-turns, lock-to-lock, and while light and precise on small movements from straight ahead, it becomes tiringly heavy when making normal turns, so the very good Mercedes-Benz power steering is to be preferred. My choice would be to have the manual gearbox but power steering. The Mercedes-Benz 230SL is a magnificent motor car in either form, and the more simple version sells here for £3,668.—W. B.