Mercedes-Benz Pagoda Guide
01 April 2021
There's No Such Thing As a Cheap One
Image and Text by Rhiannon Hughes-Boatman
In the 1950s the Mercedes design department was made up of a motley Cerberus-esque crew comprised of Fredrich Geiger, a typically German, techy, test engineer, Karl Wilfert, the Mercedes born and bred head of car body development, and Bela Barenyi, an Austro-Hungarian, aristocratic, safety-obsessed, bohemian. When Paul Braq arrived from Paris having studied under the infamous and somewhat mad Phillipe Chabonneaux, he injected a French sense of elegance and style into the patent-heavy, technologically driven department. At the time, Mercedes was focused most on stability, but visibility was becoming a defining feature. The “Pagoda” roof, which took inspiration from the concavity of oriental shrines, was a way of adding rigidity to the boundary-pushing, light and airy glasshouse. Early sketches done by Geiger, ever the engineer and stereotypically German, show a general arrangement for a car, liner and symmetrical, with equal proportions and an austere interior. Braq by comparison, like most designers to this day, drew fanciful and exciting designs that were reined in by the strict discipline of the Mercedes-Benz studio. The W113 (230 SL) was essentially a compromise between the two. Composed, symmetrical, with perfect lines and visual tension, its beauty lies in simplicity and refinement. The slender, feminine lines somehow manage to belie the strength and sturdiness of the car’s construction without looking heavy, instead seeming sophisticated and agile. The balance continues on the interior which is neither excessively adorned or bare. They managed to get the perfect level of chrome in an era that was rife with overuse. The diversity of the design team fostered the balance and elegance that the car is so well known for. Nothing needs to be added or taken away; by creating something entirely functional, they managed to also make something perfectly beautiful.
According to a statement from Mercedes-Benz at the time of the Pagoda’s launch: “it was our aim to create a very safe and fast sports car with high performance that despite its sporting characteristics provides a very high degree of travelling comfort.” The result was a perfectly Franco-German, track-bred, tech gilded, boulevardier; equally happy driving the winding back-roads of Switzerland and cruising the beach-front of St. Tropez.
Nowadays, Pagodas are desirable after because of their robust build but delicate design. When new, they were expensive, exclusive, fast and well-built, which now means they’re one of the most aspirational classics. Their versatility and touring car status makes them approachable for all driver skill levels making them even more sought after.
The W113 line is divided into three models, each named by the number that corresponded to the volume of their engine. The 230SL, a sportier and more basic 2.3L, had a production run of 19,831, most of which were manual, and is signified by the engine number 127.981 (found on the nearside of the block). The 250 SL, a 2.5L, had a production run of 5,196 and is signified by the engine number 129.982. Finally, the 280 SL, a more luxurious 2.8L with softer seats and suspension, had a production run of 23,885, most of which were automatic, and is signified by the engine number 130.983. Classic car logic generally states that lower production numbers increases price, but in this case they’re all about the same. Despite their initial entry level vs. luxury designation, 230 and 280 prices remain similar, so focus on the condition of the car and the restoration quality rather than the number on the back. The three engines have almost identical top speeds of around 120mph, but the 250 and 280 have more torque and their M127s have a 7-bearing crank rather than the 230’s 4-bearing crank. The 280 and 250 suit their automatic gearboxes as they’re more geared towards cruising, but the 230’s ZF five speed is better for competing and adds value. Power assisted steering was more reliable and direct, and came with a quicker gear ratio so that option also commands a higher price. Many Pagodas were destined for America and had specific modifications for that market, as values rise many exports are making their way back to Europe. They can make a good project if rust free and from a dry state, but it is worth noting the cost of upgrading to the European specification. American cars had separate sealed-beam headlamps with separate flashing, rubber tipped overriders, lower axle ratio, headrests, side wing reflectors, hazard warning lights, no visor mirror on the passenger side, less chrome trim, often aircon, and from late ‘68 a milder cam. Most Pagodas were sold with hard and soft tops but some were sold with only soft. A special version California Coupe came only with a removable hard top, because let's be honest it never rains in LA, and when it does, everyone has been talking about it for weeks so there’s plenty of warning. The soft top compartment was replaced by a drop down bench creating a desirable 2+2 configuration. It’s worth noting that some European models came with a similar option of a side facing jump seat.
There is no such thing as a cheap Pagoda, a rotten one is extremely costly to repair properly, and already restored ones will be pristine. So with high cost a given, what should you look out for when purchasing? The number one rule is to be diligent in inspection. Because of the high cost of restoration, many examples are superficially shiny but reveal rust under further scrutiny.
Pagodas were robust, with cast aluminium door shells and individually numbered alloy bonnets bootlid, hood cover and door skins. The VIN plate number should match that of the hood frame, hood cover, hard top base and gearbox support. Checking these numbers is a good place to start, but whilst matching numbers can be desirable, so too can a properly restored vehicle. This is where a buyer’s priority comes in. Matching numbers on a rare mid-60s Ferrari is a must, but those high value cars are most at home on Concours lawns where every inch of them is examined with vigor that would make an airport security agent jealous. Pagodas on the other hand are drivable, usable classics. So whilst some may strive for the purity of matching numbers, many would rather sacrifice matching numbers for the possibility of a better running car.
Because the engine blocks are cast iron but the heads are aluminium, Pagoda engines are prone to corrosion if antifreeze levels aren’t maintained. However, if properly looked after, the engines are very durable so expect near instant starting (if not check pipework for rust that may block injectors). Once started, check that the engine warms quickly and that the thermo works because if it’s missing or damaged this may be masking an overheating issue. Overheating could be caused by a number of problems, particularly with the head gaskets which can fail if the car has been idling for long periods or silt up if coolant has been used without corrosion inhibitor. Check for dirty oil, particularly in four speed autos, wherein it should be red. If incorrect, the damage pump is very expensive to rebuild.
The suspension, just like everything else on the car, is robust but if ignored, can be expected to have issues like anything that’s this old. Look for seized splines, worn universal joints, loose belts and worn rubber mounts because the last thing you want in your serene Pagoda is axle noise. On the topic of noise, listen for whining from a worn diff because as with most things on these cars, a rebuild is particularly costly. Stainless steel exhausts are to be avoided as they’re tinny compared to the MB mild steel type. On 230s and 250s, pay special attention to the nipples as they need regular greasing to avoid rapid wear. There’s a theme with this car: shiny on the outside doesn’t mean shiny on the inside, so pay attention to monocoque as it can corrode badly especially in the sills. As shown in the diagram look for rust in the floor pans, rear chassis members, front chassis legs, and the bumper mount.
A good rule of thumb when examining any classic car is to look for consistent panel gaps, these indicate build quality and can speak to accident history. On Pagodas, also check for a smooth spot weld on the front outer to inner wings and an unfilled panel-join seam below headlights. The hoods, both soft and hard, should fit well around the doors and windows and the material on the soft hood should still be supple and flexible. Check for any cosmetic rust around headlights and in wheel arches too.
The Details: Brightwork and Interior
Brightwork, like many other bits on the car, is expensive to replace, so ensure it’s all present and accounted for. The jack and the tool kit are handy to have but because of the car’s prevalence can be picked up second hand. Interior wise, the Mercedes-Benz Tex material is extremely durable, but seat stuffing has been known to diminish over time. As with all convertibles, check the interior for any signs of water damage and pay particular attention to the windscreen-base wood. All the wood trim is prone to rot, so check that and the soft top frame for any damage.
If you’re sensing a theme here, it should only emphasise that diligence is key. A good model is worth the extra pennies because you’ll lose a lot more than that if it isn’t a well maintained or expertly restored example. Repairs on bodywork and the engine are expensive, and there are many poorly restored examples out there to be aware of. However, if chosen well, the Pagoda is a usable versatile car, more practical than many of its competitors and well-supported by a hoard of marque specialists and owners clubs. The pros far outweigh the cons which is reflected in the unparalleled status it holds compared to similarly high-production vehicles.