Mercedes-Benz 230SL

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Mercedes-Benz 230SL

1963 - 1967
6 cyl. overhead cam, mechanical fuel injection
2195 cc
170 bhp
4 spd. man / 4 spd. auto
Top Speed:
124 mph / 200 km/h
Number Built:
5 star
Mercedes 230SL
Mercedes-Benz 230SL
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 5


The Mercedes-Benz 230 SL, which took the place of the 190 SL was faster, roomier and sleeker, with six cylinders instead of four and fuel injection into the inlet ports instead of carburettors. The brakes were discs at front; drums at rear. Front lamps were grouped vertically in pairs under glass domes, as was the case on the then current MB sedans.

Initial production of the 230 SL commenced in March 1963 with a removable "Pagoda" steel roof panel and a 150 bhp straight six engine with Bosch injection. Three versions were offered - convertible, convertible with detachable hard top, or hard top coupe without folding top. The hard top had a roof with raised edges like Miohelotti's design for the Triumph Herald. There were two separate front seats in luxurious Mercedes style and a sideways occasional seat behind them. Maximum speed was a claimed 124 mph with the four-speed fully synchronised gearbox and 121 mph with the optional automatic transmission.

The six-cylinder engine was derived from that of the 220 SE sedan but with 2 mm extra on the bores (82 by 72.8 mm, 2306cc), the addition of unique manifolding, a more aggressive cam and bigger valves. Compression ratio was raised to 9.3 to 1. The Bosch six-plunger injection pump was retained, but injection was now direct into the inlet ports in the head and not into the manifold. Maximum power was 170 bhp (SAE) at 5600 rpm and the engine was safe up to 6500 rpm. Peak torque of 159 lb/ft was delivered at 4500 rpm.

Transmission was by single-plate clutch and four-speed all-synchro box with ratios 4.42; 2.28; 1.53 and 1 to 1. Axle ratio, 3.75. Second gear gave 56 mph and third about 84. Control by central floor mounted lever, naturally. The Daimler-Benz automatic transmission was optional, with the same axle ratio, which was a big help for the U.S. export market where most exports were bound - and where the vast majority of buyers didn't like the idea of changing gears themselves.

Brakes were Girling discs in front, Alfin drums at rear with turbo cooling fins. They had vacuum servo assistance. The system featured a two-circuit servo. Power steering was also available as an option, but the feature for which it is most famous is the one you are least likely to see on a sunny day - the slightly converse hard-top that gave the car its now famous nick name "Pagoda". Front suspension was by wishbones and coil springs, with rubber buffers and anti-roll bar. Rear suspension was low-pivot swing axle with coil springs and compensator spring. Telescopic dampers throughout. Much maligned, (although probably because it was little understood), was the 230SL's swing axles- 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 tyres of the day. Recirculating ball steering, with option of servo assistance. Tyres, 185 by 14. Dimensions were: Wheelbase, 84in; track, front and rear, 58.5 in; length, 269.6 in; width, 69.2 in; height, unladen, 51.5 in; fuel tank, 14.3 gal with electric pump; kerb weight, 2855 lb.

For avid car spotters the easiest way to recognise a 230SL from its larger engined cousins (apart from the boot vehicle identification) are the solid chrome wheel rims. In its 10 year production run its styling barely altered. In 1967 after nearly 20,000 sales the 230 was replaced by the 250 SL. The 230, 250 and 280SL model Mercedes are still regarded today as the pinnacle of German styling, quality and engineering. Always popular with women, these fabulous cars boasted fine handling, road holding and a surprisingly sporty auto transmission. The SL designation (or "Super Light") was first used on the more powerful Mercedes 300SL "Gullwing" and 300SL "Roadster" of the 1950's, although these models were far heavier than their later counterparts.

Sports Car Road Tests 230SL Review

Perhaps the most disturbing experience in driving a Mercedes-Benz is the amount of uninhibited attention it gets. It is a long time since I was blown a kiss by a girl on a street corner, but it happened with the Mercedes 230SL road test car. Of course, the car was brilliant, glossy red, and I am exceedingly good-looking, but it was still the first time.. And, damn it, I couldn't stop because she was standing in a loading zone. Our test car was supplied by that furiously energetic Sydney sports car dealer Ron Phillips, who has an Australia-wide reputation for dealing in all the best machinery. It had covered only about 6000 miles, and was thus nicely freed-up. Its only blemish was a cracked windscreen. This was replaced during the week we had the car, and after waiting several days I finally had the enormous privilege of producing a heavy square of glass to a policeman who asked me where the hell did I think I was going without a registration label?

The 230SL replaced both the heavy, medium-performing 190SL and the rudely accelerative 300SL. It falls somewhere in between them, and somehow the MB designers have managed to retain the best of both. The car is distinctive for its absolutely marvellous road manners, superlative driver comfort and utter refinement. It has, however, some peculiar miscues, of which more later. The 2306cc engine, developing a commendable 170 bhp (gross) or 150 net. comes from the 220SE coupe, but with a 2 mm increase in bore diameter, a completely new cylinder head, 9.3 to 1 compression instead of 8.7, larger valves and different cam overlap. Added to this is a Bosch fuel injection system which - unlike that on the 220SE which uses two plungers and three distribution units - has six plungers and separate pipes that enter the cylinder head itself, instead of injecting into the inlet manifold.

The result is an exceptionally smooth unit, right up to 6500 rpm. However, it distinctly lacks torque low in the range—peak torque does not come in until 4500 rpm — and until 2500 rpm nothing much happens. The engine does not fuss at below this point, but on a part-open or trailing throttle a pronounced surge or "roll" develops in the injection system, so that the driveline starts to snatch and jerk. This became a particularly annoying trait in heavy traffic, until our drivers developed the habit of keeping part-throttle by using the ball of the foot on the brake and the edge of the foot on the accelerator. This lack of torque low down does a lot to exaggerate the unfortunate gear ratios; first is too low, ending at 28mph, and third should run to more than 80mph in a car with a top speed of 120. Top gear is not much use below 35mph, second is adequate, and while third pulls strongly from this speed to 80 the car is somewhat short-legged for those short-gap overtaking dashes on the open road.

However, the willingness of the engine to rev overcomes most of these objections. There is a fair amount of engine noise, mainly from the valve gear, above 4500 rpm in the indirects, although not in top gear. The engine has an automatic choke, and, like all Mercedes fuel-injection systems, needs several winds at the starter to fire, although it never became temperamental. It idles very quietly, although the idle tends to "roll" slightly, from 600 rpm to 1000 rpm.The gearbox, controlled by a neat, thin lever topped by a white ball-knob, is exceptionally good, like all DB boxes. It is particularly quiet, and the movements quite accurate if "soft" in feel. Clutch pedal load is quite light. However, on the test car the throw from first to second was slow, and top seemed to be losing its syn-chromesh.

The brakes, disc front, drum rear, servo-assisted, are superb. This would very nearly be the best-braked car we have ever driven. The front and rear circuits are separate, and tandem master cylinders are used. Attempting (and getting) lg maximum-effort stops produces a sensation as though the car is being squashed flat into the road; booming "crash stops" from 80mph do not change the car's attitude at all. It just stops, dead flat and dead straight, with a sensation as though one had suddenly driven into a rice pudding. Unfortunately the handbrake is badly located on the left side of the transmission hump, and a recent announcement from DB said the company had no intention of altering the location of the handbrake for its right-hand-drive models. Pity.

The 230SL's exceptionally wide track - 4 ft 101 in. - and fat Firestone tyres give it the look of a real road-hugging car. It is just that. It is totally stable under all conditions, running arrow straight in even the most savage crosswinds. We could drive hands-off at 90mph. The steering is quite light and accurate at speed, but heavy and a little dead when parking. The car's handling qualities are in understeer, with a graduation into neutral when the throttle is closed and finally final oversteer in the manner of all low-pivot swing-axled Mercedes. However, the car's adhesion levels are so incredibly high that it would take a highly skilled driver to find the absolute limit of its capabilities. Corners can be taken at most dramatic speeds without any perceptible roll movement or change in attitude, although v.irh a lot of screech from the Firestones. It seemed at its best in very fast sweepers right in its upper limits, around 110-115 mph. In those corners the squat car could be set-up with a gentle twitch to achieve a slight drift angle, and then powered through on full throttle without budging an inch from line. It can be steered with the throttle on such corners, but this technique in tight corners only increases the understeer almost to the extent of "ploughing".

The car has its roll centres at only 4.82 in. above ground level at the front, and at 8.45 in. at the rear. There is an anti-sway bar at the front but none at the rear, as the single-joint swing axle system has a high inbuilt level of roll stiffness. As in other examples of this uniquely Mercedes system, the coils transmitting the vertical loads are supplemented by a transverse coil spring behind the differential which serves to limit vertical axle movements by giving a lower roll couple and controlling camber changes. Ride is absolutely magnificent over all surfaces. The car will stride along at any speed over undulations, ripples, patchy bitumen and loose gravel with total disdain. Our private hump-backed bridge failed to induce any pitch. There is no scuttle shake at all, and the body feels astonishingly strong and taut, with its only sour reaction a slight "tremble" felt through the driveshaft tunnel on corrugations taken slowly. This is one sports car with which you can take to the dirt roads and to hell with the consequences.

The Mercedes will spin its wheel in drag-strip starts because of the short first gear, but we found that leaving the line for acceleration runs was best done by popping the clutch sharply at 3000 rpm. The Firestone Phoenix tyres would spin busily for perhaps three-tenths of a second and then catch. There also seemed to be a "cammy" point in the engine at 3800 rpm in each indirect gear. Naturally, as one would expect from Mercedes, the interior of the car is just about the ultimate in functional luxury. The test car was trimmed in black, with matching red body paint across the dashboard. I do not like the polished wood stripped, over the facia cowl and around the rear window. It seems unnecessary decoration. The car is very wide, and has ample headroom, despite the deceptive concave appearance of the "pagoda" roof. The driver and passenger sit in well-shaped bucket seats that are covered in black vinyl with raised, perforated folds for better grip and breathing. The seats are correctly contoured, with squab rake adjustment over a wide range, but not giving quite enough support around the tops of the shoulders.

There is an occasional seat behind. The driver can sit well back from his work, and with the hardtop in place has remarkable all-round vision through enormous glass areas, although the left wing is slightly obscured by the high fender line. The wheel is a thick-rimmed affair in white plastic with a padded boss and D-shaped horn ring. It does not quite match the character of the car, but is very comfortable to grip. In front of the driver are two big dials, speedometer reading to 140 mph on the left and 7000 rpm tachometer on the right. Between these is a vertical rectangle that separates the main dials just a little too widely. This carries oil, fuel and temperature gauges and warning lights for high beam, handbrake, and ignition. The gauges are marked in white on a charcoal background, with a thin red line on the centre of each needle, and all are remarkably steady except for the fuel gauge, which on the test car fluctuated wildly.

This main grouping is surmounted by a full-width padded cowl. In the centre of the dashboard are the heater/demister controls, clock and cigarette lighter. Before the passenger is a spring-loaded glovebox with a light in the lid which operates as a map light when the glovebox is opened. On the extreme right and left of the dashboard are movable vanes for the excellent fresh-air system, plus a smaller chromed flap for directing demisting air to the side windows. It is quite comfortable driving this car with all windows shut and this clever ventilating system operating, as used air is exhausted via the perforated hood lining and through vents over the rear window.

All the switches have flexible rubber knobs, the rear vision mirror is dimmable against glare, and the sun visors, soft and crushable, snap home into neat sockets. There are grab-handles over each window and another one in the passenger's door. The door handles are small chromed hooks which work well, but the window winders are hopelessly low-geared. Between the seats is an open holdall tray and an ashtray with a padded lid. The gearbox hump is covered in woven carpet and the floor in rubber matting, with the door sills also carpeted. The armrests on each door are shaped with a forward "ear" to double as door pulls, and there is a parcels pocket in each door. Pedals are pendant, and heavily patterned to assist grip, while the accelerator is the organ type.

From this you will gather that the 230SL has a marvellously-equipped and designed interior that puts everything needed in the right place. The standard of finish is very, very good, and we can think of few cars which would be more comfortable in long and fast touring over all kinds of roads. The familiar Mercedes rectangular glasses shroud the indicators, parking and headlights. One small switch controls the lights, and reversing lights and a three-way switch for the interior lights are fitted. On the steering column is a remarkable lever which has more functions than a stereophonic record player. Pushed up or down in line with the wheel works right or left trafficators, while it is pressed inward to switch the wipers on and off and pushed forward to operate the electric windscreen washers. Pulling back on its flashes the headlights, and a small knurled piano switch in the head of the lever controls windscreen wiper speed.

The wipers, of course, are the usual excellent Mercedes overlapping type and cover every necessary inch of the big screen. The hardtop is easily removed and replaced, although preferably with two operators. It locks with small levers at each corner, and a further lever set in the rear bulkhead releases the permanent fabric hood, packed away in a covered recess. Everything fits beautifully. The cockpit is not too breezy with the hood down, and quite water- and air-tight with either hardtop or fabric hood erected, except that at speeds over 90mph the window glasses tend to lift away from their channelling at the top and create a slight whistle that we never could eliminate.

The spare wheel is carried in a recess at the left of the boot, which is notable for its great width and flat, runner-covered floor. A press-button latch operates the spring-loaded lid. The engine cover is released by a handle under the dash, and opens on a compartment crammed with plumbing. The massive six is surrounded by fuel-injection lines and a maze of linkages, together with a most impressive straight branch manifolding setup. Spark plugs are not particularly accessible, but everything else is. So that was the Mercedes 230SL. Its memory will linger long with us, mainly for its astonishing road-holding, first-class design, extremely comfortable interior, and distinctive looks. And because girls blow kisses at it.

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Also see:

Mercedes SL Heritage
Mercedes 230SL Specifications
Mercedes 230SL Advertisements
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