The Mercedes 500SL is a fascinating car for a number of reasons. First of all, I don’t find it a particularly pretty car. This may sound a little negative, but bear with me. When compared to the SLs of old, the R129 SL lost much of the beauty of its predecessors. By the time the R129 was launched in 1989, the German marque was already well known for its world leading automotive engineering and sophistication. You could argue that this SL represents the last of the truly well engineered Mercedes, before the cost cutting measures took hold in the 1990s. And it is this engineering brilliance and sophistication that comes to the fore in the R129.
For me the Mercedes 500SL that I drove screamed engineering prowess, which is the primary attraction of this car. It is a difficult one to explain since cars always speak to the heart. Mention the names Mercedes 190/300SL and Gullwing in the same instance and you immediately think elegance and beauty. They are works of art that touch the soul and invoke a sense of nostalgia for the glory days of car design in the 1950s/60s. The Mercedes 500SL is very different to its predecessors and invokes a rather different emotion. It encompasses power, performance, poise and blistering acceleration in a design that exudes strength and muscularity. And that is what is what I find attractive about this car. Forget elegance and beauty… this is about power.
As I mentioned in the film, the 500SL was a car I first saw on tv growing up in the late 1980s. I remember it being used in American tv shows and it looked amazing. It was usually driven by the rich business owner who turned out to be the bad guy at the end of the episode. As a result I always associated it with wealthy high flyers. It was after all launched towards the end of the 1980s, the era of excess. And the R129 ticked most boxes for those that had the means to own such a potent weapon.
With such features as the big V8 coupled with the 4 speed automatic gearbox, electric memory seats, leather and wood trim, climate control, Bose sound system, driver and passenger airbags, pop-up anti roll bar and electric windows/mirrors and soft top, it was an impressively optioned convertible which still holds up well today.
For a car that is 25 years old, this particular Mercedes 500SL still feels like a potent weapon. The most obvious indicator is that 5.0ltr V8 which growls and snarls very satisfyingly when you blip the throttle. I love my V8s and I have to say the R129 V8 is awesome. It’s acceleration is best described as blistering and exhilarating. The way this thing builds speed is impressive and even more impressive is the way it holds the gears when you floor it. By today’s standards its automatic transmission is old hat, but for me it did not dampen the driving experience one bit. In fact it made it even more enjoyable. The roar from that V8 put a massive grin on my face and I just wanted to keep pulling away and going up through the gears. I wanted to do it again and again. It was so much fun.
The other thought that crossed my mind was how tight the car felt. It might have been 25 years old but it drove superbly. The steering was very satisfying to use, light when you needed it and heavy and responsive at speed. The brakes also brought the car to a swift and controlled stop. The handling also felt balanced and controlled. The R129 looks and feels a short car and with that V8 under the bonnet, it adds to touch of sleeper to the cars image. To the uninitiated the 500SL badge means nothing. Again a touch of sleeper, which I find appealing.
It is not a battleship (that title is reserved for the W140 V12) but it is one fast cruiser that is built for battle. And that is the other thought that entered my head as I drove the SL. It felt like a pocket warship. Functional, powerful and devastating. But lift off the throttle and the convertible becomes a very civilised car indeed. That engine may want to keep on going when you floor it but it is more than happy pottering around at 30mph. Which makes it an easy and comfortable car to live with.
Which brings me back to the beginning. I still don’t find the 500SL an attractive looking car but it is one that attracts me nonetheless. All that engineering, the power and the roar from that V8 make me want one. It is a car for long distance continental dashes making it a perfect AutoBahn cruiser and a superb Bahnstormer.
But is it a bargain Bahnstormer? Yes it is. The fact that this example sold for £3,860 + premium demonstrates it. Yes it is not the range topping 600SL and it did need some tidying up here and there. But for me this Mercedes 500SL represented a lot of car for the money. With the rise in popularity of 1980s classics, the time for the 1990s modern classic is already on the horizon. And the R129 is one to watch. As I said in the film, where else can you find a 5.0ltr V8 long distance cruiser with rocketship performance for under £6,000? I just wish I had the spare cash to throw down on this one.
Thanks to Justin Lazic and the team at Classics Central for their hospitality at their February auction and for the opportunity to drive the Mercedes 500SL.