Few vehicles evoke a lineage of refined luxury like the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class. The SL can trace its roots back to the groundbreaking 300SL that Mercedes sent racing—with success—in the 1950s. Fast and beautiful, the original SL was a technical triumph, with direct fuel injection and a space frame that necessitated those iconic “gullwing” top-hinged doors. A less overtly sporting SL (despite the SL name flowing from “Sportlich-Leicht,” which translates to “Sport Lightweight”), followed, though it continued to deliver unmatched class and, later, a distinctive “pagoda” hardtop. And then came the R107-generation SL-Class in 1971, which would cement the SL’s silver-spoon status through an incredible 18-year production run.
Mercedes-Benz is getting all nostalgic in the run-up to the debut of its all-new R232-generation SL-Class for 2022 and wants to remind everyone that 2021 marks the R107’s 50-year anniversary. The 1972-1989 R107 SL ushered the roadster into the modern era. It was the first SL, for example, to feature a V-8 engine, and in the 350SL launch model no less. It was soon followed by the 450SL and later the 500SL and then the mighty 560SL. A six-cylinder was offered, as well. First in the 280SL and later in the 300SL. It was a proper inline-six, naturally.
The R107 SL was produced for so long, it stands today as the Mercedes model built over the longest period of time next to the G-Class SUV, which initially arrived in the late 1970s as a would-be military vehicle and was produced continuously in much the same form until 2018.
In the ’70s, the SL was a modern tour de force, with available automatic climate control, electronic fuel injection, and plenty of performance. Mercedes tuned the SL to handle smartly, while also delivering a comfortable ride and high-speed stability. As the 1980s rolled around, the SL traded its earlier 230-hp 4.5-liter V-8 (in the 350 and 450 models) for a weaker 155-hp 3.8-liter unit in the 380SL, which stuck around until the middle of the decade. The 380SL was later dropped in favor of the 560SL and its stronger 5.5-liter V-8. Oddly, the six-cylinder models were never officially sold in the U.S.
Somehow, the SL lived through nearly two entire decades and fit plausibly into both. At first, the Benz looked modern and new, with a sleek silhouette and an imposing mug, replete with four round headlights and, often, a pair of amber running lamps dangling from the bumper. With the huge, grille-mounted three-pointed Mercedes star and those lights ablaze, the Benz looked properly aggressive in rearview mirrors.
Early elegance (again, by ’70s standards) gave way to encroaching regulatory meddling. By the end of the 1970s, the U.S.-market SL’s bumpers grew dramatically and adopted inelegant rubber construction to meet 5-mph impact standards. While Euro SLs wore sleeker flush-mounted headlights, American models stuck with sealed-beam round units all the way until the R107 retired in 1989.
While the majority of SLs were roadsters that came with a power-folding cloth roof (as well as a painted hardtop), some coupes were built. These were known as SLCs, and while a fixed-roof version of a regular SL would have sufficed, Benz took things in a different direction. The SLCs sat on a lengthened chassis, allowing for a back seat (in a 2+2 configuration). Practical enhancement aside, the SLC was not a particularly attractive vehicle. The oddly long SLC simultaneously qualified for the adjectives “phallic” and “flaccid”. Curious louvered, Venetian-blind treatment applied to half the rear quarter windows was a very disco touch that only rubbed salt in the model’s styling wound. The SLC would last only until 1981 in the U.S., where it was sold strictly in 380SLC and 450 SLC guises.
Many collectors seem to have zeroed in on the later 560SL as the one to buy, as this model’s V-8 benefits from literally decades of Benz’s crash education in building powerful engines that also met U.S. emissions regulations. Earlier V-8s were relatively choked by emissions equipment; the 5.5-liter V-8’s displacement helped make up for its breathing issues, delivering 238 hp to the rear axle by way of a four-speed automatic transmission. As with many Benzes from this period, the R107 has its share of vacuum-system-related maladies, and some of the higher-tech features onboard were a bit out ahead of their own skis for the period, and thus require fastidious maintenance to function properly.
None of that matters, however, because the R107 was a smashing success. Mercedes sold nearly a quarter million of the things worldwide—solid figures for an expensive luxury convertible. Keep in mind that, in its day, the R107 was the equivalent of a six-figure car (if you adjust for inflation). Even today, pulling up in one of these Mercedes models will make you look like you have money and taste. After all, good R107s aren’t exactly cheap to buy nor are these Benzes cheap to keep on the road. That perfume-de-cash is a hallmark of pretty much every SL that’s come since, and every SL that came before. We bet it’ll be baked into the new 2022 SL from the start, even if that model doesn’t end up staying in production for nearly two decades.