Great cars sometimes are produced in strange ways. The legendary Mercedes-Benz 300 SL was never meant to be a production car. It was purpose-built for racing at the command of Daimler-Benz General Director Wilhelm Haspel, and it was production-ized only at great difficulty and great cost. U.S. importer Max Hoffman, the man who, ironically enough, was also largely responsible for the BMW 2002, was a key figure in convincing D-B that a production 300 SL could be a sales success, and when all was said and done it is hard to say whether or not he was right. After all, only 1,400 "Gullwings" were built before Daimler-Benz decided to call it quits in 1962 and just 1,800 roadster versions went out showroom doors. But Hoffman was prescient in at least one way with the 300 SL. He predicted that a Mercedes-Benz sports car could be a winner in the marketplace, and if his judgment was cloudy with the 300 SL, it was certainly spot-on with the subsequent SL's in the series.
Daimler-Benz's first attempt to follow up the Gullwing's mystique came with the rather anemic 190 SL, but as the Sixties dawned the little Merc was being put to shame by the riveting Jaguar E-Type. The Jag boasted exotic styling and impressive performance, while the 190 SL, sad to say, boasted neither. The prosaically styled car had a tiny engine offering barely decent performance, so Daimler-Benz engineers were forced to play catch-up, and the result of their labors was the 230 SL, the first of a string that led directly to the 280 SL.
Now, no one who looks at an E-Type and a 230 SL side-by-side can honestly say that the new model drew Mercedes-Benz into styling parity with Jaguar. Further, no one who drives an E-Type and a 230 SL back-to-back can honestly say that the Mercedes was the equal of the Jaguar in the performance regard either. But at least the 230 SL drew Mercedes-Benz back into the same soccer field.
In essence, the 230 SL played the part of the '55 Ford Thunderbird to the E-Type's '55 Corvette V-8. The 230 SL was a grand boulevardier, offering sumptuous ride, vault-like build quality and sedan-inspired looks. Meanwhile, the E-Type was much more the true sports car, complete with harsher ride, so-so product quality and voluptuous appearance. Perhaps Daimler-Benz just could not find it in its genes to build a car as frivolous as the Jaguar or perhaps the conservative but exceptionally well-built 230 SL was just what D-B engineers had in mind. After all, it is obvious the E-Type's svelte body was decidedly not designed by an engineer.
While the 300 SL was designed as a racecar first, the 230 SL was planned as a production vehicle. Mercedes-Benz had long since pulled the plug on racing, so this car didn't even have vague racing aspirations. It was conceived to be a road car for paying customers and nothing else. Having learned expensive lessons trying to build a production version of the 300 SL, Daimler-Benz engineers borrowed heavily from the parts bin to fashion the 230 SL. It had the same short 94.5-inch wheelbase of the previous SL's, but the truncated chassis was fitted with components pulled directly from the 220 SE. These included the recirculating ball-type steering with power assist and the all-independent suspension.
Though pulled virtually intact from a sedan, both steering and suspension won quick and earnest praise from the press at the time of the car's introduction. Sporting drivers of the era had a distinct distaste for power-assisted steering, but the 230 SL's steering won plaudits for its feel and feedback. Equal praise was showered on the suspension, which was lauded for its supple ride combined with high quality cornering power. The front suspension was a double-wishbone type still favored by sporty types today, while, interestingly, the rear-suspension used a "swing-axle" design that was about to become notorious on the Chevrolet Corvair.
Of course, the SL's swing axles differed somewhat from the Corvair design. Dubbed "single-low-pivot," the suspension featured a strut suspended from the body that supported a single joint close to the differential. Long half-axles, each located by a trailing arm and sprung by a coil, extended to each wheel, pivoting on this nearly central point. Combined with the wide rear track, the long half-shafts minimized camber change in cornering, allowing smooth, predictable handling even on the relatively narrow tires of the day. Braking was accomplished with a combination of front discs and rear drums.
The 230 SL also borrowed its powerplant from the 220 SE, though the engine was tarted up by a bore job to 2,306 cubic centimeters (roughly 140 cubic inches) and treated to unique manifolding, a more aggressive cam and bigger valves. (Can you say hot rod?) In this form the 230 SL's in-line six cylinder produced 170 horsepower (at a rather busy 5,600 rpm) and 159 foot-pounds of torque. Even in the context of the day, these were rather tame numbers, and when faced off against the substantially built SL's 3,000 pounds, the result was somewhat underwhelming. In comparison, a Chevrolet Corvette of the same vintage was equipped with a 327 cubic inch V-8 that, even in the mildest trim, offered 250 horsepower.
To their credit, the Daimler-Benz engineering team immediately began working on correcting the horsepower shortfall. The first step was the 250 SL that came to the United States in early 1967. Unfortunately, the new engine swapped into the SL, a 2,496 cubic centimeter powerplant pulled from the 250 SE sedan, offered no more horsepower (still 170) and only marginally better torque (173.6 foot-pounds.) With the new engine, plus disc brakes all around, the 250 SL was a more drivable car, but it still lacked the brio of its competition from Britain, the U.S. and elsewhere.
Just a year later, Mercedes-Benz tried again with the 280 SL, and while this car still lacked the horsepower to compete with ever-more-powerful Corvettes and the potent E-Type, it was getting warmer. Overseas version of the 280 SL got 190 horsepower from the new 2,778 cubic centimeter in-line six, but newly instituted American emissions regulations limited U.S.-spec cars to just 180 horsepower and 193 pound-feet of torque.
By this time the demeanor of the SL was set in stone as a solidly built, comfortable open car with great touring credentials. Its zero-to-60 miles per hour time of just a hair under 10 seconds with the automatic transmission was mundane even for a sedan, a second-and-a-half slower than a comparable automatic-equipped Corvette. But in terms of ride comfort and assembly quality, the 280 SL was true to its roots. Certainly, the 280 SL set a new standard for sports cars from Daimler-Benz, and, as such, is deserving of its place among the Greatest Cars of All Time.