The cars we loved.
The image of wealth and luxury are seldom associated with the same car by a diverse cross-section of the population. Young and old alike often agree that the Mercedes SL series is one of the few cars that come to mind. The SL’s long production cycle spans from the height of the Flower Power era to the commercial breakout of Rap. In each cultural trend the SL managed to be the car of Mr. or Ms. Establishment. From JR Ewing’s choice ride in the 80’s show Dallas to background prop in early rap videos, the SL personified luxury. By the time Richard Gere drove his 280SL in the opening of American Gigolo in 1980, the SL’s reputation was solidly etched in the minds of Americans as the luxury convertible of choice. The rest of the world agreed as sales of the SL series was considerably strong for most of its life.
There were two basic variations of the rear wheel drive R107 (SL code name). The first and most popular, called just the SL was a coupe and convertible. It came with a standard rag top, but could be ordered with a detachable hardtop and fold down rear seats. The other, called the SLC, was a longer wheel base coupe only with an odd-looking twin ‘B’ pillar design. Code named C107, it did not sell as well as the SL and was available from 1971 to 1981. The SLC had the distinction of being one of the most sought after versions in its rare 5.0 500SLC form. It’s fixed roof design and true 2+2 seating was less versatile than the SL, but had considerably more room for anyone wanting to carry more than one passenger.
Both the SL and SLC used the chassis from a mid-sized sedan and the engines of the larger S-Class. The combination of powerful V8s in a smaller chassis equaled a solid heavy car that was almost fun to drive with both luxury and mild sporting pretensions. For a while in the mid 70’s there were inline six cylinder engines offered, but most cars would be one of six V8s that ranged in size from 3.5 to 5.6 liters. Transmissions were smooth shifting 3 and 4 speed automatic and 4 and 5 speed manuals. Like all Mercedes-Benz cars, the design was a slow evolution with very few visible changes. The most high-profile difference was not a change at all. US cars came with big bumpers and a round quad headlight setup, while in Europe cars featured a more modern but less elegant square halogen design. Also like any Mercedes, the SL’s designers paid very close attention to safety, often engineering features well ahead of US crash standards. The crumple zones, fortified gas tanks and air bag technologies seemed like overkill at first, until the engineering had paid off with endorsements from the wealthy and celeberties who swore by their cars safety (usually after drunken crashes made headlines). Mercedes taught the wealthy that performance, style and safety were important in a luxury car. The Germans has started a march toward Cadillac and Lincoln market share that remains part of the domestic auto industries struggle today.
The most powerful standard SL/SLC was the 500 produced from 1980 to 1989. They featured a 240 hp SOHC V8. European cars were more powerful than those destined for North America due to emissions controls, prompting a grey market for some models like the 500SL. A typical 500SL could reach a top speed of 140 mph and do 0 to 60 in 7.4 seconds. Not all that impressive by today’s standards, even when new, the media debated on sports car status for the 3800 lb. coupe. For those who wanted something closer to true sports car status, but from official Mercedes channels, there was always the AMG option. More likely a customized car from the 80’s was modified by Lorinser, Brabus or Carlisson. Many SL fell victim to tasteless customization. Often ground effects kits could often be traced to companies like Lorinser who during the 80’s ground effects add-on craze became one of the dominant kit producers. There were a host of other small companies offered performance enhancements, some not as good as others.
Today the SLC’s classic lines still insight images of luxury and the good life. On occasion one can still be seen in good running condition. A clean well-cared for example from the mid 80’s can still go for $20k or more (more than some newer SL’s from the 90’s and beyond). It would seem that images of luxury reinforced over the years into the popular consciousness are unfazed by modern luxury concepts. Somewhere in the back of our heads there will always be a soft spot for the SL as long as there are reruns on TV to confirm and reinforce our ideas of luxury, even when it’s over 30 years old.