The Mercedes-Benz R107 SL
In 1971 the first episode of Parkinson aired & the R107 SL was born. Its reign lasted until 1989, when The Simpsons was shown for the first time.
You're a racing driver and CEO who spends most of his time driving across Europe from race to race. You know a thing or two about cars, so much so that you own your own car company. You need something that lives up to the glamor of a Grand Prix, can waft you along autobahns in total comfort, but can also handle the twisting roads in the South of France. It needs to be built to the highest standards possible, as breakdowns simply cannot be tolerated. This was the dilemma that Lotus founder Colin Chapman found himself in during the early 1970's. At that time, there was one clear choice. The Mercedes-Benz R107 SL. This is the car he would later credit as the reason for the Lotus Esprit’s existence.
By Spring 1971, when the R107 came out, it had been nearly two decades since the first SL - that being the 300SL of 1954. By this point the SL-Class had, over the years, built up a reputation. It was already known worldwide that a Mercedes-Benz was the best there was, but the SL? That was the master's masterpiece. Its image was glamorous, expensive, and strong. If Ray-Ban sunglasses were a car, they would be an SL.
They were designed and over-engineered to be at the forefront of what a mass-produced car could be capable of. To give some examples of this, the R107's taillights were ribbed so they would still be visible when covered in snow or mud. It featured the likes of fuel injection, duel climate control, as well as power steering. Even the door lock surrounds, a thing you'll only ever see when the door is open, were finished in chrome. It was safe too, utilising disc brakes, a retractable steering column, a padded dashboard, seat belts, and perhaps most notably, crumple zones front and rear. The car’s safety orientated design stretches further still; the fuel tank was positioned on top of the rear axle rather than behind it. So, if you were rear ended the car wouldn't explode, in the way some other cars of the era would. The windscreen frame was a disguised roll bar. (Something that contributed to the car's long lifespan, allowing it to meet safety standards for many years to follow.) Remember, this was all in 1971, the same year the Morris Marina came out, as well as the self-destructing Ford Pinto in America. Later, headrests which had been optional in early models became standard, as was it the same story with the passenger side door mirror. In 1981, ABS became optional along with a driver’s airbags intended for the European market a year later, in 1982. This diligence towards safety and structural strength gained the R107, the nicknamed of "panzer tank" during development.
At launch, it used the already existing 3.5 litre V8 from other Mercedes-Benz models. That was later upgraded to a 4.5 litre V8 in 1973. Following this, other engine choices also became available. All the way from the 280SL's 2.8 litre in-line six to a 5.0 V8 for the 500SL, which began production along with the 300SL in 1980. Mercedes’ reason for such a wide range of engines was oil prices. Even if there was never such as thing as a 'cheap' SL.
At the beginning of the car's life it cost £5400 for the base model. This was an insane amount of money - you could buy a Ferrari Dino 246 for the same price. With must-have options, the price of owning an SL could easily reach over £6000. Again, to put that into perspective, you could buy a Jaguar E-type at this time for just £2800. On the other hand, you can argue that price is justified when you look at how many of them are still on the road relative to other cars from the same period. Many R107's have outlived their original owners.
Arguably, the most iconic feature this car has though is its looks. It is elegant piece in design, from the thin A-pillars, to its limited use of exterior chrome for the era, and the interior's focus on functional comfort instead of exuberance. The design is aesthetic in a functionally beautiful way. It doesn't shout for your attention but rather appears to be much more secure in itself. It is said that the best car designs incorporate both masculine and feminine ques, and that encapsulates this one well. Its boxy shoulders look muscular, yet the intricate grille and wheels are reminiscent of something much more feminine, like jewellery. The car’s design is chic but doesn’t risk being vulgar. The R107 almost appears to know that the key to being 'cool' is to not try to be cool.
The car had an eighteen-year production span from 1971 to 1989, which saw 237,287 R107's built. It's record for longevity within the Mercedes line up is surpassed only by the G-class W463 at twenty-eight years.
If you're interested in buying one, look out for rust around the wheel arches, jacking points, front wings, floor, sills, and notoriously around the mud flap attachment holes. These cars were extremely well built with thick steel and a high level of diligence paid to construction, but early models are half a century old now. If you're looking at a 1975 or 1976 450SL, be aware that these cars suffered from vapour lock due to the position of the catalytic converter. It is worth either looking for one that's been retrofitted with a newer system or for a 1977-1980 450SL. However, these later 1979 and 1980 450SL's suffered from a problem of their own. The climate control systems on these cars was unreliable, but the problem can be fixed by sourcing a later automatic climate control system for your car. Lastly, 380 SL's made between 1981 and 1983 had timing chain failure issues. However this shouldn't be a problem now as any car which falls into this category that's still on the road today will have had it remedied, otherwise it would have failed long ago.
If you are thinking about buying an R107, do it soon as the price of these cars is quickly accelerating. They might not go the way of previous generation, rarer SL's but there's still a lot of appreciation left in these cars, in the immediate future.