“Nice car, mate,” shouted a worker in a fluorescent vest outside the pub.
“Thanks, sure,” I replied, muttering that it wasn’t my car.
We laughed. He did, because he probably thought I’d stolen it. How else could a 22-year-old girl get around in such luxury? Me, because he didn’t notice the German license plates and therefore didn’t realize I was a passenger.
The perspective from the passenger seat.
It was 1991. Summer had descended on the UK, all of two days of it, and it coincided with a trip from London to Southport and back for a wedding.
The car was a brand new Mercedes 500SL. Silver and absolutely gorgeous. Black leather interior, lowered roof, music, great sound.
What could be better? Well, like being able to drive it, but to no avail. My girlfriend made a promise to her father, and he made sure she knew that no one else was insured. Being German, of course she followed the rules. Looking back, how could I blame her? Or him? Would you let a young man, also an Englishman you barely know, drive your new $200,000 car across the country with your daughter in tow? No, I wouldn’t let him either. I’m surprised he let me get in the car at all and even let me take his daughter.
He was a large man and so he was a good fit in the car. SLs were made for rich people like him. He also fitted a Harley soft tail which he asked me to buy for him as it was cheaper in the UK for some reason. But his confidence didn’t extend to his silver arrow.
But was it comfortable?
We drove all the way to England and back, covering about 700km. That’s a paltry distance for most Australians, but the time it took is not. The norm for any journey in the UK is that for every beautiful minute of highway driving at speeds in excess of 80, 90, 100 miles per hour, there is more often than not ten minutes of standing in a long, rumbling traffic jam. The reason for this is undoubtedly some maniac with a trailer hitch. Or a person who doesn’t understand braking distance.
Sounds awful, doesn’t it? Not at all. After hours in the spacious, slippery passenger seat, I climbed out of it feeling as refreshed as when I first got in. At one point we bumped into another SL, caught in perhaps its third traffic jam of the day. Like Torvil and Dean, we mesmerized our fellow travelers with the dance of our soft-tops opening with electronic synchronization.
On one surprisingly lonely straight, there was a moment of resistance. My willing driver rested his slender foot on the carpet, and we watched 150 mph gain in 20 seconds. I was fascinated.
Thirty-two years later what can we expect?
Those amazingly straight lines and huge proportions still look just as good. However, rich people, such as my ex-girlfriend’s father, have moved on to newer models, and long before there were any problems. So we should be careful, as it’s been about 15-20 years since the smart money left. Such vehicles are never cheap to maintain. So it is mandatory to have a completed logbook. Otherwise, buyers will be looking at a gold plated barrel. Or is it?
Mercedes has over-modded the design of these cars to an unbelievable degree. Remember, these were pre-Kreisler days, before that period of shoddy workmanship and crappy parts that practically robbed the brand of its bulletproof reputation.
For example, the grille slats were made from spare titanium fighter jet engine blades. Incredibly aerodynamic, lighter than plastic but stronger than steel. The soft top features rain gutters that channel water to the rear of the cabin rather than running down the sides. The hard top was made of aluminum and weighed only 33 pounds. It had two, yes, two, reverse gears. The first accelerated the car to over 75 km/h, which was fast enough. The second was 135! Just select “W” for winter mode and you’re off you go. Back.
The car was on the cutting edge of electronic magic.
ABS, traction control, automatic roll bar and automatically adjustable seat belts. The front and rear suspensions were fully independent. While this is the norm today, 32 years ago you would have been unlikely to find any of these things. There were even airbags, which was simply unheard of in those days.
Under the hood was a 5-liter double overhead cam V8 with 32 valves, producing 320 hp or 240 kW and 450 Nm of torque. In its new form it could drive all day at a top speed of 155 mph (250 km/h). It accelerated to 100 km/h in about 6 seconds and to 160 in less than 15 seconds. Not bad for a car that weighed less than 2 tons.
But there are a few things to check.
Before you run to the bank, sell your soul or rob your kids college fund. The pump is not cheap. If you are lucky, the consumption will be 15 liters per 100 km.
For maintenance, only go to the experts. They will cost more than your local handyman, but the benefit is worth it.
Make sure the oil pressure gauge shows 3 most of the time. It may go down to 2 or a little less when hot and idling, but at other times it should be 3. If it’s low while driving, get it back up and keep looking.
Replacing the spark controller for the ECU system can be expensive, so have the ignition serviced regularly and replace the 4 coils and distributors. This will be less expensive.
Oil starvation can cause problems with camshafts as well. Since we are talking about a car with up to 100,000 miles or more, the hoses and lines need to be replaced as they can crack once they are disturbed. If this has not been done before, walk away, you have met a lazy owner.
Transmission fluid should be changed every 60-70k miles. Don’t listen to Merc dealers, they have been told it is not necessary. However, according to long-time owners, this is the best advice for keeping the car in good condition. The oil should not look burnt or brown, if it does, you are back to a lazy owner. I have read that transmission systems can fail at 160,000 miles. You may not have to replace it, or it could just be a problem with the speed sensor. It’s a small plastic part that doesn’t cost too much. If there is even the slightest hint of slipping between gears while driving, take it as a warning. Also, take a ride with the roof down and listen for any extraneous noises from behind.
And the interior?
Any warning lights on the front panel, as you’d expect, indicate a problem. Check the operation of the roof and make sure the fabric is in good condition. It should take less than 20 seconds to extend or retract, and it should fit snugly into its compartment. Check for the presence of a hard top. If there isn’t one, there is no need to worry. They all come with one, no matter what anyone says. It will cost more than $12,000 to $14,000 to replace them. By the way, the hard top only unbolts when the ignition is on.
The convertible bar should work, it will come in handy in a serious accident. If it gets stuck in the raised position, the roof won’t work.
There may be some roll in the steering, which may be caused by worn steering dampers, which are inexpensive to replace. Make sure the disks are not warped and replace the rotors when servicing the brakes, never rotate them.
What to do about rot?
Rust is a less serious problem in Australia, but still check the trunk panels around the battery compartment, the leading edges of the front fenders and the jacking points. The latter are often overlooked as they are covered by plastic protection and owners may not be aware of the problem.
Otherwise, these cars are built to last. If you get a picky owner, it is likely that you have a well-maintained car in front of you.
And finally, the price.
As mentioned, the R129 SL500 in new condition used to cost in excess of $200,000. But today you can buy an excellent car at a price of about 50 thousand dollars with a mileage of less than 100 thousand kilometers on the odometer. For copies with high mileage you can get $35-45 thousand dollars. Interestingly, prices have increased over the last few years. Budget about $2-3k/year for maintenance and you will get a car that will make you look like a rich man, a fat German rich man if that’s what you’re aiming for.