Happy Birthday to the R 107 SL

Fifty years ago this month, in April 1971, Mercedes-Benz initiated a new chapter in the fascinating history of the SL sports car: the 350 SL was the brand’s first SL with a V8 engine, and the first model in the R 107 model series to bear the “R” abbreviation for “roadster” for the first time. The completely new two-seater with fully-retractable fabric top and removable hardtop was a sporty but luxurious vehicle, and combined both performance and ride comfort perfectly. In the same year, Mercedes-Benz derived the four-seater SLC coupés of the C 107 model series from the R 107 model series. The R 107 was produced from 1971 to 1989, during which time it was kept up to date with regular facelifts and new engines. With the exception of the G-Class, no other Mercedes-Benz has been produced for longer.

Martin Creaven from Galway is the lucky custodian of this fabulous Lorinser-spec 350SL, which featured on the cover of Retro Classics Magazine in early 2018.

The R 107 joined the ranks of the SL family alongside the 300 SL racing sports car (W 194) from 1952, the 300 SL standard-production sports cars (W 198, as a coupé from 1954 to 1957 and as a roadster from 1957 to 1963), the 190 SL (W 121, 1955 to 1963) and the ‘Pagoda’ SL of the W 113 model series (1963 to 1971). In 2021, the brand with the star is continuing its tradition of SL sports cars by launching the Mercedes-AMG SL in model series R 232.

Technically speaking, the Mercedes-Benz 350 SL launched 5fifty years ago had little to do with its direct predecessor, the W 113 ‘Pagoda’ SL. Instead, the designers forged much closer links to the brand’s current passenger car range of the time: the front and rear suspension systems, for example, were based on the ‘Stroke/8’ saloons, and the 3,499cc V8 engine was a carry-over from the 280 SE 3.5 of the W 111 model series (coupé and cabriolet) and the W 108/109 model series (saloon).

Technical innovations incorporated into the 350 SL included an independent frame-floor unit made of sheets of different thicknesses to provide defined crumple behaviour, the fuel tank installed above the rear axle to protect it in the event of a collision, high-strength steels in the A-pillars and windscreen frame with its glued-in glass, as well as the interior with a new four-spoke safety steering wheel, padded surfaces and deformable elements as a contribution to passive safety. From March 1980, this SL was fitted with ABS brakes and, from January 1982, with the options of a driver’s airbag and seatbelt tensioners.

This fine 1977 450 SL belongs to Peter Crowley from Cork. When we featured it back in February 2018 it had just undergone some restoration work at Prestige Classics in Dublin, and was looking splendid. 

Mercedes-Benz continued to expand the R 107 range during its lire. In 1973, the 450 SL, powered by a larger V8 that had initially been reserved for export to North America, appeared on the European markets. In 1974, the six-cylinder 280 SL version followed. For the first time in the history of the SL, this meant that a model series was now available with a choice of three different engines. As a result of the 1980 facelift, the 380 SL replaced the 350 SL while the 500 SL took over the position as the top model in place of the 450 SL. As part of the extensive overhaul, the interior was adapted to match the 126-series S-Class saloons, the engineers upgraded numerous technical items including the transmission, and externally a few discreet improvements included new bonnets made of light alloy and a front spoiler. The 500 SL was also fitted with the light-alloy boot lid with a black plastic spoiler from the SLC Coupé with the 5-litre V8 engine.

In 1985, Mercedes-Benz once again presented a completely revised model range for the R 107 model series. Besides slight changes to the exterior with 15-inch wheels and a uniform front spoiler for all the models, as well as improved front suspension with zero scrub radius, the main focus was on an updated choice of engines. A highlight was the 300 SL with a 3-litre six-cylinder engine, as it revived the model designation with which the SL story had begun in March 1952. The 420 SL was a completely new addition, while the 500 SL was given a redesigned engine with an electronic ignition system and the Bosch KE-Jetronic electronically controlled mechanical fuel injection system. The top model of the R 107 series was the 560 SL which, however, was reserved for export to North America, Japan and Australia. All the models were now offered with a closed-loop three-way catalytic converter.

Production of the R 107 finally ended in August 1989, after more than eighteen years. Over that period, the Sindelfingen plant had produced a total of 237,287 cars. Now, fifty years after their launch, these open two-seaters are sought-after classics, their combination of luxury and sportiness still fascinating enthusiasts to this day.

For a comprehensive buyer’s guide on the R 107 SL, see the January to March 2021 issue of Retro Classics magazine, available from  www.retroclassics.ie or digitally here!