I Put 800 Miles On A Mercedes 230SL W113 And Fell In Love
Photography by Ted Gushue
SLThey’re iconic, aren’t they. The Pagodas. I’d never driven one til the other day, and to be completely honest I would have been happy for the rest of my life just looking at one from time to time. Such a chipper little thing, based on the W111 platform with a scrappy inline six, it hadn’t exactly earned a reputation as a car begging to be pushed to the redline in a canyon. As my friend Nigel Case described its larger sister, the 280SL, you had a tendency to waft around in them when they had automatic gearboxes.
But when he and the Classic Car Club of London tossed me the keys to their 1964 230SL with a tight little four speed I was immediately impressed by how much fun it was to wind this car up on twisty back country roads and narrow city streets. Nigel estimated the fuel injected engine was putting around 150 horsepower, but as this was a first series car they had yet to weigh it down with all sorts of nonsense. It’s a downright sporty drive, reminding me immediately of a period Alfa, almost Duetto-esque in its airy fun and whiny tailpipe.
Visually speaking it’s a treat to drive through crowded London. The occasional scolds and scoffs that are normally reserved for the supercar elite in Mayfair are immediately replaced by beaming grins from all ages. The design, to car people and non, is universally beloved.
I didn’t quite mention to the Classic Car Club just how many miles I’d be putting on the plucky red roadster, but then again they didn’t exactly deter me from ticking away the odometer. I started out with a 160 mile leg from London to Somerleyton Hall in Lowestoft, Suffolk. It was a combination of highway and twisty country roads that would immediately reveal how capable and confident the car was.
On the highway I found it most comfortable around 3800 RPM, humming along at 70-75. Pushing it to 90mph wasn’t exactly nerve-wracking, but it didn’t exactly release enough positive dopamine to bring me back there often. Make no mistake about this car, it’s a cruiser.
I overnighted at Somerleyton Hall as a guest of Hugh & Lara Somerleyton’s, if you’ll recall I shot the CCC’s 3.8 E Type there around this time last year, who were quite keen on the car if only a little hesitant to come out and see it due to the brisk temperature. Generally speaking when you wake up and the ambient temperature is around 10 degrees below freezing it’s less than likely you’ll get something of this age to wake up. The E-Type sat under a blanket of frost for nearly two whole days while I tried unsuccessfully to get it started. This could not have been further from the case with the Pagoda.
I set a timer on my phone to see how long it would take to cold start. 3.72 Seconds.
That’s the thing about the W113, it just works.
Over the next week Florence Walker and I would travel from the coast in Aldeburgh (incredible fish and chips, FWIW) all the way out to Wiltshire to make new friends at Wilton House. The Pagoda just kept plugging along in grand fashion.
Twisty country roads? Toss it in second and wind it up. Cruising on the highway? Hum along in fourth, count the smiles from passing cars. Driving at night? Might want to keep the high beams on.
It wasn’t until the last day I had the car in London that I felt brave enough to put the top down. It was sunny enough, especially by London standards, and I had the roof down in under a minute (Mercedes boasted at the time that this was a sub-15 second operation). Pootling it from North London to Wimbledon for a meeting with Joe Macari was what I can only call the most fun thing I’ve done in ages. The car loves to breeze through city streets in second, hopping up to a very satisfying 4500RPM. Driving back to the CCC London HQ on Pitfield street was equally fun, if a bit warmer as the sun had a few more minutes to do its thing.
At every roundabout there was a smiling face. Businessmen and little girls and everyone in between loves the look of the Pagoda with the top down. More smiles per mile, as they say. All in all I couldn’t be more in love with the car that I was already in love with from afar. Who says you shouldn’t meet your heroes?