The 1960s were a transformative time for Mercedes-Benz. A decade earlier, it was still recovering from World War II, rebuilding its bombed factories, and slowly phasing out its prewar models. But it had been revitalized on the global stage by the introduction of the 1954 300SL, a car that we went so far as to call it “the best car ever made.” By the new decade, however, the 300SL was aging fast as automakers from Chevrolet to Ferrari caught up to it, and by 1963 it was ripe for replacement. So how did Mercedes replace its living legend? Simple: It created a new one from scratch.
Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple at the outset. Remember, in 1963, the Jaguar E-Type ruled the sports car world, Ferrari’s 250s were still dominating racing, and Chevrolet introduced the split-window StingRay Corvette; the 300SL’s chassis dated back to the W194 racers of 1952. Mercedes needed to make a change, and to the automotive world, it was only natural that it would build another race-bred world-beater. But after the Le Mans disaster of 1955, Mercedes had dropped its racing program, leaving little incentive to create another true performance car. So the company made a decision that it would adhere to for nearly half a century: It was moving away from sports cars, and doubling down on luxury.
Which is why the initial reactions to the 230SL in 1963 were mixed. Just the name alone seemed to convey a message: 230SL. This is the car (internally called W113) that followed the brawny 300SL. Shouldn’t it be the 400SL? The 500? No, this car was nearly a foot shorter, a little lighter, and less powerful than its predecessor. Power was still provided by a state-of-the-art fuel-injected inline-six, but it was a 2.3 liter, 150 horsepower mill, seen as a departure from the championship-winning 212 horsepower three-liter mill. After building one of the most triumphant sports cars of the postwar era, Mercedes’ SL-Class had become a grand tourer.
And within the Mercedes, things were equally as complicated. To the company, the 230SL wasn’t a grand tourer, it was a “roadster.” It already had a luxury GT in the 220SE (a predecessor to the S-Class coupe today), and was anxious about taking sales away from that car. Luckily, it was a challenge the 230’s designers handled with aplomb. Compared to romantic-looking sports cars and grand tourers of the era with sensuous curves and flared fenders, the 230SL was razor-sharp and nearly minimalist. Designed by Paul Bracq (who later went on to design the Peugeot 505), Karl Wilfert and Rudi Uhlenhaut, the car seemed to be more in line with modern industrial and furniture design than what was going on at Silverstone or Monza.
It was this outsider mindset that created the 230SL’s most iconic design feature: The “Pagoda” roof. Early on in the design process, the Mercedes team tried to create a removable hardtop that could provide excellent visibility, and not make entry and exit any more difficult. Their radical design was taller at the edges than in the center, and created a near-symmetrical greenhouse profile. When it was introduced on the eve of the 1963 Geneva Motor Show, critics weren’t sure what to make of it; on the one hand it was beautiful, and incredibly well built, on the other hand, it was over 3,000 pounds, and not particularly fast.
But it didn’t matter to customers. With uncommon options for sporty cars like power steering and an automatic transmission, the 230SL struck a chord with well-to-do buyers all over the world. At $6,500 (nearly $50K today), it wasn’t cheap — in fact it was pricier than the E-Type and Corvette — but it filled a niche that no other car could.
Porsche’s new 911 was certainly glamorous, and no one driving a Shelby Cobra would be mistaken for anything other than a sportsman, but the SL offered a combination of comfort, luxury and status that no other car on the planet could, no matter what the cost. Demand soon outpaced supply, and within a few months, there were long waiting lists for the car.
In 1967, the car became the 250SL, with a bored-out engine, rear disc brakes to match the front, and a larger fuel tank. It also became a bit sportier, thanks to an optional limited-slip differential, and safer, with a padded dashboard, three-point seat belts and a collapsable steering column to bring it up to new U.S. standards. The 250 also marked the introduction of the “California Coupé,” an option that removed the folding soft top and boot to make room for a third seat behind the passenger seat.
In ’68, the car was revised again, becoming the 280SL. Now with 170 horsepower from the enlarged six, the car remained popular through the end of its production run, which ended in 1971 after nearly 24,000 had been built. For 1972, a new SL-Class was introduced to pick up exactly where the old car left off, and went on to enjoy an impressive 18 year production run.
Like its predecessors, these cars (internally named R107) were solidly-built, stylish, and comfortable grand tourers. But like most cars of their era, they suffered through the low points of the Malaise Era, and eventually grew old and tired under big, heavy bumpers and liberal amounts of interior plastic. To Mercedes purists (and a few who couldn’t afford 300SLs), the second-generation SL is the pinnacle of the nameplate. Over 50 years on, its clean styling still looks contemporary, and its combination of luxury and handling still makes it a joy to drive. And as the collector’s market continues to skyrocket ever upward, it’s quickly becoming the latest ’60s era icon to escape the reach of the common gearhead. The second-generation SL marked Mercedes’ total commitment to marrying luxury and technology in a way the world had never seen. It’s still reaping the benefits today.