Mercedes-Benz SL: Still playing hard at 60

By David Linklater

Mercedes-Benz SL is 60 years old and still going strong.

The W197 was the racecar that started one of the automotive industry longest-last models. Photo / Supplied
The W197 was the racecar that started one of the automotive industry longest-last models. Photo / Supplied

The Mercedes-Benz SL has been around for a lifetime. A human lifetime, that is, which is a rare thing for a car.

The roadster celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, and it's incredible to think that in all that time there have been only six different production models. Five really, because the latest R231-series was launched only this month.

I shall start not with a dull history but by telling you which SL is my favourite. It's the R107 of 1971-89 and it's for completely superficial reasons.

It's the one I grew up with in movies and television: Steve Austin drove one on The Six Million Dollar Man. So did Jennifer Hart on Hart to Hart.

So, seemingly, did any character with money and taste in any show during that period. In the 1970s and 80s, the SL made more guest appearances on American TV than Charo. It was more talented, too.

That's all entirely appropriate for the SL because it wouldn't exist without the patronage of wealthy, image-conscious Americans.

The SL has its roots in the 300 SL racing car of 1952. The successful competition car was never intended for production, but a highly influential American Mercedes-Benz dealer called Maximilian Hoffman pressed the factory for a roadgoing version of the gullwing-door racing machine. Hoffman was well-known for his sophisticated tastes and ability to predict trends, and the factory listened.

The production 300 SL was launched in 1954 and was an immediate success. More than 85 per cent of production went to America, setting a trend that continued for the next few generations of SL. It might have been a very German car, but it was always made with America in mind.

Mercedes-Benz (and Hoffman, as it happens) always saw the greatest potential for the SL as a roadster. The open-top 190 SL, a baby brother to the 300 SL, was also launched in 1954 and was followed by a drop-top version of the 300 SL in 1957.

From there it was all Henkell and hot-looking cars with outrageous roof designs. The second-generation SL (W113) of 1963 upped the ante on refinement and luxury equipment, but also became known as the 'pagoda' because of its unusual, concave-shape removable hard-top.

The third-generation R107 paid homage to the pagoda with a similarly shaped roof. It also still stands as the longest-running single SL in the model's history: 18 years.

It was the most export-oriented SL of all time and was produced in a very distinctive style for the American market, with later versions wearing modified circular headlights and thick 200mm bumpers to meet crash regulations.

The fourth-generation R129 of 1989 moved even more into the luxury sphere and boasted high-tech features such as a powered folding top, and an automatic roll-bar that popped up (in 0.3 seconds ) to protect the occupants in the event of a crash.

The fifth-generation R230 launched in 2001 was the first SL to be fitted with the Vario folding hard-top - although not the first Mercedes-Benz. The compact SLK roadster pioneered the technology back in 1996.

Nonetheless, the Vario roof was a major step forward for the SL. The previous soft-top had one-button operation but took 30 seconds to lower or raise. The new Vario was just as easy to operate, yet boasted all the advantages of a proper hard-top and completed its operation in a mere 19 seconds.

If you've done your maths you'll have worked out that while the SL racer first appeared 60 years ago, it's only 58 years since the first-generation SL road car. That's okay, we can celebrate in 2014.

- NZ Herald

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