Gee... why are the choices only limited to a 230SL or 280SL? In point of fact there's the venerable early & late 250SL's which reflect in verying degrees combinations of both.
There are for example, several features of the 280SL I don't like at all --- one piece wheels, for example.. a cost reduction item taken from the sedan's. The US DOT safety items for US export models forced the entire 280SL series to make the accomodating changes to several features ---- interior rear view mirror no longer chromed... no more visor mirror on the passenger side, modifications to the door handles, locks, and window cranks toned down and modified, hardtop handles now stored away instead of remaining with the hard-top, are just some of these changes.
I also don't like the sagging type door pocket on the 280SL's.... nor the all black heater/air control's --- no longer blue, red, clear ones which light up nicely when lights are on (if you've paid attention to the light bulbs inside the control unit). Of course, I also quite prefer the E-type's original toggle switches in the models before the '68's changed them ---- same reason as the 280SL... US Dot rules changed.... covered head light openings, and a host of other cosmetic items that were modified to the detriment of the E-type, imo, in '68 and even more-so beyond '68... of course I prefer the synchro in 1st gear, better seats, & deeper footwells in the later models but preceeding '68's.
I also don't like the side-light's on the later 250SL's and 280SL's which imo,take away from the clean lines ... interupting the visual appeal, and which feature was another of the US DOT safety related changes required.... though Italien export models required side reflectors much earlier... in '66 at least, if not even earlier ... so the Italian importers / dealers had to install the gov't mandated form --- little round ones a'la Fiat's in fact. ... unlit reflectors.
I hate the bumper guards, which were another of the '68 model year mandated US DOT requirements... not required on the '67 model year cars... nor incorporated into the 250SL's until late in the '67 build. I hated them when they were introduced due to the DOT rules in '68 and I hate them now, and if they were something of beauty then they would have endured thru time... but as we all know the public (US & of course Europe's) hated them, & the automobile industry found other ways eventually to meet the DOT rules without these awful looking 'bumper' guards.
The early '67 250SL's incorporated the trunk lights, kept most of or all of the interior cosmetic items that were in the 230SL's, had no sidelights, but made all the major changes in the suspensions and engine compartment, & drive-train that modernized the driving performance and reliability found in the 250SL and 280SL's. Beginning July 12,'67 many of the US Dot changes were incorporated into the 250SL (which were the same as the 280SL's later), and toward the end of the year all the cosmetic changes and other interior features found in the 280SL were incorporated in the 250SL's... except the engine itself.
The 250SL engine was a complete modification of the 230SL's... which didn't add to the hp, but increased the torque slightly...while dramatically improving the high speed reliability.... a factor not quite necessary in the US where speed limits limited long duration high speed's to about 80 - 85 mph ... certainly under 90, 99.999% of the time. The 280SL's displacement was required to achieve the competetively demanded higher hp, but nearly all of this added displacement and hp was for US export models of no added value due to the added smog requirements placed on the US models.... which robbed most of the added displacement's advantage for US export models.... not so for the European models as the smog requirements weren't required. The '67 250SL's didn't have those smog requirements, so the entire model year didn't have to incorporate them... unlike the '68 model year requirements... hence the 280SL engine displacement was to satisfy the increasing revenue from the US export market for Mercedes while also satisfying the European demand for more hp in the competetive market. Net hp at the rear wheels was not that much improved over the 250SL in US export models... improved, but not by the proportion of difference in displacement due to the mandated added smog requirements.
There were many, many other mechanical component design changes that ensued in '65, '66 230SL's and which became standard beyond those years in the 250SL and 280SL series... and many more which began with the 250SL (all around disks, for just one difference) remained constant thru the 280SL series. So... most of the learning done on the 230SL's over the years were modified accordingly by design and introduced into the 250SL... and didn't change with the 280SL.
The 250SL was a transition model year... where-in almost all the mechanical changes were made in the very start of the 250SL's and that were used in the 280SL's... and the cosmetic & DOT required changes were introduced over the course of the 250SL's production in phases after July 12,'67 mfg'ing dates beginning with chassis #2980.
So why is the question limited to the choice of 230SL and 280SL only? Seems like there's a considerable lack of appreciation for the features of the 250SL that in fact have most of the best features of the 230SL, and incorporated most if not all the mechanical changes that went into the later 280SL's, except the engine itself... and left out all the ugly DOT safety mandated requirements that applied to the '68 model year US imports.
If I offended those who really like bumper guards, one piece wheel covers, sagging side pockets, black interior mirrors, black heater control wheels, side marker lights, etc. please don't take it personally... I only intend to illustrate the differences that matter to me.... and why I find the 250SL to be the best of both worlds... my rationalizations.
BTW, all the brightwork changes that made there way into the later '67 250SL's and all 280SL's were due to US DOT safety mandated rules for '68 model years for reflections... and of course these were also cost reductions for Mercedes (chrome plating being relatively more expensive on the items that were formerly brightwork). All of the other interior cosmetic changes made in the 280SL were for cost reduction reasons.... the black heater control wheels for example.... which also improved their long term reliability since the prior ones (colored plastic) were prone to have the little handle break off... and replacement of one of these wheels was an expensive labor proposition (passed on of course to the consumer if they broke after the warrenty period ... and none broke (nearly none) prior to that).... sagging door pockets for another example.
The above reasons (all) are why I hate to see the early (pre July 07'67) 250SL's mfg'ing dated chassis bite the dust. There were only
2979 of these 250SL's made in total prior to introduction of the several mandated US DOT requirements (which went into all production SL's)... out of a total of 5196 250SL's... of which US Export's were only 1761, or ~33%. If that proportion is also true for the pre DOT changed 250SL's (starting with chassis # 2980) on July 12, then there were only 1009 of these 250SL's exported to US... no more than 20% of all 250SL's produced. ...and of all models (230SL's, 250SL's and 280SL's) the pre-2980 Chassis number 250SL's represent only 6% of all W113's built (48,882 total W113's produced).
That 6% of W113's production represents imo, the best of both breeds in one car.
67 250SL US #113-043-10-002163
'02 SL500 Sport