This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Mercedes-Benz SL, a car that somehow managed to look undeniably beautiful in every iteration. (OK, maybe not so much the sixth-generation car that rolled out of production in 2020. But the rest is gorgeous.) To remind us of the impossibly long legacy of the hit convertible/coupe, the company offered the rare luck at the Le Mans Classic to drive the most desirable example of all time – a 300 SL “Gullwing” – unquestionably the most famous, technologically ahead of its time and magnificent SL ever built.
We drove this SL instead.
It’s hard to explain why we pushed to try our luck behind the wheel of the brave W113 generation 230 SL Rallye ‘Pagode’ you see here above the world’s first supercar, but we bet many of you laughed and thought, ‘Yeah, same page’. After about an hour at the wheel of the Pagoda, it is a choice that we would not take back.
That said, even if it wasn’t the multi-million dollar Gullwing, we still drive a priceless museum piece on the roads of the Le Mans paddock – and beyond – on race day. To say there is traffic is an understatement. At every turn, scooters and all sorts of miniaturized personal e-mobilities seem to tug at the car from all directions. On top of that, 200,000 fans attend Le Mans Classic this year, and guards struggle to control the crowd with whistles and stiff arms. In the Pagoda, the temperature of the water is already rising. Although the clutch is easy to modulate to avoid stalling, it’s a bit trivial to say where the wheels are actually pointing: a boat rudder would offer more communication, pushing the one-of-a-kind car out of tight confines. paddock roads. a mix of skill and stupid luck.
However, it is already worth it. Even when we reach for the heat to try and keep the car happy, we can’t help but smile. The slider is framed in tasteful chrome and offers the smooth feedback of a vintage EQ. The bucket seats are wrapped in black and white checks and offer no lumbar support, but, oddly enough, there are three-point seat belts, which would not become standard in Mercedes vehicles until 1973. The metallic details gleams from the horn ring and the electrical gear surrounding the dash recalls an era that was just…cooler. Visibility out of the small square cabin is fantastic – there’s no need for a backup camera. The outside is bright red, the somewhat posh color contrasted by the car’s black steel rally wheels and lowered stance. Yes, this 230 SL turns heads, even at an event where cars like the 1970s Porsche 911 RS are relegated to grass parking lots away from the track.
It goes without saying that this car is not original. We’re instructed not to turn the steering all the way down lest the tires scrape in the wheel arches, or hit larger bumps at speed, which would cause the W113 to crash onto its lowered suspension. Having driven our fair share of tuned and competition cars, these careful considerations are practically second nature, but it’s still weird to have to do it in a car built and tuned by its manufacturer.
Away from the track proper, the traffic on the B roads that surround Le Mans places a new restriction on the amount of fun we can have – even when things open up there are often race-bound pedestrians who walk in pairs on the shoulders of blind corners, behaving as if everyone had modern tires, four-wheel disc brakes and ABS. On the rare occasions we’re lucky enough to stay on the gas, there’s a delightfully smooth character across the rev range of the 2.3-litre inline-six, but all the car’s power is in the revs. the highest, it’s not a surprise. Peak power is only 150 hp, at 5,500 rpm, but it’s not a heavy car at 2,745 pounds; it’s easy to imagine that was enough for loose rally roads in the 1960s. According to MB, this 230 SL has a top speed of around 200 km/h. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, we were also instructed to avoid turning the car off, something about race-specific spark plug fouling. That makes heavy traffic – and all the photography – a constant battle against rising underhood temperatures.
As for the history of this car, this 230 SL proved to be the ideal car for the grueling 5,500 km (3,418 mile) Spa-Sofia-Liège rally in 1963, where it bombed dirt roads alpine and various karst passes for about 92 hours before claiming first place overall with driver Eugen Böhringer and co-driver Klaus Kaiser. Moreover, it was precisely this car that proved the racing ability of the W113 SL in 1963, and perhaps that is why the famous C107 450 SLC rally programs of the late 1970s emerged.
The enormous appeal of classic cars is a strange thing – if the capabilities and visceral connection of driver cars peaked somewhere in the 90s or early 2000s, you technically lose feedback as you keep turning the pages. Steering boxes are generally vaguer than steering racks and drum brakes are not as easy to modulate. Tires have improved dramatically over the decades, and modern performance rubber may as well be magic by comparison. The technology of 60 years ago? Worse in every way. Same deal with engine tuning; it’s harder to get horsepower and torque over a wide rpm range with carburetors. The list is lengthened increasingly.
While it might be easy to understand why an enthusiast might prefer a 1998 BMW M3 to a new one (the feel!), it’s a little harder to explain the choice of this 230 SL – with its vague steering box , its sharp engine, wondering what’s -brakes happening- on any new SL, maybe including the new generation only AMG. And yet there’s no question, and it’s all about how you communicate with the car – older cars like this still have a lot to say. For example, the way the narrow, old-school tires roll and road feel lacking from the overly light steering.
Or maybe we’re so mesmerized by the charm of something ancient, beautiful, and evocative that we want it to be good. Anyway, it was quite difficult to return the keys when it was all over. We would love to take another ride in this sensational 230 SL anytime.