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km : Hindsight

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22 February 2012

Mercedes-Benz has an all-new SL waiting in the wings, and as part of the pomp and circumstance that comes with the launch of such a storied model, the company has been trotting out pristine examples of its iconic first-generation SL, the venerable “Gullwing.” These earliest specimens stir emotions in the hearts of us enthusiasts, but it’s worth noting that the original SL was conceived as a world-beating race car, not a luxury roadster. It was, in fact, an exceptionally complex and yet crude machine based on the very mundane mechanicals of post-WWII Benz road cars. In other words, it bears very little resemblance to the modern SL, a car of magnanimous splendor and refinement. So while the Gullwing SL coupe is perhaps the most iconic Mercedes of all time, it’s the second-generation “Pagoda” model that established the formula for the SL as we know it today.

The SL designation itself stands for “Sport Light” and those nascent Rennwagens were indeed effective track weapons, placing Mercedes drivers on podiums around the world throughout the early 1950s. Victories came at Nurburgring, Le Mans, Mille Miglia, and Carrera Panamericana, making heroes out of the likes of Moss, Fitch, Fangio, and many others. A tragic crash at Le Mans in 1955 — a horrible event that killed one driver and 83 spectators as the magnesium-bodied 300 SLR of Pierre Levegh erupted into a white-hot incendiary bomb after colliding with a competitor’s car — led Mercedes-Benz to retreat from factory-backed racing, relegating future SLs to road duty.

Of course, the popularity of the racing SLs had already created a natural demand for a roadgoing version, a call that was reinforced by Mercedes-Benz’s visionary US importer Max Hoffman, who always seemed to have a handle on the pulse of America’s well-heeled motoring enthusiasts. More than a year before the tragedy at Le Mans, at the 1954 New York auto show, Mercedes had unveiled the 300 SL gullwing road version, based heavily on the racing cars and sharing their spaceframe construction and three-liter, straight-six engine. A four-cylinder 190 SL roadster concept was shown at the same time and went on sale in 1955; the 300 SL roadster arrived in 1957, the final year for the gullwing coupe.

Production of the first generation SL ended in 1963, by which time the two-seat roadster had become the vehicle of choice for celebrities and other high-profile owners. Gradually, Mercedes ratcheted up the content of the SL to accommodate the needs of its demanding clientele, not that its race car roots didn’t still show through in various forms of compromise. A thoroughly new model was in the works, with a new set of priorities that focused on open-air luxury and refinement.

The first all-new SL since its inception was revealed at the 1963 Geneva auto show. While it included styling cues from the previous generation — wide rectangular grille, stacked headlight assemblies, large three-pointed star in the nose — it carried over no pretense of winning races. The new design was elegant and graceful, and immediately less aggressive than its forebear. It was also far less aerodynamic than the streamliner shape of the gullwing body, a clear denial of motorsport ambitions. Featuring unibody construction, however, it not only afforded better crash safety to its occupants — being one of the first cars to employ the safety cell concept championed by M-B engineer Bela Barenyi — but also allowed for full-size doors that weren’t possible with the previous space-frame chassis.

Also unlike its predecessor, this new SL was conceived from the outset as an open roadster. A cloth-covered roof dropped behind the two front seats, concealed smartly beneath a hard shell. An optional hardtop could be latched on for cold-weather use, and it’s this feature that gave the W113 SL its memorable epithet, the “Pagoda.” Barenyi had suggested that adding curvature to the expanse of sheetmetal above the occupants’ heads would add strength, and that by curving upwards at the edges instead of in the middle, larger side windows could be used for better passive safety. The resulting silhouette, when viewed from the front or behind, resembled the upsweeping roof profiles of certain Chinese architecture, the resulting pagoda comparisons instantly sticking.

But most SLs rarely wore their tin tops, as the new model immediately became the darling of the wealthy Southern California set. With its low beltline and lean, minimalist bodywork, the SL was the perfect car to be seen in, particularly with the top down. The same holds true for the car today, and the Pagoda SL is at once exclusive and accessible to classic car collectors.

The pristine example shown here is a 1969 280SL from Mercedes-Benz’s own heritage collection, housed (no surprise) in Southern California. We spent a little time with it in the western hills of Appalachia — a far cry from Rodeo Drive, but nevertheless a venue setting for such a gracious car.

With nearly 94,000 miles on its vintage VDO odometer, this car is hardly a virgin; it’s well broken-in, even if its immaculate appearance belies that fact. I take my position on the driver’s seat, a black leather-covered marshmallow with an incredible amount of compliance and no headrest. The seats resemble those found in a good theater — wide and with just the slightest bit of contour to keep you in place, and yet completely supportive and comfortable enough in which to spend a couple good hours.

Pulling the door closed, I’m rewarded with the resonant quality that earned German cars the reputation they still enjoy today. A solid “choonk” meets my ears, accompanied by the precise background song of the door latch moving through each of its individual phases as it secures itself in the locked position. A quick scan of the workspace reveals surprisingly few luxuries by modern standards, but certainly all of the necessary instruments for a serious gentleman driver. Between the two large main dials — speedo on the left, tach on the right — and clearly visible through the large, skinny steering wheel, sits a trio of needles for oil pressure, water temperature and fuel level. A Becker AM/FM radio sits in the center of the dash, a round-faced analog clock just to its right. Sliders for the heater and vent controls live just above the radio, while a separate “Kuhlmeister” air conditioner unit is mounted below the dashboard, a very common arrangement for European cars of the times. The overall appearance is clean, logical and all business. It’s also refreshingly simple compared to a modern SL.

Turning the delicate key in the tumbler on the dashboard, the old fuel injected straight-six fires right up. That’s really no surprise, but there’s genuine delight in the deep, mellow exhaust rumble. It’s gentle and smooth, but also surprisingly audible, with a distinct bark on fast acceleration.

Moving the four-speed automatic’s simple shift lever forward — yes, forward — from park to drive, the gearbox seems to contemplate this request for seconds before finally engaging with a solid reassurance, the kind felt through the chassis as the engine’s torque attempts to push the car from its state of rest. Once under way, 2.8-liter six reveals its true nature as the strong, silent type. While the engine itself has a syrup-like quality to its delivery, the four-speed gearbox punctuates each shift with a mechanical exclamation point.

The Pagoda SL’s natural environs are undoubtedly palm-lined boulevards in close proximity to sunny beaches. Winding roads, on the other hand, are best taken at a relaxed pace, as the recalculating-ball steering gear and the steering wheel’s thin, large diameter rim demand quite a bit of input to result in actual directional change. Slow though it may be, the experience feels supreme, with a firm, viscous feedback through the wheel. Throw it hard into a corner and the body takes a serious lean, but the car holds onto the road better than its attitude would suggest.

In its day, the second-gen SL competed with the likes of Jaguar’s E-Type and BMW’s 507, not to mention American “sports cars” like the Corvette and Thunderbird. It straddled the space between the more serious drivers’ roadsters from Europe and the boulevard cruisers Detroit produced. Ultimately it proved most popular with buyers who valued style and substance over outright performance. More than 48,000 W113 SLs were built before the third generation came along in 1971. But most importantly, the second-generation Mercedes SL defined a class of cars and established the model as the symbol of open-top luxury.


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