Pagodas raise the roof in the Western Cape

Pagodas raise the roof in the Western Cape

Richard Wiley reports on the immortal Mercedes-Benz W113 SL series and the biggest ever gathering of the famous Pagoda models in South Africa


Late in 1963 when I was at a boarding school in western Zimbabwe some 70 kilometres south of Bulawayo, a distinctive sports car with an unusual dished roof pulled up outside our dormitory. It was white and its interior was decked out in cherry red.

It was the brand new Mercedes-Benz 230SL which had been revealed to startled onlookers at the Geneva Motor Show that year. To this day, I still remember the surname of the owner of this eye-catching machine, such was its effect on my psyche.

What stood out even more than the unusual hardtop was the sheer width of the two-seater which stood on quite the widest tyres I had ever set eyes on. Memory tells me they were 185X14s which is laughable today but way back then, they were gumballs and marked the first time Mercedes-Benz had used radial ply tyres on a production vehicle.

The W113 230SL faced a formidable task as its primary purpose in life was to replace the  elegant but under-powered 190SL and, almost by default, the revered but extremely expensive and ultra-fast 300SL. In reality, the new model was to be something of a grand tourer, offering high performance with comfortable road manners.

Two of the pre-eminent engineers involved in the project had been core players in the development of the extraordinarily successful W196 Grand Prix car of 1954 and 1955 as well as the 300SLR racing sports car of 1955.

They were Chief Engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut and Technical Director Fritz Nallinger both of whom were so influential in perpetuating the engineering-led reputation of the world’s oldest car manufacturer.

Not only was Uhlenhaut a gifted engineer, he possessed extraordinary driving skills and was often personally testing the company’s Grand Prix cars that took Juan Manuel Fangio to consecutive world titles.

It therefore should have come as no surprise that the new 230SL, the underpinnings of which were largely based on those of the ‘Fintail’ W111 series saloons, was endowed with standout levels of grip and tenacious road holding, characteristics personally demonstrated to astonished journalists by a helmeted Uhlenhaut at a race circuit in Europe.

Those big tyres and the wide track clearly helped overcome the inherent shortcomings of the low-pivot swing axles as did the presence of a compensator spring which was effectively a tacit acknowledgement that this design allowed unduly generous camber changes evident in the shape of a jacked-up inside wheel.

Press reports of the day raved about the handling and cornering powers of the new sporting Merc, so much so that the respected UK magazine “Motor” was moved to state: “There are few production cars in the world that can match the 230SL’s uncanny roadholding.”

The 2306 cc six cylinder motor of the 230SL was derived from the more familiar 2195cc motor that powered the 220SE to good effect for so many years. Gross power was listed at 170PS (150 net) which was enough to propel the SL to 100 km/h in around 10.5 seconds and on to a top speed of some 193 km/h although small differences were recorded dependent on the use of manual or automatic transmissions.

These figures were competitive given the relatively small engine displacement, but in truth the then new SL series was not about the traffic lights grand prix. It was more about rapid and comfortable trans-continental touring for two. In standard form, the SL was configured with a folding soft top but most were delivered with a distinctive removable hardtop as well as the soft top which was hidden under a neat folding panel. It’s also worthy of note that the W113 was the first sports car to feature safety crumple zones.

As implied earlier, that hardtop, which for all the world looked like a permanent fixture so perfect was the fit, was the standout styling feature of the car. The outer edges were raised to facilitate entry into the cabin even for those wearing hats which were de-rigeur in the era. Fantastic visibility was a secondary benefit.

It didn’t take long for the 230SL to earn the nickname “Pagoda” in recognition of the tiered roofing with turned-up eaves employed on towered structures in East Asia. Indeed, this unique piece of styling, the work of Paul Bracq, was to endure throughout the production life of the W113 which morphed over time into the 250SL and finally, the 280SL.

For the record, the 250SL was produced for just one year- effectively the 1967 calendar year, and offered the same power output as the 230SL but with the benefit of roughly 10% more torque available over a broader rev range.

Other small tweaks were made but the 250 gave way in December 1967 to what was to become the most popular of the W113 range, the 280SL which accounted for 23 885 sales out of  total SL sales of 48 912 racked up from 1963 to 1971.

Again, peak power output of the 2778 cc six was unchanged but a further increase in torque made the last of the breed a much more effortless performer which was also more suited to the four-speed auto transmission. A four speed manual remained standard fare but the factory also offered a five-speed ZF manual which is now much sought after as only 882 units were sold, one of which I vividly recall driving in Zimbabwe in 1971.

This very brief outline of the origins of the W113 Merc sportsters simply cannot begin to scratch the surface of the enduring appeal of this model range. For sure, the Pagoda hardtop played a big part in marking out this coupe/roadster as something distinctive, but the totality of the package has ensured that the W113 has established itself as a collector’s item.

If anyone needed proof of this appeal, a visit to the wine-growing region of the Western Cape on the weekend of 22/23 October 2016 would have provided a real eye-opener.

Under the auspices of the Mercedes-Benz Club of South Africa Western Cape division chaired by Kurt Stassen, the hard-working Wayne and Lydia Keppler had organised what turned out to be the biggest gathering of W113 SLs ever seen at one time in South Africa. The event was simply dubbed the “Pagoda Run.”

Needless to say, fickle Cape weather did its best to sink the weekend as the heavens opened on the night of 15 October and the sprinkling continued until well into the following morning when fanatical Pagoda owners would have been doting loving care on their precious steeds ahead of the much-anticipated outing.

Participants were to meet at MoreSon Wine Farm, Franschhoek, to register, get to know each other and then partake in a photo shoot and lunch. The gathering was also asked to vote for the car they thought was “best on show.”

Happily, the pesky showers dissipated more as less as soon as the gathering of some 40 Mercs was assembled on a damp lawn. Although most owners had motored from the Cape Town area, participants had also driven from as far afield as Knysna, George and Mossel Bay.

The model mix in terms of numbers understandably favoured the 280SL followed by the 230SL and 250SL. Significantly, two of the 230s were from the first year of production (1963) which doubtless adds to their value.

The range of colours was truly astonishing with most sporting factory hues – there were a couple of exceptions – and at least one example still displayed its original, factory baked- enamel paintwork.

As for the famous Pagoda roof, my own observation suggested hardtops were in a majority but a surprisingly high number of soft top versions were also on view. There was also a good mix of automatic and manual transmissions, the latter including the aforementioned and prized ZF five-speed.

It was also apparent that a fair number of cars had been specially imported as telegraphed by their LHD configuration while others had been lovingly restored and painted to an exceptionally high standard.

Following lunch, the participants returned to their steeds, now basking under a warm spring sun and headed in convoy to Greyton where dinner and a prize-giving had been arranged ahead of an overnight stay.

The event marked the biggest gathering ever in South Africa of the revered W113 Pagoda models and provided a great platform for fellow enthusiasts to share their passion and their experiences. For some too, the prize-giving brought additional rewards. The winners were:

Group choice:  1. Kurt Stassen   2.Bertus Hendricks

Oldest car:  Andre du Toit & Heinz Modler – 1963

Oldest driver/owner:  Bill Tolken

Youngest driver/owner:  Kurt Stassen