Gear Head Tuesday – The Frenchman Who Designed German Cars: How Mercedes Got The Pagoda Roof

Gear Head

Paul Bracq-MBZ Pagoda

It is supremely ironic given the number of times Germany invaded France over a 70-odd year period (Franco-Prussian War, World War I, World War II) that a Frenchman “invaded” that most German of automakers, Mercedes-Benz – with another “conquest” of a German car builder to follow.


Last week, we covered how Frenchman Paul Bracq, while serving in the French Air Force in Germany, secured a spot for himself as a designer at Mercedes-Benz when his military duty ended. At Mercedes, Bracq penned designs that became the basic design language for the generations of Mercedes-Benz cars to follow. His creations from the 1960s into the 1970s remain a hallmark of Mercedes styling all these years later. It was during this period that Bracq penned the W113 series, the famous “Pagoda” roof SL coupes.

71 Mercedes-Benz 280 SL - rf

The idea behind the design of that roof wasn’t Bracq’s, but actually originated with the head of Safety Engineering, Béla Barényi. The car that it first appeared on was not the W113 series coupes but a safety prototype championed by Barényi.

Barényi may well have been influenced by the tragic events at Le Mans in 1955 when a Mercedes-Benz W196S racer was catapulted into the crowd, killing 88 spectators. Daimler-Benz cancelled its substantial (and virtually unbeatable) racing program at the end of that year, and this seems to have influenced its passenger car product planning from that moment as well.

Barényi originated the idea of building cars with crumple zones and patented the idea in 1956.

In a conversation with Bracq, Barényi sketched out his idea for a compact car with many safety features built in. The sketch included a longitudinally ribbed roof that was intended to add structural strength yet “resting” on thin pillars to aid visibility. Bracq worked up technical drawings of the car and a prototype was built. The car was dubbed “K-55”.

Mercedes K-55

Béla Barényi with the prototype (sans doors) of his K-55 safety car.

Barényi’s idea car was intended to be quite compact in overall dimensions but giving full room to four passengers. It also featured many interchangeable panels. The prototype was about the same size as a VW Beetle but the four passengers enjoyed room comparable to a full size sedan.

After the prototype was built, Mercedes cancelled the K-55 program. Apparently it didn’t proceed far enough to receive the “W” designation given to car programs at Mercedes that did go into production.

It was during this period that the development of the car that would replace both the legendary 300 SL and the 190 SL was underway and Paul Bracq was right in the middle of the development of this car, code named W113.

The W113 shows a lightness of form and excellent proportions. The design has an economy of detail showing how less can be more. It also shows a marked kinship to the other Bracq cars of the period for Mercedes, the W108, W109 and W115 “Senior” and “Junior” sedans. The design language Bracq laid down for these cars became the benchmark that Mercedes designers who followed Bracq would use – and still use – as their design  guidelines today.

W113 full size model 1961

Above: full size W113 model from 1961. The lower side trim hasn’t been extended all the way to the rear nor has the Pagoda been applied to the roof. Below: Bracq sketch at the top, Paul Geiger’s drawing at the bottom left shows the roof near its final form, Bracq’s drawing on the lower right shows the final shape of the roof. The lower trim has yet to be extended all the way to the rear on any of these drawings.

Bracq-Pagoda 3

Early on in the W113 development program, the roofline was more conventional. As the overall project neared completion, at the urging of Barényi and Karl Wilert, who was the head of body engineering and who had hired Bracq,  Bracq added the longitudinal ribs of the K-55 roof  to the roof of the W113. It was a touch that gave the car its defining shape. Shortly after the car’s introduction, the automotive press dubbed the distinctive roof “the Pagoda”. The name stuck. Bracq later said,

“In truth the Pagoda is something of an aerodynamic disaster. The concave roof compromises the Cd figure. But it’s what Wilfert and Béla Barényi wanted. And in terms of image, that unusual roof design was to prove a godsend.”

Bracq’s 230-250-280 SL coupes were such a successful design that it was unchanged except in small details over its eight years of production and these coupes are highly sought after today.

Paul Bracq-Pagoda


Much of this post was adapted from the lengthy and excellently-detailed post about Paul Bracq at Curbside Classic.


Add yours →

  1. I designed my own!!

    Liked by 1 person

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