1963 Mercedes-Benz 230SL. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
The Allied bombing of Daimler-Benz’s plants in Germany during the Second World War was so severe that in 1945 the board of directors declared that Daimler-Benz had “ceased to exist.” In spite of this gloomy outlook, workers began returning to Unterturkheim where they proceeded to clean up the plant and unearth machinery.
The factory was soon at work repairing American army trucks and rebuilding pre-war Mercedes-Benz 170V cars which were traded for badly needed building and production materials. In mid-1946 when Daimler-Benz was given permission by the Allies to resume car production, the company began building those pre-war designed 170V models, often with utility boxes for use as cargo haulers.
By the end of 1946, 214 170Vs were built, followed by 1,045 in 1947. Revised versions, the 170S and the 170D (diesel), were introduced in 1949, still bearing a strong resemblance to the pre-war, four-cylinder designs, and by 1952, 100,000 post-war 170s had been produced.
The first true post-war Mercedes-Benzes, the 2.2 litre 220 and the 3.0 litre 300, both with six cylinders, were introduced at the 1951 Frankfurt auto show. They were well received, particularly the 300, which was Germany’s finest luxury sedan.
These were followed by the fabulous 300SL race-derived, gullwing coupe built from 1954 to 1957, and 300SL roadster from 1957 to 1963. They used modified 300 sedan engines, and the 1954 300SL was the world’s first four-stroke, gasoline-engined passenger car equipped with fuel injection. A less potent carburetted four-cylinder 190SL sport car was also produced from 1954 to 1963.
By the early 1960s it was apparent that in spite of their fine engineering the 300SL and 190SL were becoming long in the tooth. They were phased out, and a new model, the 230SL, made its debut at the 1963 Geneva auto show as a convertible with an optional removable hardtop. It virtually matched the 190SL in dimensions, although at some 1,365 kg (3,010 lb), it was 204 kg (500 lb) heavier. It was 4,287 mm (168.8 in.) long, and had a 2,400 mm (94.5 in.) wheelbase.
The unit construction 230SL’s single overhead cam, inline six came from the Mercedes 220SE sedan and coupe, with its cylinder bore increased from 80 to 82 mm bringing displacement to 2,306 cc (141 cu in.). A new Bosch multipoint fuel injection system helped the 230SL produce 170 horsepower, 36 more than the 220SE.
Suspension was the 190SL’s front coil springs and A-arms. At the rear were Mercedes-Benz’s low-pivot, swing axles with a horizontal “camber compensator” coil spring mounted above the differential. Brakes were disc front and drum rear.
The standard transmission was an all synchromesh four-speed manual, with a four-speed automatic optional.
The 230SL’s styling was much more angular than the 190 SL and 300SL. Its grille was dominated by the usual Mercedes-Benz three-pointed star, and the most unusual appearance feature was its concave “pagoda” hardtop roof. It looked odd, but it did allow a thinner roof and taller windows for better visibility and easier entry and exit.
Although 230SLs were rallied vigorously, it was intended as more of a grand touring car than an out-and-out sports car like the 300SL. Its performance fell between the 300SL and the 190SL. Thus, while the 190SL sprinted from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 13 seconds, and the 300SL in 7.4 seconds (all figures from Road & Track), the 230SL took 9.7.
Top speed was likewise in between, with the 190SL reaching 161 km/h (100 mph), the 230 SL 200 (124) and the 300SL 225 (140). The 230’s performance, while not in the Ferrari or Corvette league, was quite respectable.
The 230SL was well received, and almost 20,000 were built over three years. Then for 1966 it was replaced by the 250SL version with its engine enlarged to 2,496 cc via a stroke increase from 73 to 79 mm. While Mercedes quoted the same 170 horsepower, torque was increased from 159 lb-ft to 174 lb-ft, both at 4,500 r.p.m.
Other significant changes in the 250SL were increasing main bearings from five to seven, and replacing the front disc/rear drum brakes with four-wheel discs.
The 250SL lasted only about a year, being replaced for 1967 by the 280SL with a 2,778 cc engine. This 12 per cent displacement increase yielded only six per cent more power, now 180, due to power sapping emissions hardware. A five-speed manual transmission was made optional.
But time was passing the 280SL by, and features like swing axle suspensions were becoming passe. In 1972 the 280SL was replaced by the more modern 350SL V8. In its nine years almost 49,000 230/250/280SLs were sold. It is fondly remembered as the quintessential grand touring car, and is popular as a collectible, particularly the 280SL.