Sometime soon a lot of successful 50-something women may seek out the 450SL they couldn't have in their teens

Since the 1950s, the glamorous SL had been the Marlene Dietrich of the Daimler-Benz lineup. And like the old torch song, customers found themselves falling in love again with each new model. It was no different in 1972 with the introduction of the 350SL.

The new SL had two internal designations―a formal one for its DB project number R107 and der Panzerwagen―an informal one bestowed by its engineers in honor of the car's 3,600-lb-plus curb weight. While not incredibly porky by today's standards (a new Corvette or a Mustang will come close) it was chubby enough to make a mockery of the SL designation which stood for "sports-leicht," German for "sports-light." Strangely, Mercedes did rally the car with some success, mainly in even heavier SLC (2+2 coupe) form.


More weight also meant it was also considerably less sporting than the outgoing "pagoda roof" 280SL―sort of like a German 1955-57 Thunderbird. The new SL was nevertheless hugely popular for its entire model run with the entire gamut of the well-to-do, from Sheldon the orthodontist to Tina the trophy wife. The SL became a symbol of affluence on TV as well, driven by-you guessed it―trophy wives from "Dallas" to "Dynasty."

In refinement, if not sheer driving pleasure, it was better than its predecessor. The R107's improved rear suspension design meant less drastic camber changes and safer handling at the limits (not that Pamela Ewing or Crystal Carrington were likely to explore those). They were more likely to appreciate the improved integrated air conditioning and the less finicky Bosch electronic fuel injection that replaced mechanical injection in the 1968-71 280SL. Unlike the 280, all U.S. SLs sold through 1989 were automatics.

The R107, when introduced in Europe was available with a 3.5-liter V8 and a 2.8-liter straight six from the previous car. Logically, these were designated the 350SL and the 280SL, respectively. In the U.S., a 4.5-liter V8 was needed to provide adequate power in the face of emission controls. Strangely, these cars were initially designated 350SLs as well. This changed in 1973 when the car got the designation that most people remember-450SL.


The first two years are the most attractive, as these are the only R107 SLs sold in the U.S. with the small bumpers most often seen here on gray market cars. With 190 hp, they would also be the best performing R107 SL until the 1986 model year. Pollution regulations hit Mercedes hard in 1975 and the car lost 10 hp. But there was worse to come. In 1981, Mercedes inserted its new aluminum 3.8-liter V8, which made a paltry 155 hp. As a small consolation, the car got Mercedes's first ABS braking system in 1980.

As usual, the Europeans got the good stuff. The R107 280SL was available with a five-speed manual and the 500SL put out a real 240 hp. A number of these cars slipped through as gray market cars. Their small bumpers and square non-sealed beam headlights give them away. A five-speed SL is always a rarity and if this kind of thing floats your boat, gray market SLs often go very cheap.


However, the usual gray market caveats apply. Look out for homemade safety and emissions modifications and be prepared to use the Internet to find exclusively European parts. It helps if you speak and read German; the books for your car don't exist in this country and may not exist in English anywhere.

The performance joke that the car had become was finally addressed in 1986 with the introduction of the 560SL. The new 5.6-liter aluminum V8 made a healthy 238 hp. Although the new engine added a few pounds up front and aggravated the car's understeer, few buyers noticed or cared. The 560, along with the first two years of production, are generally regarded as the most desirable of the series.

Although there were several powerplant changes, the appearance of the car stayed much the same from 1972 to 1989. The dreaded five-mph bumpers came in 1974, although owing to the SL's generous proportions, they don't look nearly as bad as they did on the BMW 2002 and Datsun 280Z. The 560SL gained a front spoiler and third brake light in 1986 and that was it for appearance changes. Inside, the cars hardly changed at all during their long model run.


The biggest change was the window sticker. These were the glory years for inflation. Too many proctologists and periodontists chasing too few SLs meant escalating prices. A 1972 350SL would set a buyer back about $11,000―by 1989, it was $64,000.

Although strictly a two-seater, the 450SL cabin was a roomy and well-finished place with typical Benz polished Zebrano wood, good quality plastics, large, clear VDO gauges, and a Becker radio with more indecipherable symbols than an Egyptian tomb. With a modicum of care, interiors wear well, especially the seats, which more often than not are covered in a high-quality Mercedes vinyl known as MB-Tex. Although comfortable enough, they are relatively broad and flat. Again, a nod to the car's less-than-sporting pretensions.


Today, the R107 SL has yet to make the jump from used car to collectible. They are currently the cheapest open Mercedes out there and for the most part are easy to live with, although deferred maintenance costs are potentially ruinous. In the long run, a worn-out $4,000 SL will be far more expensive than a nice $13,000 example. That said, it is probably best to avoid 450s equipped with catalytic converters (their heat and location caused frequent vapor locking) and the 380SL. In addition to anemia, the 3.8-liter engine suffered frequent timing chain failures.

Once derided as never-to-be collectibles, I'm not sure they will stay that way. If the Lamborghini Countach was the aspirational car for 15-year-old boys in the early '80s, a red 450SL was the dream car of thousands of 15-year-old girls back then. And while women are still a minority in the collector car hobby, I wouldn't be surprised if some time in the near future, a lot of successful 50-something women decide they want the SL they couldn't have back then. It may already be starting, as nice SLs are beginning to bring high teens at auctions. Not a bad first car for the daughter of Sheldon the orthodontist and Tina the trophy wife.

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