Which Mercedes-Benz SL roadster is the right one for you?

Photography by Tom Suddard

Wind in the hair. Timeless styling. Heirloom build quality. Room for just two.

From 1963 all the way up through 1989, Mercedes-Benz offered a pair of roadsters that perfectly fit that bill.

Cool, Collected, Collectible

The 190 SL and 300 SL defined ’50s cool, as they were worthy of stars like Yul Brynner, Sophia Loren, Pablo Picasso and Juan Manuel Fangio. 

Mercedes-Benz revised its formula for the ’60s. Instead of flowing pontoon fenders, the new 230 SL featured crisp, contemporary lines. It was the kind of car you’d see pop up in “The Avengers,” “Doctor Who” or “The Mod Squad.” Classy, restrained and timeless. 

Based on a shortened version of the brand’s fintail sedan–and carrying its independent suspension at both ends–the new SL offered the market an open car that was well made, fun to drive and a bit more substantial than some other European offerings.

The engine was an exceedingly robust, single-cam inline-four fed by Bosch injection. While many early cars received four-speed manual boxes, U.S.-market cars tended to get the rather lethargic four-speed automatic. (A perusal of the sales site Bring a Trailer suggests that most cars came with the manual transmission, but this isn’t the case.)

Then there’s the part that gave these cars their nickname: the hardtop that resembles a pagoda. This top takes two people to install or remove, and when fitted it turns these cars into very practical coupes.

The initial 1963-’66 model might be the purest and best of this bunch. Mike Kunz, who runs the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center, supplied both of these roadsters and  is arguably one of the world’s foremost experts on these cars. He told us he likes the nimbler, simpler, 2.3-liter 230SL over its later and more powerful brethren. He notes that a 230 SL with a stick shift will best a later car fitted with an automatic in terms of handling and maybe even straight-line speed. 

That 230 SL also delivers more of that classic ’60s feel, with wind-up windows, more chrome and a lower likelihood of having air-conditioning. No side markers, either, to clutter up the lines.

The 230 SL might also represent the bargain of the group. As it’s viewed as the least-powerful variant, collectors have largely ignored it.

Looking for a bit more torque, a bit more performance? The one-year-only 250 SL might fit the bill. In addition to the bump in displacement to 2.5 liters, rear discs became standard. The 250 SL was only made for 13 months starting in December 1966.

The 250 SL represented a transition model, though, with the cars built after August 1967 having less chrome inside along with rubber knobs. Side marker lamps, a telescoping steering column and other federally mandated equipment became standard. This year also saw the introduction of emission controls, so add in the potential for increased complexity. 

If ’60s cool could be summed up in one car, the Pagoda Benz would have to be on the short list: tidy, timeless lines with the right dash of stage presence.

Two unicorns from the 250 SL run that you might want to seek out: the super-rare, five-speed manual box as well as the California Coupe option, the latter coming with just a hardtop–no soft top–and a tiny yet functional back seat. 

The Pagoda run ended with the 1968-’71 280 SL: more displacement, more power, more comfort. It’s the one that gets the highest dollars today. 

Of the nearly 24,000 copies of the 280SL built, more than half came to the U.S. and all but 882 cars had the automatic box. Power windows had become standard, and air conditioning was ordered more often than not. Hardtops now had rear defrosters, and the brand’s iconic 14-inch Fuchs “Bundt Cake” alloys became an option.

Hollywood’s Leading Roadster

The R107-chassis roadster, the follow-up to the Pagoda cars, came out in the early ’70s, with production nearly stretching to 1990. It was closer to 1980, though, that it really blossomed into a cultural icon thanks to starring roles in “Dallas,” “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Hart to Hart.” Then add in the appearances wherever a character had to exude wealth and taste–think “Falcon Crest,” “Magnum, P.I.” and “Miami Vice.”

While these R107-chassis cars look considerably larger than their predecessors, the early ones are only a few inches longer. When the later ones received the federalized bumpers, yes, the additional length was very noticeable. (During the production run, weight also crept up from roughly 2800 pounds to north of 3500.)

Like their earlier counterparts, these cars also had roots in the company’s more pedestrian lineup–in this case, the mid-sized W114 sedan. This meant independent suspension at all four corners plus standard four-wheel-disc brakes.

Mercedes-Benz fit a range of engines into these cars, with some offerings not officially coming stateside yet still making their way here.

The R107-chassis roadster was squarely aimed at the American market, as it was bigger and more comfortable than its predecessor while sporting crisp, striking lines from nose to tail. Under the hood was a V8 engine, often mated to an automatic transmission. A body-colored hardtop could again be fitted, giving the convertible nearly coupe-like weather protection. 

Its price was also big: some $10,500, so about $75,000 in today’s dollars. 

As with the Pagoda cars, the earliest R107-chassis roadsters might be the purest, with the 1972-’73 models sporting smaller bumpers and wind-up windows. 

So, about the engine. While Mercedes-Benz offered a thoroughly modern, twin-cam, six-cylinder engine for overseas markets, U.S. customers initially received a 350 SL powered by a 4.5-liter V8. 

Mike Kunz says the odd naming convention might have stemmed from engines that had already been federalized. It was simply easier to misname the car than fight the U.S. government. (Mercedes-Benz renamed the car the 450 SL for 1973, finally getting things in sync.)

Like so many other cars, the SL received upsized bumpers for 1974. In this case, they added some 8 inches to either end of the car. 

The line got a new engine along with a new name for 1981, with the 380 SL badge signaling the move to a 3.8-liter V8. Power was down and, these days, so is interest. 

Frustrated customers took advantage of favorable dollar/Deutsche mark exchange rates plus existing loopholes to import the more powerful European-spec models. The 5.0-liter, Euro-spec 500 SL was a popular import. Gray-market cars can still be found on today’s market, and the quality of the conversions is all over the map. 

For those looking for a roadster that captures ’80s excess–but without the day’s stratospheric prices–an R107-chassis roadster might well suffice.

The SL returned as a world-fighter before the end of this run, with Americans receiving the 560 SL for 1986 through 1989. Power came from a 5.6-liter V8 paired with a four-speed automatic. Top speed was just north of 135 mph, while it could run to 60 in about 7 seconds–strong numbers for the day. And the cost? About $65,000 then, so nearly $160,000 in current money. 

As expected, these cars were favored by the upper class, with many doing duty as third or even fourth cars. Well-maintained, low-mileage, vacation home-type cars are readily available. This fact combined with high restoration costs make buying a ratty example a rather fruitless move. This model also closed out the R107 model run.

Which One to Drive Home?

We see two factors driving the final decision here: budget and desired experience. 

While a few R107 sales have topped the six-figure mark, there are plenty of good cars available for less–down to, let’s say, used minivan money, making them one of today’s top value buys. That’s an easy way to own a car once good enough for a Hollywood blockbuster.

There are a few reasons for this, one being these models are just not as rare and desirable as the iconic Pagoda cars and collectors are only recently starting to notice them. (Our tip: If interested in one, don’t dawdle.)

And while reliable, attractive and comfortable, they’re still cruisers: open-air motoring, yes, but maybe not the sportiest option on the menu. Again, that has pointed attention toward the earlier, more nimble Pagoda cars. 

But those Pagoda cars cost more. Prices have been on the move, although they seem to have taken a slight breather. As with the later cars, is now the time to buy one? 

Which Mercedes-Benz roadster for you? As usual, it depends–on the budget, the nostalgia  and the desired experience. As we found on Pebble Beach’s 17-Mile Drive, however, there are no wrong answers.  

Mike Kunz pointed out two more factors that dictate prices on any of these cars. The more obvious one is condition, specifically rust and accident damage. Look carefully. Overall condition, care and deferred maintenance issues greatly affect the value of these cars as they’re not cheap to restore.

Color makes a difference, too, he notes. A lot of these cars were painted in rather somber silver and beige tones. A beautiful red, green or blue car could fetch thousands more than one wearing a more subdued hue. 

Assuming you sleep with the masses and not with the classes, our advice is to buy a good, driver-quality 230 SL or an early 250 SL with a manual transmission or, if the later car scratches that itch, a nice early or late R107. Either way, you get to enjoy one of the best cars ever made.

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Comments
wspohn
wspohn SuperDork
6/22/23 11:16 a.m.

The 190s were heavy and underpowered.

The 230s were nice touring cars.

The later versions like the 450s (made until 1980) are also heavy - both in weight and on gas, but are very civilized touring cars especially if you have both soft and hard tops.  Not huge power - 220-240 bhp and somewhat heavy (around 3300 lbs., although that looks pretty good today when 2 seater 4 cylinder models can top 4000 lbs.)

Frankly I'd rather own a Mk 2 Jaguar sedan (that I'd had rustproofed).

Robool
Robool New Reader
6/22/23 12:14 p.m.

To my knowledge the last SL that had a 4 cyl was the 190.  230's had a six this side of the Atlantic.  They were, and are, beautiful machines.  Watch for rust.  

stu67tiger
stu67tiger Reader
6/23/23 8:44 a.m.

Robool:  What he said.

Years back I had occasion to look at a well used 230SL that was offered for sale.  I was impressed with the almost 360 degree visibility from the driver's seat with the hardtop on.   I was not impressed with the partial view of the ground directly below the driver's  feet.  Looked great from a distance, but I hope whoever bought it liked to weld...

 

Automobilist
Automobilist New Reader
9/18/23 2:39 p.m.

All W113 SL's world wide were built with six cylinder engines, not four as the article claims.  As mentioned above, the only one with a four was the porky 190SL. 

To me, the only downside to a W113 is the high price, they are absolutely delightful to drive.

My choice was an early 450SL.  I searched for and found a slightly wrecked '73.  It had the exact combination I wanted: the trim "euro" style bumpers, power windows, blue with dark blue leather seats.  After a five year restoration, it's stunning, and drives beautifully. 

haringmp
haringmp New Reader
1/25/24 11:17 a.m.

NEITHER!!!

Where we live in the upper Midwest there is only one choice for top down driving in a limited warm weather season - the SLK series!!!!!

porschenut
porschenut Dork
1/28/24 8:16 a.m.

None of the above.  My 1990 300SL with the twin cam motor and 5 speed manual.  Even an overweight car is fun with a stick and 6500 RPM redline.  The mercedes version of vtec works and that motor was a joy at 6K.  

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