Well, there are only so many Japanese oddities and exciting exotics one can dig up. Sometimes, you just find a straight-up decent old SL in a sexy shade of blue and it speaks to you. My German was never any good, unfortunately. I studied it for six years in the French school system, where foreign languages, regrettably, are notoriously badly taught. But enough stuck in my head for me to remember “Das ist ein schönes Auto!”
In my experience, foreign language teaching is pretty terrible in several countries besides France. Japan, the US, the UK and Spain are all pretty terrible at it too. Many central European countries excel at it, on the other hand: the average Dutch person is famously able to juggle three or four languages. Once, in Amsterdam, I personally witnessed a guy switching from Dutch to English to German to Italian to French and back to Dutch over a couple of minutes. A very impressive feat. Switzerland is a bit like that too, but without the laid back attitude.
I think the R107 is an equivalent to a polyglot. It was all things to all nations. Well, it was chiefly big profits for the Daimler-Benz and the Bundesrepublik, of course. But Mercedes made these for such a looooong time for a reason: they just couldn’t stop selling them, right up to this “Final Edition” version. The world never reached its R107 saturation point.
Perhaps that is because there seemed to be more than one R107. Compared to the 300 SL of yore, which was just one-car-wows-all, the long-lived R107 divided the world to better conquer it. The Europeans usually got theirs with a straight-6 (as the 280 SL from 1971 to 1985, then the 300 SL for the final years) and the thin chrome bumpers that the car was designed to wear from birth, as well as square composite headlamps. By contrast, the American clientele were thirsty for V8s and got sealed beam quads on their SLs, as well as black botox bumpers after the first few years.
The engine choices made the Euro-spec and US-spec cars very different indeed. Whereas the Europeans could get a V8 if they wanted – their 350 SL had an actual 3.5 litre V8, for instance, unlike the American market 350 SL that has a 4.5, until M-B addressed that little terminological discrepancy. Certain V8 engines were only available for Euro-spec cars, such as the 4.2 and the 5.0, and their power output was pretty impressive. The late-model 500 SLs wrung 245hp out of that big 8-cyl. – not too shabby for a car finishing its second decade.
By contrast, the American R107s were never available with a measly 6-cyl. – given the price these things were sold at, a V8 was an absolute minimum. The big 4.5 was in service throughout the ‘70s, but it really started hitting the gas tank a bit too hard. After the Second Oil Shock, M-B switched to a 3.8 that only provided 204hp for the good people who still wanted one. And it turned out they still wanted one. “Shut up and take my money.” But since 1977, the 240hp European-spec 500 SL (confusingly called 450 SL 5.0 before 1980, perhaps because Mercedes-Benz really had trouble keeping the bootlid badges up to date) was known and some were imported on the grey market, making the locally-sourced 380 SL look even worse than it already was.
Fortunately, in 1986 Mercedes produced an even bigger 5549cc engine out of a very large top hat and shoehorned it in the R107 (actually, it was just the same block as the 500 SL with added stroke). It wasn’t quite as powerful as the Euro-spec 5-litre, but with 227hp (or 231hp, according to Daimler-Benz’s website), it was a marked improvement over the 3.8 that it replaced, though it did make for the heaviest SL ever, too.
Here’s where the multilingual Mercedes magic takes us now. The butter-smooth 5.6 was also made available on two other markets, namely Australia and Japan. In both cases, the Euro-style bumpers and headlamps were used, along with the lighter aluminium bootlid, which has the ugly (according to our Editor, who doesn’t seem to care for these cars much) black plastic rear spoiler. Clearly, the SL’s rear end looks better without that tacked-on plastic, but the verruca-like third brake light imposed on American roadsters was thankfully spared the Japanese and Australian 560 SLs.
The only major difference between those two, as far as I can make out, is that the Australian cars all have RHD, whereas the Japanese were adamant that a fancy foreign car must have its steering wheel on the wrong side, a bizarre quirk that they are slowly starting to evolve from nowadays. So this is essentially an American-spec engine inside a Euro-spec body – quite the bilingual Benz!
The Yanase sticker on the rear windscreen indicates that this SL was definitely imported in Japan from new. Present-day M-Bs are still imported and distributed by this company who, judging by the number of three-pointed stars one sees on the streets of Tokyo, must be doing fantastically well.
If the 560 SL is the ultimate R107, then this last-year Japanese version in this shade of blue might be the nec plus ultra of the breed. This is the one you want, clearly. Biggest engine, best trim and looks, plus that all-important touch of Japanese service: where else would the importer add a parking pole with a tiny Mercedes star as a cherry on the top (or rather the side)? I’m guessing that Yanase are also behind that “Final Edition” script, which seems to have been a Japan-only thing.
Two out of every three R107s ended up in North America, so if you are from there, I can understand that seeing these so much over the years, not to mention the type of people who drove them, may have blunted your appreciation of this design. But it’s been over 30 years since they stopped making these and the design itself is 50 years of age, so it’s a classic no matter how you slice it. And for those of us who only saw these occasionally (and usually sans 5mph bumpers), this particular SL became something of an archetype for sporty Benzes, chiefly thanks to its impressive longevity.
I personally prefer these to the Pagoda, which always looked a bit gawky to me. The R107 and its stretched coupé sister model always looked more poised, solid and luxurious than its predecessor. The R129 that came out just as they were making this very car lacks this generation’s classic good looks, generous chrome and iconic hardtop. So short of spotting a gullwing 300 SL on the street one day (never say never) or perhaps a particularly well-preserved 190 SL (marginally less unlikely), this will probably be the schönest curbside SL to be found in my corner of the world.
Curbside Outtake: 1987 Mercedes-Benz 560SL – Open Your Eyes, by Joseph Dennis
Cohort Outtake: Mercedes-Benz 450SL – The Ultimate Beater?, by Perry Shoar