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Mercedes-Benz Pagoda

Shooting Star Published: 1st Aug 2014 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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Iconic Mercedes sportster that’s better suited to cultured cruising than hair raising. A great investment as values are soaring but so can restoration costs

Classics don’t come more timelessly elegant than the Pagoda Mercedes, at home in any setting and capable of crossing continents without breaking into a sweat. Now, much more valuable than the R107 SL that succeeded it, Pagoda (codenamed W113 by Mercedes) values are on a trajectory that few could have foreseen just a couple of years ago.

Some eye-watering values mean tarted-up cars aren’t rare – especially ex-US examples. Many SLs are imports from the sunshine states where the heat has taken its toll on rubber and trim.
European left-hand drive cars are more likely to have been cherished, but as there’s little difference in values between left and right-hand drive cars, you’re better off going for one of the latter. Whatever you buy, you’ll love driving it and your friends will all envy you.

HISTORY

1954 The first SL is the mighty 300SL, an ultra-exclusive sports car built initially in
gullwing coupé form. Fast and extremely costly, the roadster that superseded the closed car in 1957 was just as exclusive and is now just as highly prized.

1955 After the 300SL came the 190SL; it looked much the same but offered as a roadster only and packed nothing more exciting than an 1897cc four- cylinder engine. It was from this point that the SL became a more mainstream model; still relatively costly and beautifully built, but far more attainable than the 300SL had ever been.

1963 While the 190SL is now hugely sought after, it’s the Pagoda that followed in 1963 which is the SL that most enthusiasts aspire to. At first there was a 230SL only, fitted with a 2306cc straight-six: 19,831 were made in a production run that lasted until 1967. 1967 The 250SL is introduced to supersede the 230SL. Only ever intended as an interim model, which is why it was in production for just a year, the 250SL is the rarest of all the Pagodas. Just 5196 were made, all but 19 of them in this year. Each was fitted with disc brakes all round and a 2496cc straight-six engine.

1968 This year, the final incarnation of the breed is announced. The 280SL is the most common of all Pagodas, the most sought after and also the most valuable. With a softer suspension, better seats and a stronger engine featuring seven main bearings, 23,885 examples of the 280SL rolled off the production lines.

DRIVING AND PRESS COMMENTS

Despite its two-seater convertible configuration and sharp styling, the Pagoda SL is no sports car – this is much more of a cruiser.

When Autocar first tested the 230SL version in 1964 it was immediately clear that this svelte drop-top was a very different beast from its 300SL predecessor. Or as the magazine’s testers wrote: “In place of colossal maximum speed and breath-taking acceleration, the magic of this car lies instead in its refinement, comfort and superb road behaviour, described best in word rather than figures”.

As that weekly then noted, the true predecessor to the 230SL was the 190SL – although that car featured just four cylinders, and much of the Pagoda’s appeal is the fitment of six combustion chambers throughout the range. It’s these smooth powerplants that give the SL the nature of a cruiser, which is why it’s generally best to have an automatic gearbox, whichever engine is installed. There are those who like the manual transmission though, so it’s worth trying one before you go the obvious route, as these cars can represent the ‘bargain’ end of Pagoda ownership.

Despite being impressed overall by the Pagoda’s many talents, Autocar’s review wasn’t particularly glowing; it picked out a lack of low-down torque as an issue, which resulted in a need to pile on the revs sometimes. The standard unassisted steering was also marked down as being rather heavy at low speeds – but only on the manual car.

When tested back-to-back with an auto featuring the optional power steering, the car was noticeably better all round. The steering was so good that the magazine was moved to comment: “We have never tried a more successful power steering, and the D-B automatic transmission is also among the best in our experience”. Throw in excellent grip, handling, seating, brakes and fuel economy and it’s fair to say this first of the Pagoda breed went down pretty well.

When the 280SL was tested by Autocar in 1968, the magazine was still making comparisons with the 300SL, rather than the 250SL that it replaced. Tested as part of a Mercedes special, so the review wasn’t especially in-depth, the stand-out features of the new car (which Autocar referred to as a sports car) were excellent handling, a superb automatic transmission and a power steering system that should have been anathema to a sports car buyer.

But the optional auto and assisted steering were actually must-haves according to that weekly.

It was clear the reviewers were driving while wearing lead-lined boots, which is why when summing up they referred to the 230SL and 250SL and how they were a little lacking in performance – but not the 280SL. “Our experience of the original 230SL and the interim 250SL made us feel that the engines had to work very hard to give the expected performance. With this latest version (which has 11 per cent more torque) all these criticisms go and there seems to be a much greater reserve of power than the engine size, which is still small by absolute standards, would suggest”.

But the 280SL wasn’t just about a bigger engine with more power and torque; it also received retuned suspension, with Merc’s boffins softening things to improve the ride at the expense of handling. However, most buyers would agree that this is the version with the best balance, proving that the SL is a car for cruising in, rather than for thrashing along twisty back roads but who wants to tear around all the time?

PRICES

If you’ve taken your eye off the Pagoda ball over the past couple of years you’ll be amazed at how far and how fast values have climbed. Sam Bailey runs the Worcestershire-based SL Shop. He comments: “You’ll now need at least £40,000 to secure a Pagoda that isn’t a liability; that nets a 230SL with a manual gearbox. The cheapest worthwhile 250SL is £40,000, while a good 280SL costs from £60,000. These prices are for usable cars only though; if you want something special you’ll need to pay more – and potentially a lot more. A really special 280SL will now fetch £80-100,000, while a perfect example can breach the £120,000 barrier”.

Bailey points to a 230SL in his showroom that was restored at a cost of £80,000 recently. He continues: “At this year’s Essen classic show there were numerous Pagodas for sale at around 200,000 euros – and they were finding buyers. Brabus offers a fully rebuilt Pagoda for 230,000 euros – without upgrades or modifications, just restored to an exceptional standard – and those are also finding buyers”.

Despite such a stratospheric – and swift – increase in values, Bailey is convinced that the trend is set to continue. He comments: “Restoration costs are horrendous, but lots of people want a really good Pagoda and they’ve accepted that to secure one they’ve got to dig deep.

“The market is being driven by a mixture of enthusiasts who want to use their cars and investors who want something really special in their collection”.

Predictably, it’s really good cars that most buyers want – but it’s still possible to break even when restoring a project. That’s as long as you don’t go silly when buying a basket case, as some have done recently when bidding for barn find cars at auction. Pay over the odds for one of these and you’re unlikely to get your money back when you come to sell.

Sam Bailey adds: “Don’t assume that just because the 280SL is the one everybody wants, that’s the one you must buy. The 280SL will always be seen as the ultimate edition as it’s the last one made and has the biggest engine – so it’ll always carry a premium.

“But Pagoda owners don’t drive their cars hard and as a result a 230SL or 250SL – especially the latter – make perfectly decent cruisers at more affordable prices”, a point echoed in box out (right).

Interior and exterior colour schemes can make quite a difference to Pagoda values; silver with red leather will always be popular, but cars with a dark paint scheme and dark interior trim aren’t seen as especially desirable. Cars with a manual gearbox are also less sought after; such a transmission can knock 10 per cent off a Pagoda’s value.

IMPROVEMENTS

The SL is one of those cars that doesn’t particularly benefit from mechanical upgrades; it was so well engineered that improving on the standard product is very difficult. Indeed, be suspicious of cars that have been modified, as the suspension and braking systems are excellent in standard form and so are the engines and transmissions. Also be very wary of SLs with non-standard wheels and tyres, as these can easily upset the car’s dynamics. The only upgrade worth incorporating is the fitment of a wind deflector to reduce buffeting, although stereo and security improvements can be worthwhile, as long as they’re done discreetly.

What To Look For

GENERAL

• Electrical problems are usually limited to the wire that connects the ignition coil with the distributor. It goes brittle then breaks down.
• Interior and exterior trim are surprisingly hard to source. Floor coverings, whether rubber or carpet, are hard to track down and getting panels or seats retrimmed is costly. Especially rare is the knee pad that runs beneath the dash along with the aluminium trim fitted to the exterior of pre-1965 cars.
• Fixing a damaged sunroof is cheap; the fabric is £90, the catch is £14 and the rear bar is £25. If only the canvas is damaged you’ll get away with spending less than £50. The £14 price for a catch refers to an aluminium unit – for half this price you can buy a plastic one, but it won’t last long…
• The front seats can’t be replaced with new items if they’re broken, but used ones can be tracked down easily enough, and if you’re not too worried about originality it’s possible to fit all sorts of aftermarket chairs or perhaps those from the W126.

RUNNING GEAR

• A W113 automatic gearbox is tough, and lasts forever unless truly neglected. Leaks aren’t unusual, and if the fluid level is allowed to drop, the gearbox could be badly damaged. If a rebuild is needed, expect to pay £1000 for an exchange unit.
• The rest of the transmission is strong, but the propshaft’s couplings fail eventually, as will the universal joints; both are easily fixed. The latter is given away by clonking as the drive is taken up, but this could also be worn diff mounts, which typically costs up to £1000 to repair. Beware whining from a worn diff; rebuilds are £1500-£2000.
• Power steering was an option on all W113s; most autos have it and so do some manuals. It’s worth having, as the steering is more direct with it, and it’s also a reliable system. However, you need to check that the steering box isn’t leaking; any escaped fluid will be obvious.
• The suspension is long-lived as long as the kingpins and trunnions have been greased every 3000 miles. Wear here is given away by raising the front of the car and feeling for play by rocking the wheel top and bottom – if in doubt, put it through an MoT. Fresh dampers (£60 apiece) will usually transform a Pagoda; most owners don’t notice the deterioration in their car’s shock absorbers over time.
• Get used to the car’s brakes before really trying them out, as the front hoses can fail internally, leading to poor braking and pulling to one side. It’s an easy and cheap fix, as long you don’t crash the car on the test drive!
• Callipers also stick if the car isn’t used regularly, so drive slowly on a level piece of ground then take your foot off the accelerator; if the car comes to a halt the brakes are sticking and will need freeing off. Again, it’s an easy fix and not costly at around £70 per corner for exchange callipers.

ENGINE

• All W113s feature a straight-six, which tends to be noisier than you’d expect even in good condition. Most of these cars are used relatively infrequently while also being generally well looked after, so major powerplant issues aren’t common.
• The cast-iron bottom end is extremely strong and unlikely to give trouble, but it’s not the same for the aluminium alloy cylinder head. As with all alloy heads, it’s essential that the right level of anti-freeze is maintained, if internal corrosion isn’t to occur. To make sure all is well, make sure the engine gets up to temperature reasonably quickly; if it doesn’t, the chances are the thermostat has been removed to mask an overheating problem. Also let the engine idle for a few minutes and keep an eye on the temperature gauge; if things get hot it’s probably because the coolant flow is restricted, because the radiator has got clogged with cylinder head debris – although the engine’s waterways could also have got clogged up too. A re-cored radiator will usually put everything right; expect to pay £200 for an exchange unit – or you could splash out at your local Mercedes dealer and buy a new one, for a hefty £1000 or so.
• Predictably, the key to long engine life is 3000-mile oil changes, using a decent quality 20/50 lubricant; it helps reduce bottom-end wear while also minimising the likelihood of the camshaft wearing quickly. Dirty oil will also lead to the fuel injection pump failing prematurely – with a rebuild costing over £1000. There can also be fuel injection problems on infrequently used cars, caused by condensation leading to corrosion in the injection pipes – but this is rare.

BODY AND CHASSIS

• The SL’s monocoque can corrode badly and it’s common to find a car with a rusty structure that looks presentable. The bulkhead normally survives intact, but the complex sill structures don’t – and properly repairing these can cost over £2500 per side. What’s initially visible is a screw-on cover that hides the structure itself, and because you’re unlikely to get the opportunity to remove this, you need to make the most thorough checks you can from inside the car – which isn’t easy.
• You also need to get underneath the car to inspect the floorpans as well as the chassis members at the rear; they extend the length of each side of the boot floor. Also take a look at the chassis legs at the front of the car, along with the bumper mountings. These may be accident damaged or rusty, but replacement is cheap and easy at £200-£300. You must also ensure that you remove the floorpan covers behind the rear seats, to allow you to see inside the chassis legs.
• It’s not just structural corrosion that you need to watch out for; more cosmetic areas that can also be affected include the front wings around the headlights as well as the wheelarches – original wings will feature a flute either side of the chrome headlamp trim.
• Many of the outer panels are aluminium, so rust isn’t an issue but corrosion might be, along with microblistering of the paint. The bonnet, boot lid and door skins are all aluminium, as is the hood stowage cover and even the door casings. Each was cut to fit when the car was new, with the chassis number usually stamped onto the bonnet and hood panel; if it’s still there, the panels now fitted are the originals.

Three Of A Kind

ALFA ROMEO SPIDER
ALFA ROMEO SPIDER
Whereas the Mercedes SL is a cruiser, this is a car for those who love to drive hard, thanks to its brilliant chassis, sweet engine and light controls. It’s a beautiful car too, as long as you don’t buy one of the hideous later cars with colour-coded bumpers. But be very wary of tarted-up cars, which are rife.
BMW 2002 CABRIOLET
BMW 2002 CABRIOLET
You’re going to have to search very hard to find one of these; even if you go to Europe and settle for a left-hand drive example, you’ll have your work cut out tracking one down. While they’re stylish, classy and rare, these drophead BMWs are far cheaper to buy than any worthwhile Pagoda.
JAGUAR E-TYPE
JAGUAR E-TYPE
A car that needs no introduction, the E-type was more of a sports car in six-cylinder form, but by the time the V12 came out the Jag had become more of a cruiser. Hugely sought after, stunning to look at and great to drive with a few sympathetic upgrades, be careful; many E-types are tarted up.

Verdict

During an eight-year run, just 48,912 W113s were built. Although survival rate is high, they are rarer than you think, so it’s unsurprising that this is one of those sure-fire classics which you can’t really lose on, if you buy right. Parts supply isn’t an issue – although some bits are ludicrously costly. As ever, you must always buy the best you can afford; finding a good example will prove more cost- effective in the long term, and it’ll also be far more rewarding to own.



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