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The Mercedes-Benz SL Turns 60 Years Old

The Mercedes-Benz SL Turns 60 Years Old

The Marbella Club is a throwback to the days when jet set meant something: the 1960s, when men were playboys and women wore risque' bikinis. Even today, rather-too-good-looking men can be observed mooching about wearing too much ‘product’ in their hair, considered linen kit and slip-on loafers. Their gazelle-like girlfriends toy with Caesar salads (no chicken, dressing on the side) and feign playing tennis (actually lying by the pool).

Nicholas Foulkes wrote the book Marbella Club: The First Fifty Years and confesses it’s one of his favorite spots, while columnist and style guru Stephen Bayley, another fan, highly recommends a blast up the twisting A397 road to Ronda.

We’re there as guests of Daimler-Benz on the launch of the latest R231-generation 500SL – and to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the long-running SL series. On hand are the 1952 W194 racer, the W198 Gullwing and 300SL Roadster, the W121 190SL and W113 Pagoda, as well as the later R107 (Bobby Ewing), R129 (Princess Diana) and R230 (er…) models to compare with the new one. Try as I might, I could get no rational answer to this numerological mystification from the otherwise super-efficient Mercedes staff. Amusing.

Now, Daimler-Benz knows exactly who its audience is, so the launch in Spain is no real surprise. The SL has been enjoyed by monied types for decades, sybarites wealthy enough not to need to try too hard at anything, let alone driving. Since the 1960s, the Mercedes SL – it stands for Sports Leicht – has been a consummate boulevardier rather than a true sports car. The ideal convertible to keep at the summer house and a favorite among the laydeez, be they wives, mistresses or otherwise.

So Benz was brave to wheel out nine generations of SL for a thrashing along the fast and unforgiving mountain roads back from the Marbella coast. These roads expose the cars to very hard driving conditions, perfect for testing their dynamics – and, as with the model numbering system, the cars are very different from behind the wheel, ranging between pure racing car, sports cars, a sporting car, cruisers and technowagens.

To bring some logic to the line-up, let’s start with the original. The 1952 W194 is the proper representation of Sports Leicht, intended as a pure sports racing car, being light, aerodynamic and reliable. Mercedes -Benz dominated Grand Prix racing before World War Two, but in the 1950s it entered sports car racing and in 1952 the 300SL finished second and fourth on the Mille Miglia; it scored a triple victory at the Bern Sports Car Grand Prix, a double win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, plus victory at the Nurburgring as well as at the Carrera Panamericana. A pretty emphatic return to racing.

The very first one was scrapped by the factory but this one, chassis number W194 010 00002/52, is the second built under the aegis of legendary engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut at the Stuttgart-Unterturkheim works and has recently undergone a sympathetic restoration by Mercedes-Benz Classic Center. Constructed in aluminium and magnesium, with everything from the front axle to the handbrake lever having been drilled for lightness, the old racer weighs just 1060kg.

Mercedes-Benz had noted Jaguar’s racing success with its XK120, using mechanical parts from the MkVII saloon, and followed a similar course by installing its existing 3.0-liter engine and suspension components in a purpose-built lightweight chassis. So the 170bhp W194 was born out of the 1780kg, 115bhp 300S saloon. For aerodynamic efficiency, the 2996cc straight-six was canted over at 50º and fitted with dry-sump lubrication to help reduce the frontal area. Recent wind-tunnel figures indicate a real drag co-efficient of 0.38, which is excellent for the period.

The W194’s ample spaceframe led to the now-famous gullwing doors, and getting in over the high and wide sill requires deftness. With the gullwing door clamped firmly down, the interior of the W194 is more akin to an aircraft’s than a car’s, with its plain silver dashboard housing lovely big instruments and timing clocks. As this example is a priceless piece of Mercedes-Benz history, engineer Frank Knothe (responsible for the Pagoda, SLK and SLR models, and pictured with moustache on page 101) is driving. In front of him is a large four-spoke steering wheel and mounted up high is a wand of a shifter with a knob that looks just like a Series I Land Rover’s.

Any thought of Land Rovers is dispelled when Herr Knothe fires up the triple-Solex-carburettored six. The sound cacophonying around the bare cockpit is hard and fierce as Herr Knothe guides the car out of the hacienda’s courtyard and spears off down the mountain road. He doesn’t rush the gearshifts but piles on the power and soon the racer is motoring very briskly.

The essence of the W194 is functionality. The car moves about on its racing crossplies through the corners but remains securely planted down the long straights. In one tight turn Herr Knothe snicks the shifter down through the ’box into second, turns in and boots it. The W194 smoothly powers into a lovely slide, then he gathers it all and fangs up through the gears and into top, all accompanied by the staccato blare of the unsilenced straight-six. Oh dear, everything else will be an anti-climax after this experience.

But next up is the opportunity to drive the W198 300SL Gullwing. I have done a lot of miles in various Gullwings and have determined that a properly sorted example is a joy, while a bad one, never mind how shiny, is a pig. Needless to say this example is a peach and it is very evidently a direct descendant of the W194 racer.

First seen at the 1954 New York Motor Show, the Gullwing was a result of American Benz importer Max Hoffman lobbying Benz for a proper sports car along the lines of the W194. With direct fuel injection, the Gullwing produced 215bhp and had a top speed of over 150mph. Daimler-Benz had seen how Hoffman garnered publicity for Porsche with its lightweight customer racing cars like the Speedster, so it set about racing the Gullwing, with a class win in the 1955 Mille Miglia, victory in the European Touring Car Championships in the same year, and victory on the tough Liège-Rome-Liège rally in 1955 and ’56, as well as two class wins in the American Sports Car Championships in the same years.

A good Gullwing is a wonderful sports car, honoured as the ‘Sports Car of the Century’ by an international jury in 1999, but it remains a handful. With its high-pivot swing axle at the rear and large 130-liter fuel tank and skinny 185-section tires, it’s rather like a high-powered Volkswagen Beetle or Porsche 356. But all is forgiven when you work the surprisingly slim knitting-needle shifter and extract full power from that growling straight-six.

The ’Wing demands concentration and respect. If you adhere to ‘slow in, fast out’ driving it can be made to go remarkably quickly. The steering is woolly and the drum brakes need to be warm though not overheated, but, driven smoothly, the Gullwing is a rapid GT that rewards a good driver.

Gullwings are now worth something over half a million pounds, while the (somewhat) Plain Jane but mechanically similar 300SL Roadsters are worth a couple of hundred thou’ less – though that gap is closing because the Roadster is a better driver’s car. Sacrilege? Surely not, as it’s the Gullwing’s successor, launched in 1957.

I’ve always suspected that’s the case but this is my first direct back-to-back drive on identical roads – and the difference is startling. With most classics, the earlier iteration is usually the most covetable, but with the Roadster you want a late example because, besides having much-improved low-pivot rear suspension, smaller 100-liter fuel tank and all-round disc brakes fitted from 1961, it gained a desirable lightweight aluminium engine block from 1962.

On the twisting mountain roads around Ronda the Roadster comes alive. It can be thrown into corners with more commitment than the Gullwing. The rear end doesn’t feel like it wants to squirrel away but remains faithfully behaved. The disc brakes make the car feel much more secure, the upshot being that you drive deeper and harder into the corners, braking later, knowing the anchors will be there every time, even though the Roadster weighs some 100kg more than the 1310kg Gullwing.

With the roof down, hearing the exhaust noise reverberating off the rockfaces as you scream along the mountain roads adds a real sense of excitement. The 3.0-liter six makes the most intoxicating sound, from a deep-chested growl at low revs to an angry bellow, and you soon learn to let it rev right round to the 5800rpm limit. It feels lean and strong, tough, communicative and responsive; you drive it and it does exactly as instructed, unlike some of the more modern models in this line-up.

Then I’m offered a drive in the W121 190SL and it would be rude to say no. Launched in 1955, the 190 was the affordable alternative to the extremely expensive 300SL. Led again by the demands of Hoffman in America, it was based on the Ponton saloon as either a soft-top or coupe' with a removable hardtop, and this tourer makes no sports car pretences. Changing down a gear makes little difference to forward progress here; it just makes the asthmatic four-cylinder engine thrash even harder. The handling is safe at best, the brakes are not confidence-inspiring, and the overstyled coachwork is well-hewn – but this car is all about show and not about go. I’d rather be driving an honest and practical Ponton saloon.

And then along comes an underrated sports car. The W113 Pagoda is a Mercedes-Benz I have always enjoyed. By 1963 it was no longer practical to turn production-based road cars into front-running racing cars so Daimler-Benz decided to develop the W113 Pagoda into an effective rally weapon. Well, it actually wasn’t Benz who decided that; it was the irrepressible rally driver Eugen Böhringer who persuaded the Benz suits that a rally car was what was needed to contest the 1963 European championship, starting with the tough Liège-Sofia-Liège rally.

Böhringer got the Daimler-Benz board to provide him with a Pagoda rally car before the model’s official launch. It was prepared by Erich ‘Wax’ Waxenberger, and Böhringer and Klaus Kaiser duly won the rally outright. The next year they came third in the Spa-Sofia-Liège rally in another Pagoda (a broken cable lost them the lead), and in 1965 Dieter Glemser, again leading in a Pagoda, finished fifth on the Acropolis Rally after being sent in the wrong direction by a policeman.

So, not an out-and-out racing car? Well, chief engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut took one around the tight Annemasse Vetraz-Monthoux race track in 47.5sec, which rather surprised Ferrari test driver Mike Parkes, who managed the course in 47.3sec in a V12-powered Ferrari 250GT!

Some view the Pagoda as a feminine car but I don’t see it like that. The design, led by Gullwing stylist Friedrich Geiger, is clean and functional with its wide stance and short wheelbase. The distinctive Pagoda hardtop was actually designed by Paul Bracq and remains the model’s signature.

Initially fitted with a 150bhp, 2306cc, fuel-injected straight-six, the Pagoda had the option of a four-speed automatic transmission and power steering, which made it light to drive and appealing to women motorists. It evolved via the 2.5-liter 250SL in 1966 (with optional five-speed manual gearbox; the auto remained the popular choice), then the 280SL from 1967, which boasted a 170bhp 2.8-liter engine and softer suspension settings aimed at buyers who demanded a more luxurious soft-top. In 1965 Uhlenhaut even went so far as to fit the massive 6.3-liter V8 in a Pagoda, so confident was he that it could take 250bhp, but it was too nose-heavy so the one-off was destroyed.

Here in Spain I am handed the keys to an immaculate bronze Pagoda trimmed in delicious dark brown leather. It is a 280SL with four-speed automatic transmission, power steering and air-con. I sit on big seats that are overstuffed and bouncily new, behind that large Mercedes steering wheel with its padded boss and thin rim.

The straight-six settles to a steady idle so I pull the thin gearshift lever back through the serrated gate and the SL moves off, feeling sophisticatedly smooth yet taut. The gearchanges thump somewhat and the power steering is light but the car feels easy and willing, the suspension set for comfort, though it copes with the power on tap.

The engine emits that Merc six-cylinder rasp and is eager to rev, free of vibration right up to the limit. Gears can be manually controlled in the mountain corners via the selector and the front disc brakes offer reassuring retardation. Despite the four ratios, top is noticeably short; this Merc really deserves longer legs.

The W113 evolved from the lighter, more firmly sprung, more sporting 230SL into a relaxed cruiser in 280 guise, and it’s a charming car. The Pagoda has the looks and performance to render it an enjoyable sporting soft-top – a removable hardtop is available too, which makes it an ideal winter coupe. This is one classic that’s perfect to use as an everyday car, with an easy demeanour that overlays its tough, reliable Benz engineering. Like a Swiss Army knife, it’s a stylish and desirable tool.

After the Pagoda it’s time to drive the W107 500SL, the one you might remember from the Dallas TV series. Launched in 1971 and in production for 18 years (from 350SL V8, via 450 to 500, along with a couple of six-cylinder options), this is what most observers view as the quintessential Merc SL.

It’s a big and sturdy convertible and deserves its cracking 5.0-liter V8, which shoves out a relaxed 240bhp, translating into a 0-60mph dash in 7.8sec and a top speed approaching 135mph. It feels strong and confident; a cruiser, yes, but a fast and competent one that is direct and involving to drive.

The following W129 (from 1989) and W230 (from 2001) SLs are faster and more sophisticated cars, the W129’s claim to fame being the roll-over bar that springs up in just 0.3sec to protect the occupants if the car is turned over. As for the W230, the top-of-the range SL65 AMG was the world’s most powerful roadster in 2004, producing an astonishing 670bhp and seen in action on Sunday afternoons as the Formula 1 Safety Car.

But of course the real reason we were invited to Spain is to test the 
brand new SL, the R231. The model we get to drive is the SL500 BlueEFFICIENCY, which knocks out 429bhp from its 4663cc, twin-turbo V8. It’ll manage the 0-62mph sprint in 4.6sec, the top speed is limited to 155mph, and it will do 30mpg. Figures as impressive as the fact that this new SL weighs 140kg less than the old one, thanks to its aluminium bodywork. The SL has the clever folding hardtop and the interior is beautifully finished, if 
a bit bling. Actually the whole car looks rather loud, with its big three-
pointed star in the grille, side vents, large lights and side skirts but surprising small-looking alloys.

Climb into the big seat behind the big dashboard and the SL feels… big, though the stubby little gearshift is very small. Push the silver starter button, click the auto lever into Drive and… whoa! The Merc jumps forward at the merest tickle of the sensitive throttle pedal; its engine feels revvy, full of vim, but you need to concentrate on the very light steering, which has so little feel.

Up into the fast mountain roads, it’s time to switch into Sports mode and nail it. Again, I think Benz has been brave letting us loose on these roads as the new SL is no road racer, though it is immensely fast, the brakes are superb, the handling is benign and the level of grip enormous. It’s just that there is no getting away from the fact that this car weighs 1785kg, despite the lighter coachwork, and that over-light steering makes me less comfortable than in the Gullwing or Pagoda. Yet the $100,000 SL500 is a very good soft-top cruiser and its potential owners will enjoy its quality, serene nature and the folding roof that takes less than 20sec to open or close. Impressive, that.

Sixty years of the Mercedes-Benz SL, driven back to back. Unlike the venerable Porsche 911 or Volkswagen Golf, the SL has changed markedly in character since its inception. The Gullwing and Roadster were not just sports cars but supercars of the 1950s; the 190SL an undernourished spiritual precursor to the modern SLK; the Pagoda a sporting car; the R107 a cruiser; and the R129 and R230 autobahn bruisers.

The priceless W194 aside, the best car here is the W198 300SL Roadster, even more capable than the magnificent Gullwing thanks to its better-resolved suspension and powerful disc brakes. Add the joy of top-down motoring, where you can enjoy the sonorous straight-six in full voice, and driving does not get any better.

And the one to take home? Without a doubt the charming Pagoda, 
thanks to its good looks, high quality and rasping straight-six engine. Tough enough to win the arduous Liege-Sofia-Liege rally, the Pagoda is a superb sporting summer soft-top – or a practical winter coupe with the hardtop fitted. Truly the best of both worlds.

Published Dec 7th, 2015

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