Curbside Classic: c. 1981 Mercedes-Benz 380SL – The Art Of Aging Gracefully

c. 1981 Mercedes-Benz 380SL

I have been watching quite a few reruns of game shows from the 1970s and ’80s this year.  I have always enjoyed watching vintage television programs in some measure, but since I began working exclusively from home since the middle of this past March, I have tuned into the BUZZR game show cable channel even on my lunch breaks during the week to catch episodes of “Classic Concentration”, hosted by Alex Trebek.  A major key to a contestant’s success on this show was the ability of short-term memory, in addition to a keen sense of phonetics.

Working in the insurance and financial field, I have utilized memorization quite often as a time saver and efficiency measure, and so I like to play along.  Another favorite I like to watch is the Alan Ludden-hosted “Password Plus” which aired starting in the late-’70s.  Words, grammar, and synonyms have long fascinated me, so CC readers of late may not be quite as able anymore to make as fun a drinking game of my prolific use of the word “actually”.  I’m a work in progress.

c. 1981 Mercedes-Benz 380SL

Getting back to memorization, it has happened on a couple of occasions where I’ve recognized contestants from different, earlier game shows.  It made me wonder it some have made this a side job of sorts.  It was fun to recognize one contestant, a gentleman by the first name of Troy, appear on an episode of “Classic Concentration” about four years after he had won a small fortune on “Press Your Luck”.  One lady named Chou Chou cleaned up on “Sale Of The Century” about eight years after she had appeared on “Password Plus”.  It was interesting to see how the appearance of each of these two contestants had changed in the intervening years.  Both Troy and Chou Chou appeared to have aged well by their later appearances, even as their hairstyles and manner of dress had been updated accordingly.

This started me thinking about ways in which I have changed since ten or even five years ago.  Some users of social media participate in a voluntary “Throwback Thursday” game, where one posts a picture of himself or herself from a certain point in the past.  I think it’s great fun, and during quarantine, posting my own flashback pictures has been a fun way to reflect on all the living I have done before the current set of pandemic-related challenges put the (hopefully temporary) kibosh on the Adventures Of Joe Dennis.

c. 1981 Mercedes-Benz 380SL print ad

Our featured 380SL has not aged well, even if its basic styling still holds up.  There was a certain decrepit, “Grey Gardens“-ian quality to this example’s rust, dents, missing bumper guards, and the like.  This isn’t even the first R107 generation of SL in far-less-than-perfect condition that I’ve spotted in my neighborhood, having written about a 450SL a couple of years back.  As with that other example, I wonder what paths this one has trod over the past forty years, as any SL was a high-buck vehicle long before a degree of disposability entered into the picture for modern luxury cars.  Lasting quality seems to have taken a back seat to technological sophistication.

The U.S. market 380SL iteration of the R107 model introduced for ’71 appeared for model years 1981 through ’85, featuring a 3.8L V8 engine with 155 horsepower.  This mill was a smaller version of the 231-horsepower 5.0L V8 available in the rest of the world starting in 1980.  Apparently, and even by the tail end of the so-called malaise era, performance of the 380SL was so uninspiring to some (at about eleven seconds to sixty mph) that a substantial number of buyers resorted to importing the more powerful 500SLs.  I suppose that if one could afford one of these cars in the first place ($39,000 translates to $116,000 dollars in 2020), one might have had extra cash reserves to bring a 500SL over from Europe, extralegally.  I honestly don’t know how that process works, but have read this was legitimately the case with some examples.

c. 1981 Mercedes-Benz 380SL

To put the upper-echelon nature of this Mercedes into perspective, its as-new base price was more than the total, initial principal amount on my home, which is in a building that had been converted to condos around the time this car was new.  The funny thing is that when I had first moved into my place, many of the common areas of my building, with their abundance of beveled, smoke-tinted glass, walls of mirrors, and brass accents, looked like they were straight out of 1981-era episodes of “The Jeffersons” – and I mean this in a good way.  Subsequent attempts to modernize the overall look and feel of the inside of my building have been partially successful and aren’t embarrassing.

The way I look at it, though, one should either totally commit to a complete remodel, or simply deep-clean and refurbish what’s already there, since where style is concerned, what goes around often comes back around.  What has been done to my condo building would be akin to adding big wheels and a monochromatic paint scheme to this 380SL to try to pass it off as a modern-esque car.  No matter.  I love where I live, I love George & Weezy, and I also like this Mercedes, imperfections and all.  Total R107 series production from 1971 through ’89 totaled just over 237,000, of which about 45,000 were 380SLs from their five-year run.  The potent 560SL featuring a 227-hp 5.5L V8 arrived in ’86 to the U.S., a market to which this powerplant was exclusive.

c. 1981 Mercedes-Benz 380SL

I’m trying to think of the most neutral way to express this, but this model seems, to me, to epitomize ’80s excess in a way few other cars of its era can.  Super-expensive, powerful, imported, exclusive… the ultimate status symbol for someone who wanted more of everything.  This is why the condition of this particular car seems like such a spectacular comedown, sitting parked on the curb apart from the other, more plebian vehicles, with its tri-star emblem looking like an upturned nose.  There are few combinations sadder than bourgeois and busted.

I have wrestled with the idea of “more is better” as I seek to entertain myself with buying things while I wait out this current pandemic.  While my finger itches over the “purchase” button on some website for a new-to-me item, I ask myself if the acquisition of a new toy will meaningly improve the quality of my life or prolong it in some way.  Often times, the answer is “no”, but the fact remains that time will keep marching on, regardless of whatever else is going on in the world.  Like this Mercedes, which was born in an era that seems to be remembered principally for its increased emphasis on consumerism, I might as well just keep on functioning, responsibly, as best I can.

Edgewater Glen, Chicago, Illinois.
Sunday, June 21, 2020.