Mercedes SL – Ben Barry drives the 1980s R107 SL

Published: 15 March 2012

They don’t build a new Mercedes SL very often, and at the launch of its latest roadster Mercedes wheeled out beautiful examples of the six models that have emerged over the previous six decades. Then the minders – the people who lovingly care for these cars day after day – simply handed over the keys to random people they hadn’t met before. You could actually see the fear behind their smiles.

As is always the way on press launches, time was tight, and myself and photographer Greg Pajo were in the middle of shooting the new R231-generation SL500 for a feature in the upcoming April issue of CAR. Still, I did manage to sneak away while Pajo was shooting some static shots and bag 15 minutes in a 1980s SL, the R107 in Merc speak.

This SL typified ’80s glitz, regularly starring alongside a pair of shoulder pads on Dallas, Dynasty and Hart-To-Hart, but it also has an enduring appeal that goes way beyond that, and boasts the longest production run of any SL: it was on sale for an incredible 17 years from 1972 to 1989. For me, it’s the model that defines what an SL is and that’s why, when I had to pick one car to give me some context for the 2012 model, this is the one I jumped at.

Visually, there’s very little of a bloodline to be traced to the latest SL: the new car’s slightly gawky headlights do echo the old timer’s square lamps with winged indicators, as do the criss-crossed heater vents in the cabin. Other than that, it’s a bit of a Prince Harry/Prince Charles scenario. You’re related? Really?

Climb in and you sit high on a comfy, plumply padded driver’s seat, the door card of this left-hand drive model feeling incredibly close to your left arm. If you’re accustomed to driving anything even remotely modern, you’ll instinctively reach to adjust the steering wheel: it feels too close to the dash and too low set for my dimensions, but it doesn’t budge. The gearstick feels like quite a long reach forward, and is topped off by a noticeably large shifter.

Turn the key and the 3.0-litre six settles to a contented idle and I move off gingerly, constantly aware that this car has just 33,000 miles on the clock and that it just wouldn’t do to prang it. Bit weird, really, when you think that I’m happy to throw the £100k plus press car about, but there you go. Out on the road, the body control instantly feels incredibly loose, the ride quality awesomely good, the steering lazy and a little stiff. There’s also a beautifully thick, warm note from the exhaust, and a lovely fluffiness to the way the revs build.

I drive up and down the seafront at Marbella, roof down, the warm Mediterranean air gently tickling my forehead, the SL easing its way through the light traffic. It feels like people are having a good look, but I don’t feel ostentatious. It’s incredibly satisfying, and easy to see the appeal of buying a classic SL as a runabout if you live somewhere with consistently good weather: there are plenty of creature comforts in a car of this era, so it fits easily into your life without the compromise that the older cars’ demand, plus you just know that the residuals and the build quality are absolutely rock solid. A quick scan of the classifieds reveals that very clean useable cars start at just over £10k. I’ll have a red one, please.

By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator