Mercedes Pagoda SL a classic car for today’s driving

Classic and Grand Touring
Mercedes Benz Pagoda SL at Mercedes Benz World Brooklands (photo author)

Why the Mercedes Pagoda SL is a classic car that can still suit modern living

Apparently, summer is coming (it’s raining outside as I write this) which is the ideal time to think about buying a classic car. For newcomers to old cars there are lots to think about. Old cars don’t drive like new cars and are generally less comfortable and reliable than their modern equivalents. However, there is one classic from the sixties that, to some extent, will make drivers of modern cars feel at home: the Mercedes Benz W113 SL—commonly known as the Pagoda.

Launched in 1963 the W113 replaced the iconic 300SL Gullwing and also the cheaper 190SL. The new car sat somewhere between the two, offering more performance than the rather gutless 190SL, but a more mass production car than the ultra expensive 300SL. Initial W113’s were titled as the 230SL and powered by a 2.3 litre straight six that featuring fuel injection, which was unusual in 1963, but now ubiquitous. The engine produced a claimed 150bhp and pushed the 230SL to 120mph. Power was transmitted through either a four-speed manual or a four-speed automatic, which again was unusual as most automatics of the period were two or three speed.

Styling by Mercedes’ own stylist Paul Bracq was criticised for being conservative when new, but is now considered timeless. The unusual concave shape of the standard hardtop gave the car its nickname of Pagoda. For the period, Mercedes gave a large consideration to safety and the W113 was one of the first cars to use deformable crash structures in its bodywork.

The 230SL was built with the usual Mercedes solidity, but it was quite a heavy car, taking a toll on performance. Nevertheless, the 230SL acquitted itself very well in the endurance rallies of the period, winning the 6,600km Liege-Sofia-Liege rally of 1963. Footage of this can be seen in the video below.

1967 saw the W113 upgraded to a new 2.5 litre straight six. The new engine produced no more power than the outgoing engine, but increased torque and used seven main bearings rather than four. At the same time an unusual option known as the California Coupé was introduced. This dispensed with the soft top for a rear bench seat making the car a tight 2+2. You could still remove the hard top but if you got caught-out by a sudden rain shower, you would have got wet. At the same time a ZF five-speed manual was made available as an option. Today five-speed cars are very desirable and worth seeking out.

The 250SL had a short life only being listed barely a year before being replaced by the 2.8 litre 280SL. The suspension was softened for the 280 which was probably more appropriate for a car that was much more suited to touring than tearing up the twisties. Power was upped to 170bhp in the final version. Production continued through to 1971 when it was replaced by the ‘Bobby Ewing spec’ R107 SL.

Mercedes produced just fewer than 49,000 W113’s throughout the production run. Since production ended they have become something of a car of choice with fashionistas and celebrities. Ex F1 driver, BBC commentator, and tight white jeans wearer David Coulthard is known to be an owner, as is supermodel Kate Moss. More recently the paparazzi caught One Direction ‘singer’ Harry Styles driving a Pagoda in Los Angeles, but don’t let that put you off. 

Actually considering it’s age, Pagoda’s are still not an unfamiliar site in the up market parts of London, Paris and Los Angeles, and that’s probably because the cars are so robust. The six cylinder engines, particularly the later seven bearing 250 and 280 are very tough and share much with the Mercedes saloons of the period. Most W113’s came with automatic transmissions, ideal for wafting along on city streets. Power steering was available as an option, and cars so equipped should be easy to park.

You could seriously still consider using a W113 as an everyday car, and companies such as Mechatronik in Germany will reengineer the Pagoda with modern Mercedes mechanicals, such as the one below which features the 4.3 litre AMG V8 usually seen in a C43 AMG.

The only real enemy to using a Pagoda everyday is rust. The incredibly solid body unfortunately contains a number of water traps, so Pagodas tend to rust from the inside out. If you’re buying, make sure that a shiny exterior doesn’t hide a multitude of tin worm underneath.

If you’re interested in buying a Pagoda, which one should you go for? The last 280SL’s are the most sought after models, which also results in them being the most expensive at up too a huge £90,000 for a rare five speed example in todays market.

The 280 is the softest though so if you are seeking a more sporting drive, you might want to seek out a rare manual 250SL. With it’s seven bearing engine it is mechanically stronger than the 230 but retains its stiffer suspension. There was also the rare option of a limited slip differential. 250s and 230s are also cheaper than 280s with prices currently in the £30,000-£60,000 range for reasonable to exceptional examples. You could probably pick up a restoration project for around £10,000, but these are not cheap cars to restore.

While it’s not cheap, they are just as stylish as Maseratis and Ferraris of the same period that are ten times as much. The Pagoda is also much more usable than these Italian divas. In fact, why am I waffling on here? I’m off to surf the classifieds to find my perfect Pagoda!