16 December 2011

Benz on the brain

I'm out in Los Angeles for a few days of shooting for Hagerty Classic Car TV, and I've got Mercedes on the brain since we're heading to Irvine today to visit the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center. It's been a while since I've spent a whole lot of time here and one thing I've noticed is that strict emission laws and Cash for Clunkers seem to have significantly thinned the herd of interesting older cars on the road. It's now really uncommon to see blue California license plates from the 1970s, with one possible exception: old Mercedes-Benzes. Their mechanical longevity combined with peerless build quality and the lack of road salt seem to guarantee that they'll be fixtures on the automotive scene here nearly indefinitely.

The most common old Benzes seem to be the R107 SLs known here as the 350/450/380/560 SL. The longest-lived series of SL by far, it was built from 1971-89. The most desirable are probably the first 350/450 SLs with small bumpers followed by the 560SL, which brought real horsepower to the series for the first time. 450 SLs are rather anemic, and the 380, which reverted to a single-row timing chain, lacked the mechanical longevity that Mercedes is famous for. Gray market cars abound from the 1980s, when the dollar was trading at a premium against the Deutsche Mark, and these are a mixed bag. Known primarily as the 280 and 500SL (the former shouldn't be confused with the earlier "pagoda roof SL" from 1968-71) if they left Europe quickly before rust set in, their square Euro headlights and manual transmissions can be a plus.

Prices are all over the place. $4,000-$5,000 is not uncommon for cars with high miles and needs. Best to stay away from these as they'll be the most expensive ones to own in the long run. Nicer cars start over ten grand, and the mid-teens should get something very nice indeed. Even in status-conscious L.A., the R107 has passed from a "couldn't afford the new model" substitute to an appealing semi-classic. They're done depreciating and may even have a mild upside in the future. Not a bad time to have a look at the car that we all remember from shows like "Dallas" and "Dynasty."

Rob Sass is the publisher of Hagerty magazine and the author of the book “Ran When Parked: Advice and Adventures from the Affordable Underbelly of Car Collecting.”

1 Reader Comment

  • 1
    G.W. Hampton Las Vegas, NV. December 29, 2015 at 10:41
    I'm not sure if the author was limited in size for this article but there are a few details that might lead the unknowing person into a false idea of these cars. First, the 350sl and 450SL's were not "anemic". The introduction of EPA regulations in 1974 began to reduce the 220hp the cars came with to 190hp and then to160hp by the 1980 model year. The 380sl was introduced as a single timing chain driving car but that is easily remedied. In fact Mercedes did so in latter models of the 380. The 450SLC 5.0 of 1978 and '79 were the most powerful factory cars at 240hp. They were used successfully in rally racing. There were several differences including aluminum trunk and hoods to reduce weight. These cars are heavy. That "classic clunk" when shutting the door of an old Mercedes comes from the hand stamped STEEL the cars are made from. The r107 is a unibody constrution meaning the frame and body of the car are one. So the most important thing to watch out for is rust! Any rust actually! The introduction of the 500 series in this line brought the 4 speed transmission. However, Mercedes did not use a first gear start. That means that the driver must physically put the shifter in first to get a first gear start. The cars operate in the 2,3, and 4th gear normally. The 560 is the a wonderful car no doubt. It is surprisingly fast and though the numbers for the car (227hp) are considerably less than the 560SEL which ranged from 239-288hp the math just doesn't seem to actually support the 227hp. When measuring all things the car, mathematically, should be producing 276-288hp. But here's the MOST INTERESTING FACT about the 560's that many will not be familiar with: The world was in a recession and MB made the decision to only sell the 560SL in the places that were doing well in 80's: Japan and the U.S.. That means Europe did not see the 560sl at all. They did get other variants like the 300sl (not to be confused with the Gullwing). Finally, any of these cars are near bullet proof mechanically. It is commonly reported that the engines, particularly the cast iron versions that were made through 1980 (Mercedes switched to an all aluminum engine in 1981), do not need a rebuild until over 300,000 miles and many cars log over 1 million miles. In fact for those of us that are proud owners the Mercedes Benz badges that log 250,000km and more on our front grills is a badge of honor!

Join the Discussion