Out of dilemmas can be born great successes:
The Mercedes-Benz "Pagoda-Roofed" SL of the Sixties
by Brian Willoughby

By the late 1950s, Daimler-Benz was in the midst of a major dilemma. While it had handily succeeded in reclaiming its Pre-war position as one of the automotive world's dominant players, it had done so with an amazing series of racing and design successes that had not been terribly cost-effective. It was during this mad rush rebuild its image that Mercedes introduced what was perhaps the ultimate road-going sports car of its day: the legendary 300SL Gullwing. Aided by several high-profile victories in similar competition cars, every car enthusiast of the mid-1950s lusted after a 300SL despite the fact that few of them could afford one. In a half-hearted attempt to satisfy the demand for an affordable Benz sports car, Mercedes unveiled the pretty yet ponderous 190SL which was based on some of Mercedes' most mundane sedan mechanicals.

While the 300SL was busily re-establishing Daimler-Benz's desired image within the automotive world, the prosaic 190SL was proving itself to be a very cost effective car to build--a fact that did not escape the scrutiny of the accounting department. By the end of the decade Mercedes-Benz was once more an automotive icon and now that it had reclaimed its crown, it was becoming clear that it needed to rationalize its product line. One of the most obvious truths of Mercedes' production of the period was that it was both costly and impractical to offer two very different sports cars. Benz's solution to this problem would be to design a car that would be an acceptable replacement for both the 300SL and 190SL. It would prove to be a formidable, if not impossible, task. The car introduced in 1963 to replace both the legend and the lame duck was assigned the model designation 230SL.

The 230SL was at best, a compromised amalgam of what had been seen as the best features of both the 300SL and the 190SL. Where the 300SL had been motivated by a powerful 3-liter straight six, the 230 was powered by a small, 2.3 liter straight six that, while adhering to the same basic configuration, provided it with only an adequate amount of horsepower and torque. The braking system was also a step backward: unlike the last 300SL roadsters with their four-wheel disc brakes, the 230 would be fitted with a much less costly front disc/rear drum layout. Like the popular 190SL, the new car's ride was soft and compliant and its overall road handling rather limp and sloppy in comparison to quick crispness of the race-bred 300. Borrowing once more from the 190, the interior accommodations were both spacious and designed to allow for ease of entry and egress. The instrumentation layout was largely lifted from the Mercedes sedans of the period and while it might have appeared clean and well laid out at the time, it is now one of the most dated aspects of these cars. The exterior design was another of Mercedes' stylistic classics and its ability to remain fresher after nearly 40 years than the two designs that have followed it is a testament just how good it was. One can only imagine the fate of a Mercedes roadster that would have befallen the many cheap, American-influence gimmicks (tail fins) other Mercedes models of the day had to endure.

While Daimler-Benz had never intended the 230 to be a true, all-out sports car, the market, perhaps with memories of the 300 still in mind, demanded a car with more power. Mercedes answered with what was to be the shortest lived SL of all time: the 250. Still a bit soft by sports car standards, the 250 was, nevertheless, a much improved car with more flexibility and greater capabilities due to its larger displacement (2.5 liter) straight six for better acceleration and cruising speeds and the change to four-wheel disc brakes for quicker and surer stops. However, the 250 was to be an interim model that would only be produced three years. Its replacement, the 280SL was, arguably, the zenith of the series and the most refined of the three. Once more displacement was increased, and, in turn, top speed yet little else was changed on a car that was by this stage already being viewed as something of a living legend.

Of course, a discussion of these cars is not complete without an explanation of how they came to be known as the "Pagoda roof" SLs. The name was a reference to the shape of the car's detachable hardtop which when viewed from straight ahead or aft could be seen to gently curve on the edges. Automotive journalists of the day felt the roof was reminiscent of shapes seen in Oriental architecture and gave the 230SLs the nickname that would stick throughout all three models' production lives and on to today. In the end, the Pagoda roof series was a tremendous sales success for Mercedes-Benz with almost 50,000 units finding homes over the course of the cars' nine year production line. Now viewed as another of Benz's classics, fate has proved good for a car that received only a lukewarm reception when introduced.

In the world of diecast, the Pagoda roofs proved to be nearly as popular as they were with buyers of the full-size cars. Perhaps surprisingly, only one German diecast producer honored the Pagoda-roof SL in small scale. Nonetheless, Siku's miniature of this car is probably the best-proportioned model ever made of the car in the multitude of scales hovering around 1:64. Offered with opening doors and even front seats that move forward for access to the back, this is the miniature to have of this series of SLs if you can only have one.

Moving Southward from Germany to Italy, Polistil produced a high-quality replica of the 230SL as a member of its Penny series. Costly to obtain today due to their rarity, Penny models are always worth seeking out since they offer detail and accuracy not often engineered into such a small package. Sadly, Pennys are not often found outside of Europe.

In Britain, both Corgi and Matchbox offered renditions of the Pagoda roof. Corgi's model was of the 280SL with its trademark hardtop installed and it was offered as a member of the Husky range at first before becoming a Corgi Junior when the name was changed in 1970. A nicely proportioned model, the Husky/Corgi Junior SL suffered from poor wheel choices for most of its production life. Earlier models have a more accurate two-piece wheel and tire combination that should be the preferred version for collectors to obtain. Corgi also produced a Rockets version of this model which featured the novel removable chassis that was unique to the Rockets series. Only the earliest regular-wheel Matchbox 230SLs can be said to be accurate; Superfast models always wore wheels that were too small and made the model appear much longer and lower than the actual car. Versions produced in Hungary rode on better Superfast-type wheels than their English counterparts; however, this model typifies what so many people dislike about the switch from the traditional wheels used by Matchbox for decades to the later Superfast varieties.

Moving back to the Continent, Holland's Best Box offered another 230SL model that was clearly a copy of Lesney's casting. Every bit as nice as the regular-wheel 230s by Matchbox, the Best Box model adds a bit more variety to one's collection. Yet be forewarned: these models can be difficult to find.

Taking the diecast world by storm around the time the introduction of the 280SL was Mattel's Hot Wheels line of diecast cars. While most Hot Wheels were customs or pure flights of fancy, a few accurate models of real cars were also added to the line-up as the range grew. One of the best of these models of actual cars was the Hot Wheels 280SL which featured the brand's trademark frictionless wheels and an opening hood. Modeled after the car while wearing its hardtop, the Hot Wheels 280SL clearly demonstrates with it somewhat exaggerated roof shape where the Pagoda name was derived from.

Finally, one of the most unexpected models of the 230SL originated from Singapore. A small company named Mandarin produced a rather clumsy model of the 230 presumably during the late 1960s. Featureless and with sloppy paint, poorly sized wheels and crude axles, the Mandarin is a rare mystery car since so little is known about this brand. However, for the SL completist, it presents yet another challenge.

And once again we adjourn our story of the Mercedes-Benz SLs. Stay tuned for the next installment which will cover the current generation of SL roadsters.

 Mercedes-Benz 280SL #V302 by Siku
Made in W. Germany
Mercedes-Benz 230SL #0/34 by Penny
Made in Italy

Mercedes-Benz 280SL #3396 by Corgi
Made in GT. Britain

Mercedes-Benz 280SL #6275 by Hot Wheels Made in Hong Kong

Mercedes-Benz 230SL #2514 by Best Box
Made in Holland
Mercedes-Benz 230SL #27 by Matchbox
regular wheels, Made in EnglandMercedes-Benz 230SL #27 by Matchbox
Superfast, Made in England

Mercedes-Benz 230SL #27 by Matchbox
Made in HungaryMercedes-Benz 230SL #27 by Matchbox
Made in Hungary

Mercedes-Benz 230SL #27 by Matchbox
Made in Hungary

Mercedes-Benz 230SL #27 by Matchbox
Made in Hungary

Mercedes-Benz 230SL #107 by Mandarin Made in Singapore