Introduced at the dawn of the Me Decade and lasting all the way through the Greed Decade, the R107-chassis Mercedes-Benz SL became a cultural icon.
Of the many iterations of the Mercedes-Benz SL two-seat roadster, there are those that are performance legends (the 1958-63 300SLs) and those that are renowned for their beauty (the 230/250/ 280SLs of 1963-71), but none was seared into the public conscious more than the version that followed, the R107-chassis SL that was introduced for 1972 and ended up sticking around through the end of the 1980s.
Mercedes-Benz never intended for the R107 to have a two-decade life span. In fact, work on the car's successor began as early as 1974. But events inside and outside of Mercedes-Benz repeatedly postponed the arrival of the next-generation model. When the U.S. government passed the law ushering in Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards in 1975, Mercedes responded with a rush program to develop a small sedan, which became the 190E, and a new SL was no longer a priority. Later in the 1970s, 190E development, along with the face-lift of the W123-chassis E-class, again pushed back the revised SL. Changes late in the gestation of the next-generation (R129) SL further delayed its arrival, keeping the R107 in production some ten years after it was originally slated to depart.
The amazing thing was, the marketplace didn't care. The car changed very little over time, but the older the R107 SL got, the more buyers liked it. It was introduced with a 230-hp, 4.5-liter SOHC V-8 and a three-speed automatic transmission, but emissions and fuel economy considerations eventually left that engine making just 160 hp. An aluminum-block 3.8-liter V-8, which arrived with the 380SL for 1982, had only 155 hp but did get a four-speed automatic. A much more potent 5.6-liter V-8 replaced the smaller engine in 1986, creating the 560SL, and leather finally became standard, as did antilock brakes and a driver's air bag.
So it wasn't improvements to the SL that increased its popularity. Instead, we have to look at the times in which it lived. The '70s, with its rising tide of divorce and focus on personal fulfillment, had been good for the SL. The '80s, however, were even better. As that decade blossomed, it ushered in a new prosperity -- at least for upper-income earners. Wall Street was humming, and conspicuous consumption became fashionable again. No wonder SL sales took off, despite styling that remained unchanged and prices that floated ever upward. Whereas the '72 debut model stickered for $11,000 ($59,707 in today's dollars), by the end of the model run the '89 SL was priced at $64,230 (equal to $117,524 today).
No other car of that era said "success" like a Mercedes convertible. Lincoln and Cadillac were fast becoming yesterday's news, and the boatlike Eldorado and Continental Mark were old-fogey cars by comparison. Most automakers had panicked about feared rollover standards (which never materialized), so the field of competitive convertibles was largely barren. BMW at that time was only beginning to be seen as a prestige brand, but it had no 6-series convertible. At Porsche, the 911 was still a hard-core sports car (as was the 944 to a lesser extent), and the 928 was available only as a coupe.
Fittingly, the SL featured prominently in movies and television. Oil-industry scion Bobby Ewing drove one on Dallas. Jennifer Hart, the female half of a wealthy detective duo, did as well, in Hart to Hart. But the car's true star turn came when Armani-clad Beverly Hills male prostitute Julian Kay, nee Richard Gere, drove his SL top-down along PCH to the strains of Blondie's "Call Me" in the 1980 thriller American Gigolo.
To drive one today -- in our case, a 1980 model in period-perfect brown on brown -- is to be surprised by the narrow, spartan cabin with manual seats, simple Becker AM/FM stereo (with cassette!), and basic controls. The giant black steering wheel has a spongy, crinkly textured rim and is set way up against the dash; it requires plenty of winding, but steering effort is moderate. The canvas top is raised and lowered manually (and you need a tool to unlatch it from the windshield header), and the rear window is plastic. The 4.5-liter V-8 is fairly anemic and is made more so by the three-speed automatic and a very tall final-drive ratio; combine all that with an ultrastrong accelerator return spring and it means that when you glance down at the huge speedometer -- which tops out at 85 mph -- you're probably going slower than you expected.
At the same time, one can't help but be impressed with the overall level of quality and finish, even in a thirty-year-old example. The way the doors snick closed is as impressive today as it must have been back then. The low beltline and the ultrathin pillars make for excellent visibility. Size-wise, the R107 SL seems like a 4/5-scale version of the current car, but it's not a nimble roadster. It's a regal boulevardier that perfectly suited its audience and helped make it the most popular SL of all time. -- Joe Lorio
The Sincerest form of Flattery
The fourth-generation Mercedes SL inspires a particularly fervid (or is it twisted) imitation.
Typically, when a car company introduces a new look, it debuts on the flagship vehicle and then trickles down the lineup. If that were the case with Mercedes, the R129-chassis SL roadster would have been among the first Benzes to feature longtime Mercedes-Benz design chief Bruno Sacco's 1980s rectilinear styling. Instead, the SL got the new styling last, beaten by the S-class (1981), the 190E (1984), and the 300E (1986) sedans. Although Sacco's design language was a full decade old by the time the R129 SL finally arrived for the 1990 model year, the car was still modern and fresh. Ironically, it was the car's uncommonly long gestation period that allowed it to mature into the timeless beauty we see on these pages.
Except that only one of the cars pictured here is actually a Mercedes-Benz SL. It may be hard to imagine now, but the SL was such a sensation when it ultimately hit showrooms that customers were paying huge premiums over its already stratospheric MSRP -- if they could even get on the waiting list. And what happens when people can't get their hands on what they want? Cheap knock-offs materialize.
Look closely at the two roadsters pictured. It's not as easy as you might think to figure out which is the real SL and which is a union between Mercedes and Chrysler so unholy that it makes the orchestrators of the DaimlerChrysler marriage seem worthy of sainthood. Oscar Nunez, the owner of the fake SL, laughs hysterically as he watches Mercedes-Benz collector and multiple-R129-owner Michael Gouleven react to his creation. "I call it the LeMer," Nunez says -- "Mer for Mercedes and Le for Chrysler LeBaron."
The SL was a rolling tribute to engineering, designed to be the first convertible to provide the same level of safety, convenience, and luxury as a closed car. It featured a fully automatic top that opened at the touch of a button. It had seatbelts mounted directly to the seats and a memory function that returned everything to where you left it -- even the electrically adjusted rearview mirror.
The Chrysler LeBaron, for its part, was more of a rolling tribute to chassis flex. Still, there are plenty of similarities here. These two cars have different owners, and although they had never met before our photo shoot, they live within walking distance, ironically directly across the railroad tracks from one another in South Florida. More important, their cars both have 3.0-liter six-cylinder engines. The Mercedes has a 24-valve in-line six powering the rear wheels. The Chrysler uses a transverse V-6 to spin the fronts.
Watching the twin SLs perform simultaneous burnouts -- one with the front wheels, the other with the rears -- was funny enough to create a roar of laughter from drag-strip onlookers loud enough to almost drown out the LeMer's clattery V-6. The laughter stopped abruptly, however, when the boys realized that one of our lovely photo models had a particularly, um, deep laugh.
Yup, it's that easy to fool people. But this pairing of beautiful cars and models illustrates one point: the Mercedes-Benz SL is, and always was, just as much about style as it is about substance. -- Jason Cammisa