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SL means sport and luxury

December 07, 2003|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

The Mercedes-Benz SL is living, breathing proof that a sports car can be built for comfort as well as speed.

The 50,000 200-series SLs, produced between 1963 and 1971 say so.

In fact, this generation of the sports/luxury machine is easily the most popular two-seater in the company's history.

Much of the success enjoyed by Mercedes-Benz today can be traced back to the company's racing history. As early as 1906, Mercedes was competing in Grand Prix (Formula One) events. From the mid-1920s to the late-1950s, the company's fenderless open-wheel "formula" cars, as well as its sports and GT racers, won more than their share of events. Those who drove for Mercedes-Benz teams are among the most celebrated names in racing, including Juan Manuel Fangio and Sir Stirling Moss.

The SL-branded cars (the term SL stands for Super Light) became mass-produced extensions of Mercedes' racing machines that anyone with sufficient financial resources could own.

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The first SL, the famed 300SL gullwing coupe, rolled off the assembly line in 1954. This model, as well as the similarly-styled roadster version that appeared three years later, were well-appointed touring cars with fuel-injected six-cylinder engines stuffed between their front fenders.

At about the same time, Mercedes also produced the less expensive (and less powerful) four-cylinder 190SL roadster. The high-volume 190 came with a removable hardtop, a feature carried over from the 300SL, and an item that would become a hallmark on future sports models.

The all-new 230SL replaced the 190SL in 1963, and was a clear attempt by M-B to create a car that not only provided its passengers with traditional Mercedes passenger car comfort, but could also deliver serious straight-line and handling performance when called upon.

Physically, the 230SL was built using the shortened floor pan and much of the running gear from the two-door 220SE coupe and convertible that dated back to the late 1950s. The all-new sheetmetal was strikingly clean and understated, with just the right amount of chrome on the grille and bumpers.

Power for the 230SL was provided by a 2.3-liter DOHC inline six-cylinder engine with Bosch fuel injection that produced a respectable 150 horsepower.

Sports-car purists decried its luxury fittings and optional four-speed automatic gearbox, but the 230SL proved to be highly competitive as well as comfortable and reliable. At a list price of around $6,500 in 1963, the car cost about double the price of the typical North American sedan, but was a relative bargain compared to today's SL-series cars that top out well above the $100,000 mark.

The price not only included a folding canvas roof, but also a removable steel hardtop with large windows that afforded excellent all-around visibility. With twin ridges running lengthwise along both sides, the resulting concave roofline is commonly referred to as a "pagoda-style" top.

In terms of performance, the 230SL was capable 0-60 mph times in the 10.5-second range and had a top speed of about 120 mph.

Production of the 230SL continued until 1966 when the 250SL was introduced. This model featured a larger 2.5-liter straight six that produced the same horsepower as the 230, but had more torque and performed far more smoothly than the original. The 250 also had enhanced standard features, including four-wheel disc brakes and power steering.

The following year, the more powerful 280SL arrived. Outwardly, the 280 was virtually identical to the previous two models, but engine displacement had grown to 2.8 liters, resulting in a gain of 20 horsepower. Unfortunately for the North American market, most of this increase was negated due to pollution controls. The 280SL retained the increasingly popular automatic transmission, but an available ZF-built five-speed manual replaced the original four-speed unit.

From 1967-'71, nearly 24,000 280SLs were produced, making it the most popular model in the series that totaled around 49,000 cars.

These days, the 230/250/280SL roadsters are in huge demand with collectors who value them not only for their timeless design, but also for their comfort, durability and excellent road manners. Like many other Mercedes-Benz models past and present, these race-bred, luxury-oriented classics have become the standard for other manufacturers to shoot for.

Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' chief road tester and historical writer.

© 2003, Wheelbase Communications

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