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.”

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