If you are looking for a practical roadster with style, fine handling, comfort, reliability and high build quality, the Mercedes-Benz 380SL is the answer. For less than $15,000, nothing touches it in terms of an overall package.
The 380SL is part of the fourth generation of the Mercedes-Benz SLs. Designated the type R107 chassis, it began production in 1971 and was completely different from the 230, 250 and 280SLs (type R113) that it replaced.
The 1981 380SL came to the US market with a 3.8-liter 155-horsepower, all-aluminum overhead V8 mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. Weighing in at 3,560 pounds, and with modest horsepower and spring rates chosen for comfort, it was a less-than-inspiring performer (0 to 60 in 11.5 seconds). Yet in the Mercedes tradition, it imparted a feeling of predictability, even when pushed to its limits.
With proper maintenance, these cars are extremely durable. Rust is seldom a problem on a 380SL, unless it results from shoddy accident repairs. If the tinworm does show up, it will generally be in the front fender area around the headlights and the rear quarter panels near the fender lip. Of course, cars with improper accident repairs should be avoided altogether.
With 1981-83 380SL engines, determine whether the original, weak single-row cam chain has been replaced with the stronger double-row chain. If not, the update to double-row, which must be done, will cost about $3,000. Also, Mercedes-Benz has a standing recall campaign for cracks in the front suspension's lower control arm mounting points. Any authorized dealer will be able to tell you if your car has been properly updated.
While the mechanicals are robust, the interiors deteriorate with prolonged exposure to the sun. Many of the 380SLs we see at auction have cracked dash tops or cheapie dash covers, improperly reupholstered seats and faded gauges. Given the relatively low value of the 380SL, it doesn't make any sense to buy a car with these problems. Spend a little more and get something nice-with 53,200 built, there's no shortage of cars to choose from.
The US 1985 380SLs were delivered with antilock brakes and driver's side airbag as an option, making them more desirable.
If more power is your game, consider the final version of the R107s, the 560SL (1986-89), which offered a 47% increase in power along with a refined suspension. However, these cars cost a few thousand more and 380SL devotees consider the 560SLs to be less well balanced than the smaller-engined cars.
While a 380SL may not provide the country-club swagger that a new, $100,000 SL500 will, it is still a Mercedes SL. Driving one in nice condition marks you as someone who is interested in quality and sophistication, and is pleased to find that combination for $15,000. Just tell your friends you're putting the other $85,000 towards fractional ownership in a Gulfstream IV.