SL. Is there anything more evocative than these two letters, set side by side in chrome trim on the rear end of an aged Benz? Evocative of power, lightness, technical prowess and style – that’s the magic of the SL tag. Evocative of parvenu overindulgence, eye-watering expense and gutless engines – that is the other side of the SL… These semi-contradictory features really came together in the third generation of SLs, the R107/C107.
First off, what’s with the model code? Was it W107? Perhaps originally, but Mercedes saw it fit to provide their roadsters with a new “R” prefix from the R107 on. The “C” prefix being for hardtops. And by convention (or because the drop-top came first and/or lasted much longer), this third generation SL is usually called R107/C107. The W107 nametag is an acceptable and widely used substitute, but I’ll avoid that one here to remove a beef patty of confusion from the multi-layered alphanumeric super-sized McBenz meal we’re about to ingest.
Let’s start by a quick gander at the one I found, parked sans license plates in a low-rise part of Bangkok. Whoever just bought (or is trying to sell) this car in Bangkok would fit right into the local traffic with that colour. Asians have a preference for white cars, but bright colours such as this are also quite popular, and the ubiquitous taxis all wear very loud pinks, blues, greens and yellows.
Some have professed their appreciation of yellow Benzes – to each their own. If nothing else, this is a very period colour that works well with the big hardtop shape. It might not be my first choice, certainly in this country. It is a well-known fact that Thai politics are quite heavily colour-coded. One side, the populist centre-left, are “Reds”, the conservative right-wing being the “Yellows.” As a foreigner, one is better off avoiding these colours altogether.
But let’s leave symbols to the symbol-minded and dig a little bit through the SLC’s ancestry and creation. The 107 project was launched in 1965, starting with a variety of approaches for the new ‘70s SL look penned by Paul Bracq, Gérard Cardiet, Giorgio Battistellas and many others. While horizontal headlights were baked in to the car from the beginning, it seems there was more hesitation with the tail design.
The previous generations, as pretty much everybody reading this already knows thanks to this excellent post, started with the legendary 1953-57 300SL “Gullwing” coupé and 1957-63 300SL roadster (W198), which used the W188/189 “Adenauer” 3-litre straight-6. A more affordable and handsome (but reputedly sluggish) 4-cyl. 190SL roadster (W121 B2) joined the 300SL from 1955 to 1963.
Then came the Barényi/Bracq-designed second generation, usually referred as the Pagoda, due to its unusual roof (though I’m not personally aware of any pagodas that share any of that car’s greenhouse design). The W113 Pagoda, made from 1963 to 1971, aimed to replace the two SL platforms with only one, offering a choice of three 6-cyl. engines from 2.3 to 2.8 litres. What it gained in terms of sales (twice more than the 1st generation), it lost in terms of exclusivity.
The Pagoda’s days drew to a close, as did the big W111 coupé / cabriolet’s. A new top-of-the-range W116 saloon – now referred to as the S-Class – was being developed in parallel with the new SL – as a saloon only. The plan was essentially to blend the two-door W111/S-Class and the Pagoda together to make a large, comfortable drop-top and/or coupé, aimed chiefly at the US market. The SL could no longer be restricted to the 2- to 3-litre category. This meant the first SL with a V8.
It also meant quite a bit of cross-pollination, style-wise, between the W116 and the 107 twins. Yet in terms of chassis, the two are quite different: the SL was based on W114 Strich Acht underpinnings, including its new new rear trailing arm suspension (to replace the swing axles) and ball-joint front suspension, both of which also found their way into the W116. Who wore that big-lapel, flared-trouser suit of ‘70s Mercedes grooviness (if that is the word I want) best?
The issue, of course, is that the SL’s development required more than the usual amount of fittings at the tailor. The R107 design was decided upon, after much soul-searching and a few internal arguments, in June 1968: the new SL would be a two-seater soft-top, with an optional Pagoda-style hardtop. The coupé fell through the cracks. Stylistically, the ideas were coalescing towards a minor Mercedes revolution: horizontal headlights, a smaller grille, striated rocker panels and Barényi’s famed safety rear lamps – the new SL was going to break new ground.
It was also going to break the scale. The SL was now a wide, two-tonne personal car – perfectly in keeping with current trends. But trends can turn around. The personal coupé was certainly a trend that Mercedes ought to be a part of, thought some folks in Sindelfingen. One person in particular, Head of body design Karl Wilfert, never forgot about the SL coupé. Under his own authority, Wilfert presented a potential C107 “SLC” coupé at a Board meeting (probably sometime in early 1969). Unavoidably, the method used to make the SLC was unorthodox: the roadster’s platform was stretched by 24 cm, allowing for a pair of (small) rear seats to be added. The R107’s doors stayed as were, and a pillarless coupe roof was added to the ensemble. He had to review his draft a few times, but Wilfert ended up getting the C107 greenlit.
That was not a foregone conclusion. As this Bracq design for a W116-derived SLC (generously provided to yours truly by a Don who shall remain nameless) shows, there was also a consideration that the R107 stretch might not be the best solution to fill the void. The hidden headlamps are a bit too Mercury-esque for my taste, but the car’s proportions are much more harmonious than the C107 that ended up on the production line. And the delayed planning and decision-making meant a delayed introduction: six months after the roadster, the C107 debuted at the big autumn 1971 European car shows.
These new SLs made quite a sensation. Both cars were launched with a 3.5 litre 197 hp V8 — a big departure from the SL tradition, and a welcome one for many. The US version, only available with the de-smogged 190 hp 4.5 litre engine from MY 1972, initially kept the 350SL/SLC badges of the European cars. By 1973, markets outside North America could opt for the 450SL/SLC (4.5 litre V8, 222 hp) or the cheaper 280SL/SLC (2.7 litre straight-6, 182 hp). The SL/SLC range, now fully formed, carried on through the decade with few changes – other than a lot of ponies going missing over the years and across the board. These engines mirrored those also available on the S-Class saloon, making the SL/SLC more closely associated with the range-topping saloon than the previous generation was.
The W116 saloon did propose something that the R107/C107 never has: the 6.9 litre V8 with hydropneumatic suspension. The 6.9 saloon was much faster and even more expensive than the SLs. That, and of course the 600 limo (which might have lasted into the ‘80s with a bit of cosmetic surgery), was the true peak of the range. The SL was just below that – exclusive, but not uncommon, especially in the wealthier parts of the world. Fast, but not especially sporting. Definitely more a W111 successor than a ‘70s Gullwing.
This is especially true of the SLC. There is nothing here that says “take me to a racetrack and let’s show ‘em what we got.” What we have is a relatively portly, solid-looking personal coupé. A cruiser, not a racer. Yet strangely enough, it was the SLC that Mercedes fielded for their new rally car, complete with a new all-alloy 5-litre V8 providing 240 hp (DIN). Unusually for a rally car, the 1977 450SLC 5.0 came with automatic transmission – which did not seem to hamper its success in the slightest. For homologation purposes and/or because that was the plan all along, the 5-litre SLC was offered from model year 1978 in Europe and Japan, but never in North America. Soon renamed 500SLC, the ultimate C107 was provided with (necessary?) spoilers and plastic cladding that did not do the design any favours.
Despite this unexpected sporting success late in life, the SLC was up for the chop. The new generation S-class (W126), to debut in late 1980, was to include a C126 four-seater coupé (above). Much better to switch over to the new platform. The R107 roadster, though, was allowed to continue for another nine years. This is unusual, but one should bear in mind the convertible bodies, in those days, had become rather scarce due to the looming threat of legislation outlawing these types of vehicles. The threat was serious enough that Detroit deleted the body style by 1977. Mercedes therefore had the US market to themselves, along with other imports, while the Sword of Damocles of impending (but never materialized) US safety regulations meant no successor to the R107 until further notice.
Once the threat cleared in the early ‘80s, a new SL roadster could be developed; in the meantime, the R107 was given new engines, including a 3-litre straight-6 – re-establishing the “magic” 300SL nameplate – as well as a US-only 5.6 litre V8, the biggest (but not the most powerful) thing ever put on the platform. The R107 roadster’s exceptional longevity (1971-1989) allowed it to reach unheard-of production numbers: around 237,000 units made. By comparison, less than 2000 of the 1957-63 300SL roadsters were built. The C107 had a shorter life (1972-81), but around 60,000 were made, half of which had the 4.5 litre V8. Additionally, about 2700 of the exclusive 5-litre SLCs found a home (or a palace of some description) from 1978 to 1981.
The Euro/global and the North American SL ranges led parallel lives. American regulations meant that substantial modifications had to be made to all imports – no matter how precious. The sealed-beam headlights, the ginourmous rubber bumpers (after 1973) and the asthmatic engines were the new reality in Mercedes-Benz’s number one market. They didn’t bother offering a manual transmission, either. Half of the SL/SLCs went Stateside, so this somewhat deformed version of the car is, unfortunately, what most people saw at the dealerships. And then they looked at the price.
M-Bs in general and SLs in particular were always pretty expensive. The third generation was no different, especially on the western shores of the pond. Ford took the opportunity to underscore the Benz’s Ferrari-level pricing in a typical ‘60s/‘70s PR product, the “cheeky false comparison” ad. Yes, the German supercar costs six times more than the humble Granada, but it’s not six times better when you look at the specs, is it now, Mr Jones? Let us cherry-pick some data to demonstrate this interesting factoid, blah blah blah…
People aren’t that stupid though. Whoever ordered a Mercedes R107/C107 SL knew they were getting a superbly-built, designed and engineered automobile, as well as one of the safest cars ever made, not some cheap FoMoCo death trap. The guy in the Grenada knew that too. High pricing actually worked in M-B’s favour, adding to the car’s (already immense) snob appeal. In a place like Thailand, where this car was (probably) bought new in 1974, only a few local élites and foreigners could afford a car like this.
The big problem some folks seem to have with the C107’s design is the greenhouse. The (perceived) half-arsed, neither-fish-nor-fowl nature of this car’s B-pillar / venetian blind catastrophuck of a roof section has, to a considerable body of opinion, a detrimental effect on the whole damn car.
The contrarian in me is tempted by an all-out defense of the C107 and of Herr Wilfert’s worthy efferts. The C107 was really the S-Class coupé. Lashings of chrome trim needed to be applied (in chunks!) with abandon on the window frames – there was no other way. The car had to have a pillarless design. Yes, even if that meant actually having a B-pillar in the wrong place. And hiding that fixed rear window with the infamous blinds – artifice, sleight-of-hand or trickery?
As nice as the interior is though, I can’t really defend this car. It is far from being the best design M-B made in the ‘70s, let alone the history of the company. That’s not to say that a normal/Euro-spec model is not a good-looking car, but once you know this SLC was a sort of afterthought, you can’t unsee it. One might put it in the same category as the Jaguar E-Type 2+2 – a botched compromise that may lead to passionate calls of heresy.
The fact remains these things sold very well, in spite of a number of gremlins that affected the car’s image somewhat. This is probably why the R107/C107 is still in a bit of a limbo on the classic car market. A lot of cars still around, but few very good ones exist (especially in non-US-spec). The relatively common nature of the species has kept this car stuck in the “luxury banger” category, alongside the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, the Jaguar XJS, the Citroën SM or the de Tomaso-era Maseratis.
The Benz has a better reputation than most in terms of reliability, but it’s up there in operational costs. If it’s about as much trouble (and as much money) to buy and run any exotic ‘70s/’80s grand tourer, why pick the all-too-common Mercedes? Besides, nobody “good” or “cool” every drives these cars on TV. SLs were standard issue for a range of stock villains: the guilty socialite in Columbo, the drug kingpin in ‘80s cop dramas, the nasty rich bitch, the shady foreigner or the slimy lawyer – they all drove SLs. Them and Bobby Ewing. Not a great crowd, especially since the car really fit the part.
I don’t know if there are that many druglords, wealthy heiresses and high-class murderers in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but there were a lot of SLs. The R107/C107’s main failings, in the end, were its longevity and high sales, which ended up affecting the SL image. The supercar-priced Benz is too common and too portly (or underpowered) to turn heads. I would have relished finding any of the above-mentioned “luxury banger” crowd, but I only photographed this C107 because 1). it had the chrome bumpers, 2). was in good nick and 3). it wasn’t a roadster. Not sure I would have bothered much had one of those three conditions not been there.
But hey, it’s still a 40-plus year old Benz. I wouldn’t throw that 350 SLC away if I were given it. Might give it a coat of something less eye-popping, but still, it’s a nice big S-Class coupé. Which is not a bad thing in and of itself. It just isn’t an SL.
Cohort Outtake: Mercedes-Benz 450SL – The Ultimate Beater?, by Perry Shoar
My Curbside Classic: 1981 Mercedes-Benz 380 SLC — In A Class Of Its Own , by Robert Forrest