Iconic Cars: Mercedes-Benz 250SL Pagoda

28th Apr 2015

It can often be difficult to step in to the boots of an icon. Especially when that icon is probably one of the most recognisable and sought-after cars of the modern age - the Mercedes-Benz 300SL. The 300SL was in production for a little under ten years, and its run ended in 1963.

During that time, just over 3000 were produced, and a car which was based on a successful race car had become synonymous with power and good looks. It changed the perception of Mercedes-Benz (especially in American markets where 80% were sold) from a manufacturer of luxury yet sober estate vehicles to one that built high-performance vehicles too.

Known famously as the Mercedes-Benz 'Gull-Wing', the 300SL became the world's fastest production car. It's no surprise that today they are among the most desirable cars in the world, often fetching figures at auction in excess of £1,000,000. So when Mercedes-Benz came to replace it in 1963, it served up a sizeable conundrum - and is one that they answered with the 230 SL.

Mercedes-Benz 250SL Pagoda car badge.

The Replacement- the 230 SL

The 230 SL was designed to address two niggles (though few and far between) from the previous generation. Firstly, the extremely high cost of the 300 SL which kept most buyers out of reach, and secondly the lacklustre performance of the 300 SL's smaller brother, the 190 SL.

The 230 SL received a significant styling update, which gave it a look soon to be adored by fans worldwide thanks to its top-down approach. The chassis was short and wide to improve handling, and was much more angular than its predecessor. The iconic grille style remained the same in a homage to the 300SL, whilst the Bosch headlights were given a more oval shaped 'Fishbowl' design.
Mercedes-Benz 230 SL in white.

As part of the several weight-saving improvements, sections such as the bonnet, boot lid and hardtop were constructed out of lightweight aluminium. The 230 SL actually got its Pagoda nickname from the design of the optional hardtop, which dipped slightly in the middle and was raised at the edges - much like the roofing of the Chinese architecture it was named after.

All SL models from this era were rear-wheel drive and featured fully redesigned independent rear suspension system, and a powerful inline six-cylinder engine - an addition to all new front disc brakes. The resulting 230 SL offered engaging performance, yet an unprecedented level of safety and comfort which made it so popular across the globe.

Mercedes-Benz 230 SL view from the front.

The 250SL and 280SL

The 250SL was introduced at the 1976 Geneva Motor Show as an upgrade from the initial 230 SL design. It was one of the rarest variants to enter production during this model's manufacturing run, lasting from only 1966 - 1968 and spawning 5196 units.

The 250 benefitted from a number of changes over the 230, including a fully new engine with a 2.5 litre capacity. This increased torque by 10%, enhancing the sporty dynamics of the car, whilst offering a much wider power band that meant that the car was more responsive and better to drive than ever before.
Grey Mercedes-Benz 250SL parked by the bushes.

One of the most desirable 250 SL models was the 'California Coupe'. Introduced in 1967, it featured a 2+2 body style similar to that of the ever-popular Ford Mustang Fastback. This meant that for the first time the SL could seat up to four people, and now featured only the option of a removable hard top.

In 1968 the model became even more powerful thanks to a 2.8 litre engine that put down 170bhp through the rear wheels. By the time the 280 SL ended production in 1971, the car had transformed from a traditional sports car to a luxury grand tourer, with options including air conditioning and automatic transmission.

Mercedes-Benz 250SL California Coupe speedometer.

Popular Culture

The 230 SL even had some racing successes. Eugen Böhringer raced a modified version soon after the release of the car in the 6,600-kilometer Spa-Sofia-Liège Rally (which travelled from Belgium to Bulgaria) and won comfortably.  It had further success in 1965 in the Greek Acropolis Rally.

GQ named the 230 SL amongst their "Ten cars that made Mercedes-Benz", whilst common owners frequent the celebrity A-list. Names such as John Travolta, Kate Moss, Charlton Heston and Stirling Moss have all owned one at some point in their illustrious careers.

The late John Lennon owned a 1965 example of the 230 SL, which went up for auction in 2011 and fetched a record fee of £330,000.

The car has been privy to a long and esteemed film career too, and has made appearances in box office smash-hits including Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy and in Frost/Nixon where David Frost drives a dark blue 280 SL.
White Mercedes-Benz 230 SL parked on the road.
We recently had a chance to get up close and personal with a rare 1967 Mercedes-Benz 250 SL. This model has only travelled 3,876 miles since undergoing a full engine rebuild - and is pristine in every sense of the word.

The 250 SL model is, of course, the rarest of them all, and this particular model has been treated to a full bare-metal restoration. Finished in Anthracite Grey, it certainly catches the eye, with the fully restored bright red leather interior striking up an elegant contrast.

A sought-after automatic version, it bears no signs of age whatsoever, and has even received an entirely new dashboard. The Becker Mexico radio is entirely original and comes in full working order.

This particular 250 is a living piece of history. Many iconic Mercedes-Benz vehicles of today, such as the Silver Arrows or the 600 Grosser have now become priceless. However the 250 SL has now become more obtainable than ever - yet from these images looks no less special or fundamental to the history of Mercedes-Benz.
1967 Mercedes-Benz 250 SL interior.