- Best model: 300SL
- Worst model: 450SL
- Budget buy: 380SL
- OK for unleaded?: Yes
- Will it fit in the garage? (mm): L4630 x W1791mm
- Spares situation: Excellent
- DIY ease?: Good aside from electrics
- Club support: Good
- Appreciating asset?: Gradually
- Good buy or good-bye?: Yes, classical not classic?
Subscribe to Classic Motoring Magazine and save over 20%Subscribe NOW
Available at all good newsagents including WHSmith
Supercar status twinned with old school Mercedes durability makes the R107 SL the thinking person’s sports classic!
Pros & Cons
When it comes to real-world affordable cars, none are better engineered than a Seventies or Eighties Mercedes. One of the best was the R107 SL, which was produced at a time when build quality was all; engineers ruled instead of bean counters. However, while everyone clamours for its predecessor (the ‘Pagoda-roofed’ W113), the second generation SL offers everything the older car does – and much better value besides. Although these cars were built up to a standard rather than down to a price, you don’t need the wealth of Bill Gates to buy or run one. Indeed, many of the mechanical components are surprisingly cheap as they’re shared with contemporaryMerc saloons. Simple enough for home maintenance, there’s also a raft of specialists out there, ready to help you keep an SL in fi ne fettle if you’re not so handy with the spanners.
The famous SL bloodline started with the worldchanging 300SL ‘Gullwing’ racer of 1952; by 1954 a road-going edition had been shown and from 1957 a roadster edition had superseded the fi xed-head model. In the meantime, in 1955 the far more affordable 190SL had gone on sale, but from 1963 an all-new design was available; the now hugely sought after W113 SL, nicknamed Pagoda, which lasted until ‘71. When the R107 SL was launched in 1971, few realised that the car would become Mercedes’ longest-lived model ever, lasting a whopping 18 years. Initially there was just a 3.5-litre V8 for European markets, while American buyers got a 4.5-litre V8, both models badged 350SL. However, from 1973 European buyers were also able to buy that larger engine in the 450SL. The oil crisis in 1974 led to Mercedes offering the ‘economy special’ 280SL, but power was back on the menu in 1977, when the 450SLC 5.0 was launched. A stretched 2+2 SL hard-top coupé, the SLC never made much of an impact but can make a great budget buy now. A range-wide facelift in 1980 brought a range of tweaks, the most signifi - cant of which was the arrival of the 380SL and500SL, with the all-alloy V8 that was introduced in the SLC – a model which died in 1981, superseded by the larger S-Class-based SEC.
A further facelift in 1986 brought a front airdam for all models and a new six-cylinder model, the 300SL. The mid-range car was now the 420SL while for US buyers there was a 560SL available. It was these models which would see the R107 generation of SL through until itsdemise in 1989, when the R129 made its debut. After the thick end of two decades in production, 237,287 examples of the R107 SL were made – so there are plenty of them to go round.
The name SL may be short for Sport Light, but this is no sports car. Sure there’s a decent turn of speed when you need it, but the R107 is more of a cruiser than a B-road hot-shot. With a choice of six and eight-cylinder engines offering anywhere 2.8 and 5.6-litres, driving characteristics vary enormously between the different models, while age can make quite a difference too. After all, with a production run of 18 years, the SL evolved over time. Whichever variant you go for there’ll be a torquey motor under the bonnet and an automatic gearbox – there are manual cars about, but they don’t suit the car that well to be honest. Forget that ‘Mercedes Sports’ tag the R107 gained in the 70s – these cars are better suited to graceful touring rather than out and out tearing around. Handling is tidy if antiquated these days with that big low-set steering wheel, and really that’s part of the considerable charm. As we say, it’s a car to take your time in and enjoy the ride as well as the admiration rather than haring around although the car did amazingly well in rallying during the ‘70s. That said this heavyweight doesn’t disgrace itself and straight line speed is still more than respectable across the board. Performance, spanning from just under 190bhp to 240bhp from the straight sixes and V8s isn’t to the detriment of economy where normal driving will coax around 21-22mpg, although this can dip to the mid-teens on hard driven V8s. Expect a 280 to have the same performance as a repmobile off the lights, while the V8s offer GTi-like pace, particularly the 420, 500 and 560s.
As ever with a Mercedes and despite the fact that four and fi ve-speed manuals were available, automatic transmission is tailor made for their touring characteristics and the ride is fi rm yet also a tad fl oaty. Trim levels are typically Teutonic and almost stark in today’s terms, but what it lacks in style the Mercedes makes up for in stamina and sensibility. Despite their sizes, the SL and the SLC (wheelbase lengthened by 14inches) are really a twoseater and an acceptable 2+2 respectively, but luggage space is generous. Incidentally optional rear seats were available but even toddlers will complain over the lack of space in the back! Compared to a Triumph Stag, the Merc feels tougher and better engineered although the Triumph is roomier and perhaps the more distinctive. That the Stag is now compared to the SL is a huge compliment to the German. The Stag had already established itself when the SL arrived in the UK. Autocar’s test of the big V8 350 model concluded that it was more touring than sporting but praised its handling reporting: “The tendency to tail swing and transition to oversteer which used to be experienced with previous SLs, has been eliminated”.
Sam Bailey runs the Worcestershire-based SL Shop, specialising in the R107. The UK’s biggest R107 specialist, Bailey buys and sells more of these cars each year than anybody. He comments: “For a given condition, the rule of thumb says that the newer the car, the more it’s worth, while cars with a manual gearbox don’t fetch as much as otherwise identical autos. The best cars fetch very large premiums while left-hand drive doesn’t seem to make a car worth less – as long as it’s to European spec. However, some left-hand drive SLs in the UK are to US spec, which means they’re fi tted with ugly big bumpers and are strangled by emissions equipment – those are worth less than equivalent UK cars”. According to Bailey, you should expect to pay at least £8000 to securesomething that won’t need signifi cant expenditure in the near future;this nets a 280SL, 350SL, 380SL or 450SL. If you want a really good 300SL, 420SL and 500SL you’ll pay anywhere between £10,000 and £25,000 – potentially even more if it’s a one-owner car with a low mileage.
The SL is one of those cars that doesn’t benefi t from mechanical upgrades; it was so well engineered that improving on the standard product is very diffi cult. Indeed, be suspicious of cars that have been modified, as the suspension and braking systems are excellent in standard form and so are the engines and transmissions. Also be very wary of Sls with non-standard wheels and tyres, as these can easily upset the car’s dynamics. However, audio and security upgrades can be incorporated, while wind defl ectors are very popular too; expect to pay around £200 for one from an outfit such as the SL Shop. The same company can also supply rear seats for £299 in vinyl or £425 in leather, while rear seat belts can be offered too. Choose from a three-point set up for £200 or a four-point option for £400.
What To Look For
- As with all Mercs, a service history is worth its weight in gold, both dealer and independent specialist. There’s plenty of SL around so take your time to vet well rather than snapping anything that comes up.
- The SL may be beautifully engineered, but just like any other steel-bodied classic, rust can cause some major headaches – especially in pre-1977 cars, which were strangely poorly rustproofed. Cars built after 1976 benefi ted from improved rustproofi ng while those made after 1980 featured wax injection of the various cavities. SLs produced from 1986 were also fi tted with wheelarch liners and featured galvanised bodyshells, making them the most durable of the bunch.
- Start by checking the air intakes at the base of the windscreen, which can get clogged up, leading to corrosion of the bulkhead. Repairs are tricky, which is why some cars are bodged or just left; to do the work properly will easily cost £1000 – and that’s if further problems aren’t found once the car has been stripped. The usual giveaway is wet mats in the footwells; your best bet is to unscrew the heater blower’s plasticcover on the bulkhead, which should give you the best view of trouble.
- Continue by looking at the wheelarches, door bottoms and windscreen surround, all of which can corrode. Of more concern though – and more likely to be rusty – are the jacking points and sills. If the latter corrode badly, the car’s structure can be compromised. On pre-1980 cars, take a look at the sub-frame, which can rot badly; replacements are available, but to have a specialist do all the necessary work could easily add up to more than £2000.
- Just about all panels are available fromMercedes, and as pattern panels sometimes don’t fi t very well, it’s worth sticking with the genuine article, even if the costs are sometimes a bit high. Front wings are bolted on while the rears are welded; pay close attention to the state of the bumpers as they’re complicated and expensive to repair.
- All R107s came with a factory-supplied steel hard top, which should have a paint finish that’s well matched to the rest of the car. Make sure it is supplied and fi t it to ensure the colour match is decent – also check that it hasn’t deteriorated while in storage. Finish by checking that the hard top is the one supplied with the car; by removing the roof you’ll be able to see the car’s chassis number stamped below the nearside window.
- A variety of six and eight-cylinder engines were fi tted to the SL over the years. They’re all incredibly strong and will notch up a quarter of a million miles between full rebuilds, as long as the oil is changed regularly – at least every 6000 miles. Failure to renew the oil regularly will inevitably lead to worn camshafts and followers along with timing chains.
- The valve stem seals tend not to be as durable as they typically need to be replaced every 75,000 miles or so. It’s not a big job however; you can expect to pay a specialist around £400 to have the job done. If the work needs doing, expect to see some blue smoke on start up, but then a clean exhaust once the engine starts to warm up. If you’re considering a V8, at around the same time as the stem seals need renewing you can also expect to have to fi t a new set of tappets, which will add another £600 to the bill. Once again it’s the 500SL that’s most likely tosuffer because of the engine’s torque; expect to pay around £1500 for the back axle to be rebuilt, while a fresh set of propshaft couplings will set you back around £350.
- The SL’s steering, brakes and suspension were as well engineered as the rest of the car, so even high-mileages needn’t mean a stack of faults. With many of the components shared with contemporary saloons, most service bits are easy to track down and fairly cheaply.
- All SLs came with power steering – there wasa box rather than a rack. At 80-90,000 miles it can show some wear but this can usually be adjusted out. Or it’s £1500 for a new one.
- All came with a servo and discs all round, while many of the later cars also benefi t from ABS. One thing that’s worth watching out for is pattern pads being fi tted; they tend to rob the brakes of feel, which is why it’s worth fi tting only the genuine article.It’s a similar story with the alloy wheels, as Mercedes used forged parts rather than cast ones.
- Some later SLs came with refi nements such as heated seats and air conditioning, while virtually all cars came with powered windows – some very early examples had winders. What you won’t fi nd is a powered roof, as Mercedes never offered one. There was an aftermarketconversion offered for a while however, by an outfi t called Auto-top – you’re unlikely to fi nd a car that’s fi tted with one of these though.
- On the subject of hoods, you must raise and stow the roof a few times to make sure it’s not damaged and that it seals properly. Some cars never have their roof raised; the hard top either stays on all the time or the car just comes out of the garage when the sun is shining. As a result, the roof can shrink and simply won’t fi t when it’s raised – and if you want a new one fi tted, you shouldn’t expect to have any change from £600-1200.
- Some SLs came with cloth trim, some with leather, while many were supplied with an MB-Tex fi nish. This is Merc’s simulated leather that’s tough and easy to keep clean – it’s also hard to distinguish from genuine hide, so don’t feel short-changed if you have to settle for acar trimmed with this.
- The six-pots were all-alloy and can corrode internally if anti-freeze levels aren’t maintained. Other problems include a silted-up rad, which can affect any model – expect to pay around £200 for a recore. Cars built from 1972 also suffer from problems with the electronic fuel injection – the Bosch KA system used from October 1975 is more reliable and easier to work on.
- Condensation in the distributor cap can lead to poor running of a 300SL; only an original equipment part should be fi tted or trouble is virtually guaranteed. The problem is, a new cap in a Mercedes box costs around £100!
- Manual are best avoided because they’re less pleasant to use and you’ll fi nd it much easier to sell on an auto. However, the three-speed unit fi tted to early cars isn’t great, but the post 1980 four-speeder is much more effi cient and transforms the car. However, the gearbox that arrived in 1986, which is switchable between sport and economy modes is the best.
- Gearboxes rarely give trouble, but because the 500SL’s has to transmit so much torque, a rebuild can be needed after around 150,000 miles – expect to pay around £1500 to have the work done. Pre-1975 cars featured a fl uid flywheel transmission – later boxes had a torque converter. This fl uid fl ywheel could give trouble; if there’s any sign of problems, expect to pay £1500 for things to be put right.
- The rest of the transmission is equally tough, although inter-galactic mileages will take their toll on the back axles and prop couplings.
Three Of A Kind
Chevrolet Corvette C3Buy a Corvette and you’ll automatically get a big and beefy V8 up front; marry this with a lightweight glassfi bre bodyshell and you‘ve got a recipe for some massive performance. Handling is pretty good too fi r a Yank, but if you don’t like the car’s dynamics there are masses of changes you can make to the running gear. You’ll have to settle for left-hand drive however – but you soon get used to sitting on the wrong side.
Triumph StagNow being hailed as the British SL, but that’s only because all the bugbears have been eradicated from the Triumph ‘Snag’. A good one today is a delightful tourer; just like the SL it’s best for sauntering around. Prices are generally trailing the SL and bear in mind that you can also buy a much later German offering. Avoid alienengined Stags as the smart money now goes on originality.
Jaguar XJ-SThe UK’s only other real alternative to the SL, the XJ-S only became a true convertible in the 1990s; previously there was an ungainly-looking SC which still featured framed doors (although are now quite sought after). A much better more usable car once the AJ straight six engines featured as V12 running costs always high. Values are rising but only on good ones – there’s plenty of trash about.
The second-generation SL (third if you count the 190SL and 300SL ‘Gullwing) survived an incredible 18 years – it holds the record for being Mercedes’ longest production span of any car. Despite being introduced at the start of the 1970s, the car still looked fresh the day the last example rolled off the production lines at the end of the 1980s; few other designs could stand such a test of time. Indeed, even now the car looks great; classy and understated with no hint of ostentatiousness. If anything three are too may surviving to consider one a rare classic. So, with relatively low values, peerless build quality, a superb reputation, strong performance and surprising practicality, there must be a catch, surely? Well, no; even the smallest engine offers strong performance, there’s unrivalled parts support from the factory and the SL is fabulously discreet while timelessly stylish. This really could just be the best allround convertible for the summer.
This review has 0 comments - Be the first!
Leave a comment
Keep it polite and on topic. Your email address will not be published. Please do not advertise products, all posts of this nature will be removed. We do not stock or supply any of these products, we independently review these products.