Fifty Years from 1963 230SL to 2013 SL63

Gary Anderson
We often forget, whether driving our treasured classics or the newest products in the Mercedes-Benz showrooms, how much has changed, and yet how much has remained the same over the 50 years since the first 230SL model of the W113 roadster was introduced in 1963.

Fifty Years from 1963 230SL to 2013 SL63
Article and Photographs: Gary Anderson

We often forget, whether driving our treasured classics or the newest products in the Mercedes-Benz showrooms, how much has changed, and yet how much has remained the same over the 50 years since the first 230SL model of the W113 roadster was introduced in 1963. However, all it takes to be reminded of the progress made in automotive development, as well as the connections with tradition, is to place the very latest model next to an excellent original example from the past.

My wife Genie and I made a point of doing exactly that in June while driving from Dallas to Tulsa in a 2013 SL63 AMG that MBUSA had loaned to us, stopping in McKinney, Texas, to compare it to the lovely 230SL proudly owned by Ken and Dee Foster.

The visual contrasts are striking. The minimalist lines and timeless design that Paul Bracq created with the W113 in 1963, even with the European headlamps on the Fosters’ car, have given way to sleek curves, multiple vents, and a powerful profile on the SL63.

However, the styling cues that have carried forward display themselves on a second inspection, starting with the three-pointed star on a single cross bar that forms the grille, an unmistakable statement of the identity of the sports roadster. With two doors, two seats, and a front-engine rear-drive chassis, the overall proportions are similar, though the car has grown over the years to meet changing preferences. These photographs illustrate in more detail the differences and similarities of 50 years of roadster development.

Components in the 2013 SL, like the sideview mirror, have to serve several functions. In addition to reflecting the area next to the car, under the optional carbon fiber trim the remotely adjustable mirror serves as a turn signal and incorporates a blind spot warning.

Today’s cockpit includes information and controls for a variety of advanced functions as well as integrated audio and ventilation systems. The daunting challenge to designers is to maintain elegance while making the overall design as simple and functional as possible.

Examining the interior design completed in 1963, it’s interesting how much has stayed the same. Today, a speedo and tach still dominate the cluster in front of the driver with basic gauges in between, just as in 1963. Back then the radio and ventilation controls were the only elements in the center of the dash and the air conditioner, with separate controls, was a bolt-on option, purchased through and installed by the dealer. This 230SL has the standard  manual transmission, though a new 4-speed automatic with staggered gate was available.

After noting the more imposing size and more curving lines of the 2013 SL, the next point that stands out is the vast difference in bumpers. In 1963, the bumpers were simple bolt-on extensions of the frame, and weren’t considered to be very effective. Ten years later, manufacturers were being challenged to provide bumper protection that not only could survive moderate collisions, but would also provide greater protection to the occupants of the car. Today, the bumpers are visually part of the body lines, but underneath are complex structures designed to absorb much of the initial energy in a collision. 

One aspect that remains visually unchanged is the handling of the top of the car, which is completely hidden under a tonneau cover when it is folded and stowed away. This feature has always been a sleek advantage of the Mercedes roadster design. Though the taillights are now much more complicated, integrating rear warning lights, turn signals, and back-up lights in a smooth design, the same styling cue of the lights set out on the rear corners has been carried forward.

Another identifying feature carried forward with almost no visual differences is the Mercedes-Benz badge in the center of the hood. The three-pointed star below it looks almost exactly the same, but in 2013, the space within the star under the black plastic is used for the car’s forward radar sensors that are part of the Distronic cruise control system. The dramatic  change in design of the hood air intake vents also stands out.

The  most dramatic difference that 50 years of development has brought is under the hood covering the engine compartment. In 1963 there were still many mechanical parts that required attention, such as linkages to be adjusted, wiring to be checked, and fittings to be checked for tightness, so most of the working parts of the engine were fully exposed. The straight-six engine in the W113 was a tight fit in the engine compartment. The single plenum chamber and six ram tubes on the intake manifold were similar in layout to the 300SL. Maintenance points – oil, coolant, brake fluid – could easily be reached but if a component had to be replaced, portions of the engine system like the radiator and intake manifold would have to be removed. 

As the engine systems have become more complicated, with increased capacity and horsepower matched by greater concern for fuel efficiency and emissions controls, electronics have become a dominant aspect of engine design. Likewise, as manufacturing and materials technologies have improved, the longevity of engine systems has been dramatically increased. Oil is routinely changed and ignition timing is adjusted at 3,000-mile intervals in the 1963 engine, while 12,000 miles between service intervals is more typical of the 2013 engine. Consequently, very little of the 2013 engine needs to be accessible, and is covered both for safety and to discourage unwitting intrusion by well-meaning owners.                      

Since the first 230SL, the Mercedes-Benz roadsters have been equipped with a folding top that tucked neatly under a cover behind the tonneau area and owners could – most did – elect to have a dismountable hardtop as well so the car would be suitable for all seasons. The only drawback was that the soft top was most easily folded and stowed by two people, and a winch in the garage was almost essential to install and remove the hardtop.

By contrast, the 2013 SL has a hardtop that folds automatically and stows neatly behind the passenger compartment, providing all the comfort and  convenience of both previous tops in one system.

Wheels, tires, and brakes today are styling elements in and of themselves, while designers in 1963 made an effort to understate their visual impact, hiding everything under a subtle chrome ring and discreet hub cap with the center painted to match the hardtop (or body if the hardtop wasn’t ordered). The 185x70HR14 tires were quite fat for the day, but no one would have anticipated today’s low-profile tires in 255-285mm width, mounted on 18- or 19-inch wheels. The 1963 SL had 10-inch disc brakes in front and drum brakes in the rear, upgraded to discs all around in the SL250. By contrast, 13- to 15-inch disc brakes are required to cope with the power of SLs in 2013.

In 1963, seats were what you sat on, with efforts made simply to make them supportive and comfortable.

Compare that to today’s seats, with self-adjusting bolsters and cushions, heated and ventilated seat squabs, and a system to blow warm air on the back of the neck when motoring with the top down on cool days. Optional two-point seat belts on this car (three-point belts were available in Germany) have long since been replaced by self-tensioning three-point belts.

2013 SL63 AMG
VEHICLE TYPE: 2-seat roadster coupe
Retractable hardtop
Aluminum unibody
ENGINE: 5,461cc direct-injection V-8
Bi-turbo/eco Start/Stop
Aluminum block & head
POWER: 557 hp (Performance Pack) 664 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION: AMG 7-speed Speedshift MCT
SUSPENSION: Wheels:19x9 in front 19x10 in rear
TIRES: ZR19 255/35 front ZR19 285/30 rear
BRAKES: Disc 15.4 in rotor front  14.2 in rotor rear
DIMENSIONS: Length 182.4 in  Width 82.6 in  Curb Weight 4,068 lbs
PERFORMANCE: Top speed 186 mph  Zero-60 4.2 seconds
Fuel efficiency 16/25/19 mpg
1963–1966 W113 230SL
VEHICLE TYPE: 2-seat roadster
Retractable soft top, Removable hardtop
Steel unibody with aluminum doors, hood, and trunk lid
ENGINE: 2,306cc  SOHC fuel-injected I-6 Naturally aspirated
Steel block Aluminum  head
POWER: 170hp 159 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION: 4-speed manual standard 4-speed automatic optional
SUSPENSION: WHEELS: 14x5.5 or 6 in
TIRES: 185HR14 
BRAKES: 10 in disc front, 9 in drum rear
DIMENSIONS: Length 168.8 in Width 69.3 in Curb Weight 2,905 lbs
PERFORMANCE: Top speed 116 mph
Zero-60 11.5 seconds
Fuel efficiency 15–20 mpg
PRICE NEW: $6,500
NOTE: this example is equipped with European-style headlamps