“PININFARINA, WITH AN EYE ON A POSSIBLE PRODUCTION CONTRACT, SET ABOUT IMPROVING ON WHAT MANY SAW AS THE PERFECTION OF THE ORIGINAL SHAPE”
SHORTLY AFTER THE #W113
SL ROADSTER WAS LAUNCHED IN 1963, PININFARINA BUILT A SOLITARY COUPE VERSION. IT HAS SURVIVED, AND RICHARD TRUESDELL SLEUTHED OUT ITS FASCINATING HISTORY
COACHBUILT CLASSIC Mercedes-Benz 230SL #1963-Pininfarina-Coupe
“THE RED PAINT JOB WAS ONE YOU WOULD FIND ON A USED CAR, AND THE MERCEDES WAS, CHARITABLY, IN LESS THAN CONCOURS CONDITION”
Five decades have been required to write this story. It involves one of the most iconic and best loved Mercedes-Benz models of the post-war era, a famous Italian design house, and one of the best known and most prolific automotive designers of our time.
The car, the 1964 Mercedes-Benz 230SL Pininfarina Coupe, has lived a chequered life, first as an attempt by Pininfarina to present a car to Mercedes-Benz for possible series production, then as a daily driver for West Germany’s answer to Rupert Murdoch, Axel Springer, through a succession of owners – and paint schemes and configurations – and finally to its current keepers, the Hook family, who have owned it since 1997.
Weston Hook worked with one of the world’s foremost Mercedes-Benz restoration experts, Hjeltness Restoration in Southern California, to return it to its original splendour. For this story to make sense, one needs to travel back in time to 1963, when at that year’s Geneva motor show Mercedes-Benz introduced the #Mercedes-Benz-SL-Pagoda-W113
230SL, a replacement for both the 190SL and 300SL. It was an immediate hit and over the course of two increases in engine capacity, for the 250SL and 280SL, 48,912 W113s were produced, of which 19,440 were sold in North America.
The new car caught the attention of the Italian Pininfarina design house, which with an eye on a possible production contract set about improving on what many saw as the perfection of the original Paul Bracq and Béla Barényi shape. Pininfarina assigned the design to a young American, Tom Tjaarda. The son of John Tjaarda, responsible for the design of the aerodynamic 1936 Lincoln Zephyr, he had worked for Ghia before moving to #Pininfarina
in 1962, where his first project was a coupe version of the rear-engined Chevrolet Corvair.
Looking back more than 50 years, here’s what Tjaarda remembers about the development of the fixed-roof version of the 230SL. “The exact date of the Mercedes project I cannot recall, but I think it would be some time in 1963. I remember that it was going to be an attempt by Pininfarina to work together on an important project with Mercedes. The scope was to design a special version of the 230SL in such a way that it could be put into production at the Pininfarina factory. For that reason there were many carry-over components such as the interior fittings, the front end, the headlights and some other elements.
“When working on this design it never crossed my mind that I was putting my stamp on a breakthrough design – we were working on a special version of the 230SL, and so it had to be recognisable as such. I remember starting out from the headlight design and integrating the crease of the fender line so that it looked different but at the same time nothing radical. The side view, and especially the rear, were the parts that set the design off from the production version. It was just enough to make the car look different, and perhaps more ‘Italian’ and more elegant.”
When asked who made the decision to have a fixed-roof coupe configuration, a departure from the removable hardtop of the production version, Tjaarda said those decisions were always made by Sergio Pininfarina and the company’s CEO, Renzo Carli. He said that the prototype was built in-house and constructed over a cut-up 230 SL.
“The basic car was taken apart and the bodywork cut away where we would be doing the modifications,” Tjaarda recalls. “Once I had done the drawings of the modifications, I was no longer involved with the project, and everything just went ahead in the workshop. I was put on another task, and really saw the car only a few times during its construction phase.”
One thing he does remember very clearly was that Pininfarina was keen to approach Mercedes-Benz regarding the possibility of production. “He worked hard to convince the Mercedes-Benz directors to establish a cooperation and set up a production programme in the Pininfarina factory,” Tjaarda reveals. “After numerous attempts, it became clear that this was not going to happen, so the car remained a one off.”
After the car was completed and it was obvious that there was no production potential, it was sold to West German publishing magnate Axel Springer. Over the years the car had a succession of owners, mostly in America, and during the 1980s it became known to Jerry Hjeltness of Hjeltness Restoration at an event in Palm Springs, California. At the time the car was painted black and had a red interior, and wore modern Mercedes- Benz cast aluminum wheels. It was subsequently painted red by its next owner, and the interior was refinished in tan leather, the original colour.
Then in the mid-1990s it caught the attention of Weston Hook, a noted American collector. In the years before buying it in 1997, Weston talked with Jerry several times about acquiring the car for his collection. Jerry had said to Weston, “In red it doesn’t do anything for me.”
A few weeks later Weston called again, telling Jerry he’d bought the car and that it was already accepted for Pebble Beach that year (12 weeks away), as there was a Tom Tjaarda Class, and could Jerry polish it and get it ready for this high-profile classic event? The red paint job was one you would find on a used car, and the Mercedes was, charitably, in less than concours condition, Jerry thought.
When the car arrived at Hjeltness Restoration, Jerry gave Weston an honest appraisal of the situation. “We could try to polish this out, but the paint was bubbling,” he told him. “The underside is painted black, and if the judges lean down and look at the underside they will laugh.”
Initially Weston wanted the car repainted red, but after locating photos of it as exhibited in Paris in 1964, in silver, he decided to have it returned it to its original 1964 configuration. And Jerry thought the car’s lines worked exceptionally well in silver. So with Pebble Beach closing in, all other work at Hjeltness Restoration halted as the crew concentrated on the Pininfarina coupe. Jerry’s son Eric, who works side by side with his father, recalls that the car was completed and ready in just 11 weeks.
Eric explained that the car was not taken back to the original sheet metal, but was sanded down to almost that point. While preparing the car, Eric discovered that when it first came to Pininfarina from the factory, it was finished in white. “There were several levels of paint, black and red, where we prepped the car,” he says. “We also found filler in many places. Don’t forget Michelangelo was a sculptor, also Italian, right? Pininfarina used filler, I am sure.”
Eric also observed that when the car was exhibited in Paris in 1964 it had side marker lights from a Ferrari from that period. “The holes were filled, but it was easy to see the original locations when the body was ‘taken down’ for its new silver paint.”
One of the first things Jerry noticed was that the Mercedes had a Plexiglas windshield, that had been installed before its previous Pebble Beach display. “The restorer at the time, who painted the car red, apparently had broken the windshield during the restoration,” he speculates.
Jerry had a unique solution to the windshield problem. At the time, Chrysler had an advanced design centre in nearby Carlsbad, and Jerry had a friend there. “I had him come over and we pulled a plaster of Paris mould off of the existing Plexiglas windshield – then I had a shop up in Long Beach make a glass windshield.”
Thankfully the interior was mostly correct but the aluminum kick panels, with their fine etchings, were in less than perfect shape. To recreate the kick panels Jerry made a tool to properly duplicate the originals. When looking at the 1964 Paris photos Weston noted a unique licence-plate frame, and insisted Jerry duplicate it, even though it was missing from the car. Jerry told Weston there wasn’t enough time, but as the restoration had gone without major complications, he attempted to replicate the frame, using the 1964 pictures, Weston had. With these photos Jerry was able to get very accurate measurements.
One particular memory from the car’s 1997 Pebble Beach appearance is worth airing. Jerry recalls that someone with a German accent walked up to it and said, “Here’s the car. We thought it was lost.” The German apparently worked for Axel Springer. A week later, he called Hjeltness Restoration and arranged to have the car photographed, and it appeared in 1998 in Auto Bild magazine in Germany.
In the time since its 1997 appearance at Pebble Beach the car has been displayed at a number of events, and is a hit whenever it goes. It remains an enduring legacy to the preservation efforts of Weston Hook, who sadly died eight years ago, leaving his wife, Elona, and son, Russell its custodians. It’s one of the cornerstones of a sizeable collection of cars, and stands at an intersection of Mercedes-Benz, Pininfarina, and a young American designer, Tom Tjaarda, who would leave his mark on more than 80 additional vehicles.
“WHEN THE CAR WAS EXHIBITED IN PARIS IN 1964 IT HAD SIDE MARKER LIGHTS FROM A FERRARI OF THAT PERIOD”
TOP Square tailed #W113
has a good sized boot though the spare reduces space.
ABOVE Fuel filler, normally behind the number place, was moved to inside the boot.
ABOVE LEFT In 1997, at Pebble Beach, Tom Tjaarda was reunited with the car and signed it.
ABOVE The #Mercedes-Benz-230SL
Coupe as seen in Pininfarina’s publicity photos when it was built.
ABOVE RIGHT A slightly later shot – the interior shade is probably distorted in this old print.
ABOVE FAR LEFT Pagoda fascia one of the best looking Mercedes has made.
ABOVE LEFT The classic, original Becker Mexico radio is still in place.
ABOVE This SL was delivered with the optional four-speed automatic.
ABOVE LEFT From this view you can see how slim Pininfarina’s rear pillars are on the #Pagoda
ABOVE FAR LEFT No changes were made to the engine, the 2.3-litre #M127
six producing 148bhp.
TOP LEFT Tan is the original colour, but in the car’s past life the seats have been red.
ABOVE Tom Tjaarda, the American stylist who worked on the Coupe project back in ’1963.
TECHNICAL DATA SPECIFICATIONS #1963
2,306cc, 6-cyl in-line
Power 148bhp @ 5,500rpm
Torque 145lb ft @ 4,200rpm
Transmission 4-speed automatic
Top speed 122mph
Fuel consumption 27.7mpg
Number built 1
All figures from #Mercedes
- Benz , for a standard production 230SL