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Mercedes-Benz Pagoda

Mercedes-Benz Pagoda Published: 1st Dec 2016 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Fast Facts

  • Best model: 280SL
  • Worst model: Manual cars
  • Budget buy: 230SL
  • OK for unleaded?: Yes
  • Will it fit in the garage? (mm): 4288x1778mm
  • Spares situation: Very good
  • DIY ease?: Normal maintenance, yes – restoration is somewhat trickier
  • Club support: Excellent
  • Appreciating asset?: More than you might think and values have a good bit to go still
  • Good buy or good-bye?: Hugely desirable, but now hugely costly too
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Elegant and classy convertible that’s surprisingly pragmatic and practical. Expensive to buy and restore plus there’s many bodged cars around but the rewards amply compensate

Ever since the first edition arrived in 1954, the SL has represented the very best in two-seater motoring from Mercedes. While the original car, the 300SL, was designed first and foremost as a racer, its successor was created from the outset to be a more usable grand tourer built in much larger numbers. That second take on the SL arrived in 1963 and while it was known internally as the W113, it’s better known to enthusiasts as the Pagoda.

Elegant, beautifully built and powered by a succession of smooth straight-six engines, the Pagoda has become one of the most sought after classics, which is reflected by values that have gone stratospheric. While there are still some relatively affordable Pagodas out there, anything really superb will be over six figures now – and in some cases, well into six figures. However, there’s no sign of demand or values diminishing, so if you’ve always wanted one of these elegant roadsters, now is as good a time as any to buy.

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 Fast and extremely costly, the roadster that superseded the closed car in 1957 was just as exclusive and is now just as highly prized.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 was offered as a roadster only and packed nothing more exciting than an 1897cc fourcylinder 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 sharper-suited 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 1968 for the US market 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 1967. Each was fitted with disc brakes all round and a 2496cc straight-six. 1967(2) The final incarnation of the breed is launched. The 280SL is the most common, most sought after and also the most valuable of all the Pagodas.

With softer suspension, better seats and a stronger, smoother engine now featuring seven main bearings, 23,885 examples of the 280SL rolled off the production lines. For ’68 and US only, are certain emission mods.

Driving and press comments

With a lofty price tag of £3865 including purchase tax, the 230SL was out of reach for all but the wealthiest when it arrived in the UK. As such, buyers had the right to expect something pretty special, and when Motor tested the car it was pretty impressed overall – although the tester had some reservations.

Things started out pretty well enough: “No one could have anything but the highest praise for the magnificent seats, driving position and visibility, the impeccable finish, one of the best power steering systems there is and road holding that must be as safe as any other production car in the world”, hailed the weekly. However, things then took a turn for the worse: “Saloon car drivers might be surprised at or even disturbed by the noisy wail of the engine when accelerating hard and the very poor low-speed torque; enthusiasts accepted both these things but were dismayed to find not only automatic transmission (an option) on our test car but also widely spaced ratios that seemed totally unmatched to the power curve.

“Since the automatic aroused such mixed feelings we ried another car with a manual four-speed box and unassisted steering and came to the conclusion that power steering is a must and a manual box preferable if you drive with pleasure”.

The conclusion came: “It is a combination of virtues that make the 230SL so notable: scarcity, speed, handling, comfort, finish and prestige in one beautiful package. From our own experience its dual personality does not evoke the unievrsal appeal one might expect: it seems to inspire either detached admiration or fanatical love. It is that sort of car”.

Later editions would address the lack of low-down torque while cars with an automatic transmission would be the most sought after – thanks to Pagoda buyers not being interested in driving on the door handles. Instead, they wanted a car that would cruise with the minimum of effort, and a 250SL or 280SL with a slushbox provided exactly that. As Jeremy Clarkson remarked in an old Top Gear programme, it’s not what the Pagoda does that impresses but how it does it. There’s plenty faster, sportier alternatives, but few will give you same feel good factor.

Values and marketplace

Pagoda values started to climb sharply more than two years ago; it was before this that the £100,000 barrier was breached. Now you’ll need at least half this figure to secure a Pagoda that isn’t a liability – and for this money it won’t win any prizes.

The SL Shop’s Sam Bailey comments: “The most affordable Pagoda is a 230SL with a manual gearbox. Good examples start at £50,000 with an equivalent 250SL fetching a similar figure. You’ll pay another £20,000 to buy a worthwhile 280SL though, and even then it won’t be anything special. Perfect examples of any of these cars are now fetching at least £100,000 – in the case of the 280SL you can pay up to £150,000 for something that’s gone through a no-expense-spared restoration”.

It’s clear that some Pagoda enthusiasts are expecting the cars to increase in value even further, as some are now spending around £200,000 on a total rebuild.

Says Bailey: “If a customer wants the very best of everything, this is now the budget they need to set for truly superb paintwork, chrome, interior trim and a complete mechanical overhaul”.

Bailey continues: “There are enough wealthy collectors and enthusiasts out there who accept that properly restoring a Pagoda costs a lot of money, and they’re prepared to pay those high costs. While parts availability from Mercedes and independent specialists is very good, some bits have to be remade or refurbished on a bespoke basis and getting this done properly will never be cheap”.

A point that Bailey makes is that the market is being driven by two types of customer; the enthusiast who wants to use their car and the investor or collector who just wants to own a mint example of the Pagoda. You’ll be doing well to secure a project for less than £25,000. Spend £100,000 on its restoration and you’ll have a really nice car – but not one of the best. As a result you might get your money back, but you probably won’t unless prices really take off – and stay there!

Spend £150,000 on a top restoration instead and you’ll not only have a nicer car, but you’ll stand a greater chance of seeing a good return in years to come.

Whether or not you’ll get all it back in the long term remains to be seen, but with prices having gone particularly crazy over the last few years, they’re bound to level off at some point.

As with any top classic car, interior and exterior colour schemes can affect a Pagoda’s value significantly. Silver with red leather will always be highly popular along with white, but cars with a dark paint scheme and dark interior trim aren’t seen as especially desirable.

SLs with a manual gearbox are also less sought after; such a transmission can knock 10 per cent off a Pagoda’s value.

Bailey concludes: “The 280SL is the model that everybody aims for, but it isn’t necessarily the one you should buy, not least of all because you pay a significant premium for one of these over its predecessors. Many collectors will only buy a 280SL and if you’re aiming to do a significant mileage it’s nice to have the extra power. But the earlier cars with the smaller engines are still superb tourers, especially in 250SL form”.

Improvements

Mercedes did a great job of developing the Pagoda, which is why most modifications are frowned upon. There are very few changes that will be accepted by the majority of buyers, so before buying a modified car or making changes to your own, make sure anything is reversible or you could regret it.

Any changes to the suspension, brakes or engine are unnecessary and any Pagoda on non-standard wheels or tyres is bad news as the car’s dynamics will be adversely affected. However, there are a few modifications that are worth considering. One is the fitment of a wind deflector to reduce buffeting, although modern stereo and security improvements can be worthwhile, if done discreetly.

More significant though is the fitment of a modern six-speed manual gearbox in place of the original transmission, whether that’s a four-speed auto or a four/five-speed manual. The kit of parts to convert from an auto costs £11,500; upgrading the original manual box costs £8750.

These costs are for the parts only; on top of these prices you’ll also have to pay to have the kit fitted. Taller axle ratios from other Merc models is another option. Speak to an SL expert before committing.

Two that got away

While Paul Bracq’s Pagoda design is now seen as a landmark in car design, at the time it wasn’t universally liked. Pininfarina proposed this fixed-roof redesign in 1963, the lines created by Tom Tjaarda. However Mercedes-Benz decided to stick with its own design.

Later on, Mercedes toyed with the idea of a Pagoda fittted with the 6.3-litre V8 more usually seen in the 600 limousine. It’s most likely the car would have proved too much of a handful to go on general sale, although Mercedes would fit this powerplant to its first truly hot saloon, the 300 SEL 6.3, in 1968.

What To Look For

General

  • 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 LHD 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 the latter.
  • All electrical bits are available, but replacing some items is a nightmare. For example, the wiper spindles sit behind the dashboard, which is a part of the car’s structure so it can’t be removed. It’s the same for the capillary tube temperature gauge and heater controls – if these all need replacing you can expect a bill of over £1000 to sort it all out.
  • Check that all four of the functions controlled by the single stalk are working okay; they sometimes don’t. n Check the state of the loom, which may have gone brittle by now – this is especially important if you’re looking at an ex-US car.
  • The MB-Tex material used to trim the cabin is durable, and although seats can sag, restuffing is cheap. Check door card trim for deterioration.
  • The wood trim on the dash top can rot; a fresh set is over £500. Make sure the hood and its frame are intact, because replacing either is costly; a replacement hood is over £1000 while a new frame is £7500 new or £2000-£2500 for a used one.
  • Analyse the hard top if one came with the car, and make sure all its chrome trim is present and in good condition; replacing the whole lot costs well over £3000. It’s a similar story where the grille and bumpers are concerned – replacing all the brightwork costs £6000+. so don’t these items lightly.

Body and chassis

  • The SL’s monocoque can corrode badly and it’s common to find a car that looks presentable but has structural corrosion. 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 probably won’t be able to remove this, you need to make the most thorough checks you can from inside the car, which isn’t easy.
  • Get underneath the car to inspect the floorpans and rear chassis members; they extend the length of each side of the boot floor. Also analyse 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 remove the floorpan covers (if allowed) behind the rear seats, 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.

Engine

  • All W113s feature a straight-six engine, 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.
  • 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 and preferably uprated 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.

Running gear

  • A Pagoda 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 around £1500 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 considerably more direct with it, and it’s also a reliable system. However, you need to check that the steering box isn’t leaking.
  • 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 an average Pagoda; most owners don’t notice the deterioration in their car’s shock absorbers over time.
  • At the rear check the rear driveshafts for wear along with its assortment of U/Js. There’s a cluster of bushes to deteriorate – refrain from ‘poly bushing’ and use M-B standard ones instead.
  • 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.

Three Of A Kind

Alfa Romeo Spider
Alfa Romeo Spider
Much more of a driver’s car than the Pagoda, the Spider features a glorious twin-cam engine, delicious steering and a gorgeous interior to boot. There were four series of the original Spider and it’s the earliest models that are the most sought after as well as the prettiest although an astonishing 30 year life span means there’s a model to suit every budget. Be wary of poor restos though on all; they’re common.
Jaguar E-Type
Jaguar E-Type
One of the most desirable cars ever created, demand for the E-type will never diminish. Six-cylinder cars are the most sought after and the best looking but the V12 is no longer the bargain it once was – and it’s arguably more usable thanks to its larger cabin better brakes and that wonderful engine. Once again though, tarted up cars are not unusual and good ones will command the most over time.
Triumph TR5/TR6
Triumph TR5/TR6
Even though a TR5 is worth around twice as much as a TR6, even the best examples are still worth a fraction of what you’ll pay for an equivalent Pagoda, so it’s a bit of a bargain. For your money you get a smooth straight-six, more than ample performance and excellent practicality, with unrivalled club and specialist support. They’re not anything like as rare or well built of course.

Verdict

The Pagoda has always been desirable and available only to the fortunate few. Elegant, great to drive (if not exactly sporting) and beautifully built, the W113 SL is always going to be extremely easy to covet. However, you need deep pockets to buy a Pagoda and if you undertake a restoration you’ve got to be prepared to put a lot of money into it or you’ll never achieve really good results.

Unfortunately, many owners fail to invest the necessary cash to get top-notch results so there are plenty of average cars out there purporting to be something better than they really are.



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