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Classic Velocity Blog

The First Pagoda

Classic Velocity

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It is lost on many people that the much celebrated Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing and the companion roadster were not great sellers. They formed great race cars, but were not as practical in production for the road. Only 3,258 of them were produced. The "baby" roadster, the 190 SL was certainly not the sports car that 300SL turned out to be, and was more of a grand tourer. However, it was lighter, and less expensive. As a result, it did far better in the showroom. As the 1960s began, Mercedes began to look at a replacement for the 190SL. They considered a true successor of the 300SL in more of a sporting platform, but ended up concentrating on producing another elegant grand tourer. Bruno Sacco who worked on the project as a junior designer Indicated that they were trying to combine the 300SL roadster and the 190 SL into a single successor.

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The W113 platform as it came to be known, is credited to designer Paul Bracq and was introduced in 1963. A signature feature of the design was the roof. one option for the roof was a removable hardtop. This was metal and glass, and not some lightweight simple covering. In either form, the roof is based on the work of Bela Berenyi who had introduced a flat roof over a decade earlier and had done a fair amount of research on loadbearing stresses. The design challenge in this instance was to produce a vehicle that had good headroom and yet was relatively efficient in terms of wind drag. This would typically mean a conflict between a low roofline and a high one. What Bracq decided to do was to lower the roof in the middle so that there was decent headroom on either side, but yet there was a relatively low roofline in the middle. This depression in the middle also helped nicely with the channeling of water from the roof. However it gave the roof an appearance similar to iconic architecture in Japan, and hence the roof became known as the Pagoda. This identity soon became attached to the car itself, and indeed to the series which became known as the pagoda cars.

If the body and styling were completely new, then the rest of the car was really an evolution of an existing one. The 220S coupe. The 120 hp six-cylinder engine from 220S is what powered the first of the Pagoda cars, the 230SL. The 2.3 Litre six (enlarged from 2.1) was smooth and powerful, and seemed well suited to a GT car. It featured Bosch direct fuel injection which was one of the reasons that he was able to make more power. It also contributed to what is one of the very best looking engine bays from any car In that time period. Like the motor, the chassis and its development was also the work of Rudi Uhlenhaut. He is reported to have been dissatisfied with the current state of tires, and pressed Michelin into producing a more modern radial for the 230SL. The tigers were coupled with the unitary construction press steel body rather than spaceframe layout used for the 300SL. The suspension in the rear was the successful swingarm suspension used by Mercedes, and in the front they utilized wishbones with springs and shocks. This chassis and suspension layout was designed to do more than just pamper the driver. In the hands of Eugen Bohringer, it was used to win the Liege-Sophia-Liege marathon outright.

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The interior of the first pagoda car was clearly designed to imitate the 300SL. It was well crammed in leather, and included a padded dash. The soft top retracted and was elegantly covered by a nice panel when the hardtop was in use. Removing the hardtop was a tw0-man job which I can personally attest to, so it was not uncommon to see cars without them for much of their life. The benefit is that they were solid, and airtight. Instrumentation included a large speedometer and tachometer, and then a nice combination of four gauges in a relatively rectangular central cluster designed to further emphasize the rectangular shapes of the car. The steering will have a nice leather padded center section along with a chrome horn ring. Both a four speed standard transmission, and a three speed automatic were offered. Braking was by way of discs up front and drums in the rear. The press were very mixed on the initial 230SL. It looked like a sports car and it had the SL badging, but it was clearly neither Super nor Legerre. It was only once they drove the car and experienced the combination of handling, engine, appointments, and visibility, that they came to understand how well it was suited to its intended purpose.

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The public had no such trouble understanding the vehicle, and they sold in brisk numbers from the very beginning. In many ways, it was the first truly mass-produced SL cars, with close to 50,000 W113 cars produced. Almost 20,000 of those were the 230SL. It went on to spawn ever more powerful variants, and helped to define and refine a segment that remains with us to this day.