A Vintage 1969 Mercedes 280 SL Roadster

Photos of a 1969 and a 1971 Mercedes Benz 280 SL Roadster are at the bottom of this page.    

Here is some general information about Mercedes Benz SL cars, mostly the 280 SL and other models imported to the USA. Some Mercedes SL's were intended for sale only in Europe and outside North America. A few of these "Euro" version cars were brought to the US by private owners. Euro models are discussed briefly below.

The First SL: The 300SL Gullwing Coupe

The history of SL cars begins with the classic Mercedes 300 SL. Its origins were in the Mercedes race cars of the early 1950's. Known as the Gullwing, when the two doors were swung up along the roof line, the open doors took on the appearance of a seagull in flight.

Gullwing 300 SL

click for larger view

The 300 SL public production car was introduced (along with the smaller 190SL) at the New York Motor Show in 1954. The 300 SL was a Coupe only (unlike the later SL's which could be ordered as Roadster/Coupes with both a soft convertible top and removable hardtop). A good example of a Gullwing 300SL (when it can be found) can sell for well over $250,000. About 1,400 of these rare cars were produced from 1954 until 1957.

The 190SL Roadster

Introduced at the same 1954 New York Motor Show as the Gullwing, the smaller 190 SL Roadster was a soft top convertible with a removable hardtop available as an option. Production began in 1955 and continued until 1963 by which time over 25,000 had been produced. The 190 SL was fitted with a four cylinder inline engine with a capacity of 1897 cubic centimeters.

190 SL


Aside: Why is it Called a "190" SL?

The number designation for many Mercedes cars is related to the size of the engine. If the engine capacity is in cubic centimeters (example, 1897cc of the 190SL), the decimal point is moved one place to the left (189.7) then rounded up to arrive at the 190 designation. With this numbering system, if a decimal point is placed after the first digit of the model number, the result is the approximate engine capacity in liters. This tells us that the 190 SL had an engine capacity of about 1.9 liters.

Another Aside: Why "SL" ?

SL was originally for the German "Sehr Leicht" (Very Light) but when the cars were brought to market, they were referred to as Sport Leicht" (Sport light) since they were not "very" light.

Another question, which is correct "280SL" or "280 SL"? The Mercedes manuals, factory data card, and the model badge on the car all have a space between "280" and "SL" as in "280 SL". (Why do we use both designations on this page? When searching the Internet, some readers leave out the space. We intentionally omit the space in a few places to ensure that this page will be found by Internet searchers.)

The 300 SL Roadster

In March 1957, Mercedes Benz introduced a Roadster version of the Gullwing 300SL. While the Gullwing was quite novel and exciting, potential buyers were put off by the top opening doors, very impractical in a parking lot. The 300 SL Roadster had conventional doors, was a soft top convertible with a removable hardtop as an option.

The 300 SL Roadster, like its Gullwing inspiration, was also a low production car with only about 1,900 cars made between 1957 and 1963. A true collector car, a good condition 300 SL Roadster can command a price in excess of $100,000.

Why Are They Called "Mercedes"

No, Mercedes was not the name of Otto Benz' daughter. In the late 1890's Emil Jellinek, formerly attached to the Consulate of Austro-Hungary, was living in France. He was fascinated by an early French three wheeler and the possibilities of this new mode of transportation. Then he heard about improved cars made by Daimler Motoren in Wurttemburg, Germany.

He went to the factory and in 1897 bought one of the cars. He was an imperious and forceful gent and made certain demands as to performance for the factory to follow if they wanted his order. He soon bought more Daimler's for his friends and in this way became the Daimler dealer in Nice, France.

In 1899, Jellinek entered a custom built Daimler in a race near Nice. Owners often gave pet names to their cars in contests. Jellinek named his entry after his daughter, Mercedes. The Mercedes won its first race.

In about 1900, Jellinek gave Daimler an order for 36 cars but stipulated that his cars must have priority of production and that they all must bear the name "Mercedes". Since this was about 30 percent of the entire year's production, Jellinek's demands were met.

A short while later, the factory decided that the name "Mercedes" was better than "Daimler" for marketing in places like France. So they began using the Mercedes name on all production cars. Mercedes herself died when she was only 40 years old but her name has become forever linked to some of the world's finest cars.

Using The Same Chassis For Several Years

Mercedes Benz designed a chassis (the frame on which the car sits) then built various model cars using the same chassis design over a number of years; ranging from a year or two to 15 years or more. Cars built on the same chassis are very much alike with relatively minor cosmetic and option changes. Cars sharing the same chassis can have different engine sizes over the years. The Chassis for the SL's that followed the 300 SL and the 190 SL in the 1960's was the "W 113" Chassis. 113 Chassis SL's had three different engines over the years and three different model designations.

The 230 SL, 250 SL, and 280 SL Roadsters
The W 113 Chassis SL's

The three Mercedes 113 chassis SL models were: the 230 SL, the 250 SL, and the 280 SL:

  • 230 SL    1963 to 1966    19,741 cars (4,752 were exported to the USA)
  • 250 SL    1966 to 1968      5,196 cars (1,761 to the USA)
  • 280 SL    1967 to 1971     23,885 cars (12,927 to the USA)

These three models all shared the same "W 113" chassis. (The "W" is from "Wagen".) Since a chassis more or less dictates the major design configuration of the cars built on that chassis, these three cars share many features and many parts in common. In parts catalogs, in books, the three cars are usually grouped together. While to the casual observer the three cars appear nearly identical, owners of W 113 cars are very aware of the differences in the three models and are often quite partial to their choice.

113 Roadster

W113 Roadster

Mercedes owners often refer to the chassis number when discussing a car or ordering parts. "I have a 280 SL", one will say. "Which one?" The reply might be "It's a 113." This avoids confusing car models having the same designation that may be years apart and are unrelated. One Mercedes 280 SL (the one we discuss here) is from the late 1960's. Another Mercedes 280 SL is from the mid-1970's. The two cars do not share the same chassis and are quite different. The later 280SL is a 107 chassis car mentioned below.

While German engineering made these cars unmistakably Mercedes Benz products, the elegant yet powerful timeless lines of the 113 SL's were from the pen of a Frenchman, Paul Bracq who designed a number of successful cars including several BMW classics.

The Pagoda Roof

The W 113 SL's (230SL, 250SL, 280SL) are sometimes called "Pagoda" cars. Japanese Style Pagoda This refers to the shape of the hardtop roof. The roof center is slightly lower than the sides reminiscent of the shape of a Japanese Style Pagoda. The sides of the roof were raised a bit to allow easier entry and exit, to permit larger side windows, and to increase roof strength. This same Pagoda roofline was carried into the next generation of SL's, the 107 chassis cars discussed below.

Pagoda Roof

Pagoda Roof with Lower Center

When is an SL a "Roadster"? When is it a "Coupe"?

The Mercedes Benz Owners Manual for the 1971 280 SL refers to a car having only a Soft top as a "Roadster", a car with only the removable Hardtop as a "Coupe", and a car with both the soft and the hardtop as a "Coupe with Roadster Top"". The Owners Manual shows an accent acute over the final "e" (Coupé) to render it as "coo-pay" in the French manner.

The 107 Chassis

The 280 SL of early 1971 was the last of the 113 cars. Next came the W 107 chassis, sometimes referred to as "R 107" for "Reihe" (series). The US models built on the 107 chassis were the 350 SL, 380 SL, 450 SL, and the 560 SL. (One of the European models of the 107 family was a "280 SL". This should not be confused with 280 SL of the earlier 113 chassis.)

Beginning in 1994, Mercedes put the "SL" and other model letter designations such as "CLK, "SLK" in front of the engine size number so now we find "SL600", instead of "600SL".

Another Aside: What do the Model Letters Mean?

Mercedes assigns the letter designation to a model to describe one or more of a car's major characteristics in a general way. Some model letters on older cars from the 1920's and 30's were:
  • "K"     Kurz (German for Short)
  • "L"     Lang (Long)
  • "V"     Vor (Front, engine in front)
  • "H"     Heck (Rear, engine in Rear)
Model letter designations on more modern cars usually mean:
  • "K"     Kompressor
  • "C"     Coupe
  • "S"     Sedan
  • "E"     Einspritzer (fuel injection)
  • "G"     Gelaendewagen (off-road vehicle) or Grand
  • "D"     Diesel
  • "T"     Turbo or Tourer
  • "S"     Sport
  • "L"     Leicht (Light weight)

Mercedes now markets cars according to an assortment of letters to indicate Size, Class, engine type and more. here are some of the letters and their meaning:

  • "A"     Smallest Size
  • "B"     Slightly Larger
  • "C"     Compact
  • "E"     Midsize
  • "S"     Largest Size
  • "CLA"     4 Door small squashed roof
  • "CLS"     4 Door large squashed roof
  • "SLC"     Smaller Roadster was SLK
  • "SL"     Larger Roadster
  • "GLS"     Larger SUV was GL
  • "GLE"     New designation for midsize ML
  • "GLC"     Compact GLK
  • "GLA"     Small Crossover vehicle
  • "c"     Compressed Natural Gas
  • "d"     Diesel
  • "e"     All Electric or Hybrid Electric
  • "f"     Fuel Cell
  • "h"     Hybrid
  • "4Matic"     All-wheel Drive

Back to The 107 Chassis and Its Long Run

The 107 chassis had the longest run of any Mercedes chassis, 18 years from 1971 to 1989. Some 237,000 107 chassis SL's were built. About two thirds were sold in the US. These 107 cars are larger, heavier, and more costly than the previous generation W113 cars.

Mercedes W107 chassis SL

Example of a MERCEDES 107 chassis SL

Prices increased dramatically. The earliest 107, the 1971 350 SL, sold for about $11,000. Eighteen years later, the last 107 model, the 560SL, sold for about $64,000.

Some writers and reviewers have commented that while the 107 engines were larger (3.8 and 4.5 liters compared to 2.8 liters of the last 113 cars), performance was not much improved because of the heavier weight and the US mandated emission fittings.

Production of the first R107 car, the 350 SL, started in November 1970 alongside the last of the W 113 cars. An interesting sidelight is that when the first 350's were exported to the US, because of the strict horsepower robbing emission requirements, the US 350's were shipped with low compression 4.5 liter engines. A Mercedes Benz service person said that when these cars came in for service, his shop replaced 350 SL model badges with 450 SL badges.

450 SL's were produced until 1980. Some 450 SL's suffered from vapor lock and hard re-start because of the position of the catalytic converter. The front and rear bumpers each grew out about 8 inches after 1973 to comply with US safety regulations. Some regard the original shorter bumpers as giving a better look to the car.

Next was the 380 SL built from about 1981 to 1985. The 380 SL was the least powerful of the US imported R107 roadsters. Some of these cars also had a single timing chain which had to be serviced or replaced with a double chain to avoid serious engine problems.

W 107 cars are considered by fans to be among the best looking SL's ever produced, with plenty of power. Some say that while 107 cars may have sacrificed some performance, they gave a more comfortable ride than the previous generation 113 cars.

SL's of the 1990's: The W129 Family

The W107 cars were followed in 1990 by the first W129 chassis SL, the 300 SL. Later in the decade came the 500 SL and the 600 SL. (In 1994, the model designations were changed to SL300, SL500 and SL600.) A new SL arrived in the year 2002. Mercedes referred to it as the Fifth Generation SL.

Detailed Table of Specifications and Production for Mercedes SL cars

Back To The 280SL Roadster

In this abbreviated Mercedes SL history, we return to the W113 280 SL since that is the model we drive.

Here are the annual production figures of the W113 cars for those who want details:

230 SL

  • 1963    1,465 cars
  • 1964    6,911
  • 1965    6,325
  • 1966    4,945
  • 1967       185
  • Total   19,831
250 SL
  • 1966         17 cars
  • 1967    5,177
  • 1968          2
  • Total    5,196
280 SL
  • 1967       143 cars
  • 1968    6,930
  • 1969    8,047
  • 1970    7,735
  • 1971       830     (Short production year ended March 1971)
  • Total   23,885

The W 113 280 SL Roadster was in production from 1967 until 1971. The last model year, 1971, lasted for only 8 months from July 1970 to March 1971 to make way for the W107 series of cars. From 01 January to March 1971 (Calendar Year 1971) eight hundred thirty 280 SL's were made but during the 1971 Model Year about 4,500 1971 Model 280 SL's were made. This ended production of the 113 SL's. The car we currently own is a 1969 280 SL. It was about the 7,000th 280SL produced of a total of nearly 24,000. It left the factory in December 1968 going to a Mercedes dealer in Italy.

The 280 SL has a 2778cc inline 6 cylinder engine (and if you read above carefully, you know why the model number is "280".) The engine has a mechanical Bosch fuel injection system, a single overhead camshaft, and a cast alloy valve cover. A nice safety feature: if the brake fluid gets too low, a red light shows on the dashboard. To save weight, the moveable parts of the exterior: the doors, trunk lid (boot) and hood (bonnet), are all aluminum alloy.

280SL TOPS: Hardtop, Soft Top, No Top

The 280 SL was flexible in its choice of tops: a soft top, a removable hardtop, or both. A car could be ordered with only the removable hardtop and no soft top. If you guessed wrong about the weather and took a drive without the hardtop, you had no protection from the rain. This option was unofficially called the "Californian". 113 cars were not available with a permanently attached hardtop.

We note that in the UK, the soft convertible top is called the "hood". What we call the "hood" in the US is called the "bonnet" in the UK. This gets a little confusing when a US native reads a UK repair manual that says "remove the hood", oops. It would be nice if we spoke the same language.

Euro Cars

Mercedes made two basic variations of cars: one model was for the European and other non-North American markets; the other model was for the North American market. The cars made for outside North America are referred to as "Euro" version cars. The North American market cars are "USA" version cars. The variations were made to accommodate the terrain and type of driving in the intended market area, customer and cultural preferences, and most importantly, to conform with local laws.

A typical 280SL EURO car had no bumper guards, no reflectors or lights on the fenders (cars sold in Italy had front fender reflectors). Euro cars had no Hazard flashers, had stiff door pockets. Euro cars had a mirror in the passenger sunvisor, were fitted with Euro style headlights, had a speedometer in Kilometers, and a temperature gauge in degrees Celsius (except in countries using the English measurement system.)

Euro cars had a slightly different engine cam and some had a slightly different rearend ratio. The Euro cam and the absence of emissions devices gave Euro models a little more horsepower than USA version cars.

Sales in the USA

As Pagoda production continued over the years, a larger percentage of W113 cars were sold in the USA. About 25% of 230 SL's were sold to USA customers; 33% of 250 SL's found their way to the USA; while a whopping 54% of 280 SL's were sold by USA dealers. When compared to their Euro cousins, many more USA cars were fitted with Air Conditioners, Automatic Transmissions,and White Wall tires.

280 SL Transmissions

280SL's came with 4 speed automatic or 4 speed manual shift. All four gears are synchro-meshed. To reduce the engine revolutions at high speed, (4th gear ratio is 1:1) a few cars came with a rare 5 speed manual transmission.

Mercedes Benz and the 280 SL Today

It is nice to know that many parts for these over 30 year old cars are still available from Mercedes Benz. Some parts may be expensive but they are in stock. Another plus is that Mercedes has a Classic Car Center with a US toll free number that answers questions about the older cars and can supply a copy of the original Data Card for every car made showing the original engine and transmission serial numbers, original colors, options that the car came with, and a lot more more information. The US Center can advise on a restoration, and if you've got the bucks (or Deutsch Marks...make that Euros), the Classic Center can carry out a complete restoration.

What it takes to restore a classic 280 SL to perfection.

Considering the time and money that can be spent on these cars, it's good to remember,
"It's only a hobby."

280 SL Performance

The car is designed for touring, an on-the-road car. It can cruise at 100 mph or more (if permitted) for hours at a time in relative comfort. If the car is used for very short trips, started and stopped for grocery runs, it can get a little harder to start and perhaps not purr as smoothly. The solution is the so called "Italian Tune-Up". Take the car out for a 15 minute run at 50 or 60 miles an hour. It will clean itself up and again be ready for action.

With the manual 4 speed transmission, in 4th gear the speed is double the RPM (Revolutions Per Minute) in hundreds. At 3,000 RPM, the speed is 60 MPH. Since the tachometer is red-lined at 6,500 RPM, the indicated top speed is about 130 MPH (210 KPH). The speedometer dial goes to 140 mph (220 on a kilometer dial speedometer). The engine makes about 180 hp (SAE), 170 (DIN). In the original road tests, the 230 SL went from 0 to 60 mph in about 9.5 seconds.

A Word About Engine Size and Performance

The 230SL of the early 1960's had a 2.3 liter engine. The 280SL of a few years later had a 2.8 liter engine. Since it has the larger engine, does a 280SL outperform a 230SL? Engine size is not the only indicator of performance. While the 2.8 engine can produce a few more horsepower than the 2.3, the US 280SL was fitted with horsepower robbing emission devices and a 280SL weighs at least 100 pounds more than a 230SL. Even with the larger engine, the two cars perform about the same.

About Our 1969 280 SL Euro Roadster

The 1969 280 SL pictured below (the car we now own) is Tunis Beige Metallic, a color perhaps inspired by the Sands of the Sahara. The soft top and the Hard Top are also Beige. (The removable Hardtop and the soft top could be ordered in a different color than the body.) Our car has a 4 speed manual transmission found in only about 20% of 280SL's. The car came off the production line in December 1968. It is a EURO version car originally sold in Genoa, Italy. The car came to the USA in the 1980's. It later spent 18 years in Michigan before coming to New York in October 2007.

The interior of the car is "Brown" or "Dark Brown", a good contrast to the lighter Beige exterior especially when the hardtop is off and the soft top is down. (A nice touch in these cars: when the glove box door is opened, a map light (that does not distract the driver) shines down toward the floor through a small window in the glove box door.) This 1969 car has two mahogany wood items: a Nardi shift lever knob and a custom made Mahogany steering wheel; has an automatic antenna, and front fog lights.

In most states of the US, drivers are not permitted to "flash" headlights when they want to pass the car ahead. "Flashing" is customary in Europe. Mercedes built a headlight "Flasher" into the turn signal lever in these cars. The Flasher was disabled on USA cars. In our EURO car, the Flasher is alive so we can "Flash" our way along the highways, if we dare. Actually, we use it just to make our USA car owner friends a little jealous.

A 1971 US Car

The 1971 280 SL shown below (the car we previously owned) is Tobacco Brown (we prefered to call it Bittersweet Chocolate), the soft top was beige, the removable hardtop was the same brown as the body. That car had an optional sideways "Jump" seat behind the two front bucket seats to allow an additional passenger (or the family pet) to sit facing the side of the car.

The interior of the Brown car was "Cognac". The hardtop interior roof liner and the sunvisors were Bamboo color. The car had a custom made wood Nardi steering wheel. Transmission was a 4 speed manual.

Standard features for a 1971 USA 280 SL included (differences for the 1969 EURO car are noted):

  • Four Wheel Disk Brakes with Power Booster
  • Tachometer
  • Wood Console Box between the two front bucket seats
  • Wood Trim on top of dash
  • Soft Map Pocket on each door (Euro car has stiff door pockets)
  • Three Point Seat Belts (Belts in the Euro car were added later)
  • Clock

The windows are manual, no cup holders, no cruise control, no CD player.

Some 1971 USA 280 SL Options included in the pictured car (1969 Euro variations noted):

  • Air Conditioning (The Beige Euro car is not air conditioned)
  • Power Steering
  • Radio: Blaupunkt, Becker, or other. Some with cassette player. (The 1971 car had the original Becker Europa AM/FM radio. The 1969 Euro has a Becker Europa II stereo radio with two side speakers)
  • Headrest for each bucket seat (1969 Euro has no headrests)
  • "Jump" Seat behind bucket seats (No Jump Seat in the 1969 Euro)
  • Two Chrome strips on the Hardtop roof ("Garnish Mouldings"). Not on the Euro car.
  • Heated Hardtop Rear Window (not in the Euro car)
  • Bumper Guards, Front and Rear (Euro cars have no bumper guards)
  • Whitewall Tires (most Euro cars had blackwall tires.)

A Few Details about the 1969 car

Our 1969 280SL has been sold and now resides in Northern New Jersey. It is an unrestored mostly original car with the original engine. Total mileage shown in October 2007 was 64,000 kilometers. Total mileage is not known since the Speedometer shows only 5 digits, and will go around again after only "99999" kilometers or 62,000 miles. The car has the original tire jack, spare wheel cover, and a Mercedes tool kit.

European governments and regulators were not as safety conscious in 1969 as the US Department of Transportation. As a result, EURO cars were not fitted with some features required to be installed on cars exported to the USA. Our 1969 EURO car has no headrests, no bumper guards, seat belts were added later, has stiff door pockets (USA cars have soft door pockets), no side fender markers. The passenger sunvisor has an integrated convenience mirror. The mirror is not found in later USA cars. A EURO style headlight is simpler in design than the USA headlight with its required sealed beam bulb. The photo shows the Beige Euro model car with its Euro headlights.

Our EURO car was not fitted with several emissions control features required on US cars.

EURO cars when found in the US, are popular among classic car buyers today as they are not burdened with some of the mandated horsepower robbing extras found on USA cars. The "cleaner" look and the lack of these emission control features create a strong market for the EURO version of these cars. The trade-off is that the Euro cars may not be as environmentally "green" as the USA version cars.(Caution: this paragraph might be slightly biased since the car we own today is a EURO version. Owners of USA version cars might not agree with some of these comments.)

Our 1969 Mercedes Tunis Beige Metallic 280 SL EURO Model.
Winter View with Hard Top in place.

A Few Details about the 1971 car

The Hamptons, Long Island, New York is now the home of this 280 SL. It is a very original car with the original engine (only 75,000 miles - 120,000km in 2005), original Parts Catalog, Owner's Manual, production data cards, owner's metal service tag, spare wheel cover, and tool set in the original Mercedes Benz snap cloth wrapper, and the key for the manual radio antenna. Some of these items are quite rare and gave special cachet to this particular car.

Our previously owned Tobacco Brown 1971 Mercedes 280 SL US Model

The engine of the 1969 Tunis Beige car for the mechanically curious

Hope you enjoyed this Mercedes SL story.

Send e-mail to rmadison@panix.com  

Folio BZ121714LB749

© Richard Madison 2001-2014

Copyright is claimed for images of the Beige Mercedes and the Brown Mercedes. The Non-claimed images may be the property of others and are used here only for non-commercial purposes.