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When Bigger isn’t Better: Pagoda with M100

The elegant Pagoda with the official model name SL was never intended to be a spiritual successor to the legendary Mercedes-Benz 300SL “Gullwing” from the fifties. Yet, when Mercedes-Benz received criticism for the lacking performance of their new Pagoda, they attempted to build a prototype which would undoubtedly see to this shortcoming.

One might well assume that the summer of 1966 must have been unusually hot in the south of Germany, leaving the engineers at Mercedes-Benz feeling rather lightheaded and thus explaining how they overreacted somewhat to this criticism. But then again, the criticism did stem from a very respected and experienced Gentleman, Heinz-Ulrich Wieselmann, who at the time was Chief Editor at the German magazine Auto Motor & Sport. He rightfully noted that across the Atlantic the arms war within muscle cars was intensifying, and as such it is easier to understand why he might have been a little disappointed with Mercedes-Benz’s efforts with their latest and most sporty model which was initially only available with the 2.3- and 2.5-litre engine. Even when the 280SL was launched in 1967, its 170hp was still significantly less than the Gullwing from 13 years earlier, so it’s unlikely it would have satisfied Herr Wieselmann either.

Not many – if any – of Mercedes-Benz’s adverts at the time attempted to make any link between the old and the new SL – despite sharing the same model name, they really didn’t have much in common at all.

The Pagoda SL certainly wasn’t comparable in any form or manner with American muscle, yet it would appear that it was precisely the American approach which inspired Mercedes-Benz when they looked for solutions for a more performance induced SL. They quite simply took their very biggest and most powerful engine, the vast 6.3-litre V8 from the equally vast 600 limousine, and shoehorned it into the engine bay of the comparatively petite SL roadster. The operation included fuel injection, automatic transmission and the whole caboodle – it was frankly a bit of a miracle that I could fit.

The M100 was for several years Mercedes-Benz’s most powerful engine: V8 and 6,3-litres resulted in 250 horsepower and a monumental torque figure of 500 Newton meter.

Truth be told, the bonnet did nonetheless require a larger power bulge than the subtle, long and narrow bulge which the SL normally made do with. But the huge power bulge was justified through 250hp and a torque figure worthy of an ocean crossing tanker! The whole project was overseen by Erich Waxenberger who is no doubt better known for the parallel project of fitting the same M100 powerhouse of an engine in the W109 saloon. Not least because that project evolved into a mass-produced road car which quickly became nothing less than a legend in its own right.

The application of the M100 V8 engine in the W109 saloon became legendary.

In stark contrast, there aren’t many who are aware of the M100-powered SL – naturally because it all ended with the prototype. To put it bluntly, its handling characteristics were horrendous due to the much too big engine. The power was certainly there as intended, but the big V8 lump weighed a hefty 75kg. more than the stock 6-cylinder engine, and this was further amplified by the physical size of the V8 dictating that it needed to be placed unusually far forward in the chassis. All of this led to a very nose-heavy SL and its handling capabilities suffered severely due to this.

Externally there wasn’t much out of the ordinary to be detected other than the bigger and wider power bulge on the bonnet. Yet the 6.3-litre Pagoda was also equipped with a lowered and stiffer suspension setup and a set of Dunlop Racing tyres.

But was it fast? You bet! Understandably, Mercedes-Benz never made any figures officially available for the prototype, but it would have most likely dispatched 0 – 100 km/h (0 – 62 mph) in less than 6 seconds. They also chose to fit sticky Dunlop Racing tyres in an attempt to help matters, and Waxenberger reported of lap times below 11 minutes around the legendary Nürburgring – and that was fast back then. But the front wheels just couldn’t handle all that extra weight on the front axle, and neither could the driver as it was a constant battle between car and driver. Any shortcomings of the suspension of the stock SL were wildly amplified with the big V8 out front.

There simply wasn’t space for the aircondition compressor, so the prototype made do without this luxury.

Having to battle the car like this was of course entirely in contradiction with the original SL concept from 1963. With the 2.3-litre engine it was intended as a comfortable sports tourer offering wind in hair motoring, sufficient power for relaxed driving and of course the usual high level of Mercedes-Benz quality ensuring years and years of carefree enjoyment. And even with the base engine, it was hardly fair calling it a slow car – all of which only got better still with the introduction of the 280SL.

So with that, the wild and uncontrollable M100-engined SL-prototype was slashed and never seen again.

So what’s the moral of the story? Well, quite clearly that bigger, stronger and faster isn’t always better and more fun. Regardless who is attempting to build it.

ViaRETRO bonus information:
I acknowledge that the above moral will most likely prove challenging for many to stomach, so I offer this little treat in compensation: The Spanish publication of Harper’s Bazaar saw fit to use a Pagoda (with a stock 6-cylinder engine I might add…) for one of their photoshoots a while back. I’m not entirely sure what they were trying to achieve, but the Pagoda was complimented by a model called Crystal Renn. Of course, in German “renn” means run – I’ll leave you to contemplate in your own time whether there’s any deeper meaning to be found in this. Regardless, to me at least, this appears to be a much more appealing way of modifying a SL. It is after all quite a delicate, feminine and elegant construction and as such it complements the model perfectly. In fact, I might even argue that it manifests my point of bigger not always being better. What say you?

Photos courtesy of: Mercedes-Benz and Harper’s Bazaar


4 Responses

  1. Niels v

    One could argue that the project was doomed to fail due to the constrains of engine placement.
    Performance wise the pagoda is a tourer and not much sport, the performance is rather lacklustre, a soft cap car.
    I suspect it would have been easier for MB to increase the capacity of the strait six to something like 3.5 ltr and thereby giving it the much needed power instead of the shoehorn v8 treatment

  2. Claus Ebberfeld

    I am pretty sure the original straight six did not possess the potential to be stretched out to that capacity, @niels-v. As you might know there were some issues even when it was enlarged to 2.5 liters and it demanded some further development to reach the 2.8 liters than ended up being the most powerful engine offered in the Pagoda.

    Personally I quite like the character of the Pagoda, both in 230 and 280 form.

  3. Anders Bilidt

    Sometimes less is indeed more…
    I recall driving a 280SL Pagoda with an automatic transmission several years ago now. I was younger then, and if anything had more of an appetite for speed and power than I do now. Even so, I remember finding the 2.8-litre engine perfectly suited for the German roadster. It’s just not the type of car you go roaring around in anyway, so imo you really don’t need more power in the SL than what the stock 6-cylinder engines provide you with. What would be more important for me personally, was finding one with a manual transmission – even if it were just a base 230SL…

  4. Niels V

    @ Claus yep it might have required a new block casting.
    I have had a chance to drive a 280 automatic,
    280 4 speed with a newer rear diff (to keep the overall rev down on the motorway)
    and possibly the most sporty version, the 250 with the 5 speed ZF box (the stiffer 230 suspension, abut more grunt than the 230).
    But still, for me, non of them encourage sprightly driving on a twisty country road, like an old Triumph TR or MG etc. would.
    But I can imagine that the handling of the V8 powered version would have been awfully nose heavy to drive


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