Cool cruise. The ultimate version of the R107 roadster, the 5.5-litre 560SL launched in #1986
, was never sold in European markets, and most went to the US. Rich Truesdell tried a lovely example in California Images Rich Truesdell.
Classic roadster 560SL
“One of just 5,351 produced for the 1989 calendar year, the 560SL was in exceptional condition, nicely broken in with just 87,000 miles”
The R107 #Mercedes-Benz
roadster enjoyed the longest production run of any passenger car in the history of the marque, from 1971 to 1989, assuming of course we discount the utility G-Wagen. With the frantic pace of change in today’s automotive world, it is impossible to imagine a single car, from a major manufacturer, being produced fundamentally unchanged, for 18 years. But to put things into perspective, the handsome R107 was built from the height of the Cold War to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is a remarkable story.
And the R107, along with its longer companion, the C107 coupe, was produced in more than a dozen different variants to satisfy markets around the world, in six- and eight-cylinder versions. And of course it should come as no surprise that the United States was one, if not the most important overseas market for this, the most sporting model in the Mercedes- Benz line up.
In the late 1960s, when the car was conceived as a replacement for the W113 Pagoda, the influence of the all important US market affected its design. At the time it was thought that impending roll over regulations would legislate the traditional convertible out of the marketplace. This was not lost on the product planners at Stuttgart, even as far back as 1968 when the replacement for the much loved W113 SL was first deliberated over.
The discussion centred on if what would become the R107 should have a targa style top, or a cloth top and removable hardtop. In the end, the decision was made to go the traditional route, the US market be damned. This is attributed to the staunch support of Hans Scherenberg, then the Head of Development who said at the time, “The SL gave me great pleasure, but also caused me great trouble. This was no easy decision for us.”
At the same time, the board discussed offering a companion four-seat coupe, a decision that would be initially postponed. One group within Mercedes-Benz management supported building a sporting coupe based on the upcoming W116 S-Class platform, but this was ruled out because such a model would take several years to design and develop. According to the official Mercedes- Benz history it was Karl Wilfert, then the head of body design in Sindelfingen, who developed on his own, a coupe proposal based on the R107. At first it was rejected by the board of management but the determined Wilfert managed to push through his idea of a sporty coupe.
Ultimately the R107 based tin top was introduced as the C107 SLC and built from 1972 until 1981 – just half the SL’s lifespan and, with 62,888 examples manufactured, a mere quarter of the roadster’s production.
Beyond the consideration of the US market, safety was a major goal of the R107 programme. While it can be said that the R107 would combine the mechanical components of the mid sized W114 with the larger engines offered from the W116, the R107 programme offered safety innovations of its own especially with regard to further development of front and rear crumple zones.
The backbone of the R107 series featured an independent frame floor unit with a closed transmission tunnel and box shaped cross and longitudinal members, which used sheet metal of different thicknesses, further improving performance should the car become involved in an accident.
The fuel tank was moved to a position above the rear axle, to minimise the possibility of it being ruptured in a rear end collision. The R107 was not simply a shortened and reinforced saloon floor assembly, as in the W113, but was in essence a unique platform. Once the decision was made to go the soft top route, the determination was made to reinforce the A-pillar surrounding the windscreen, to a degree not previously attained. In the end the A-pillar was designed with 50 per cent more strength than before to provide occupants with some protection in a roll over accident.
The interior also benefited from many passive safety innovations, a hallmark of the cars developed under the direction of the legendary engineer, Béla Barényi. The father of modern passive safety, Barényi saw to it that the interior of the R107 bristled with innovation. The previous hard dashboard made way for an innovative sheet steel design that was designed to yield on impact. In addition to generous padding for the instrument panel the knee area was also foam padded.
The polyurethane foam padded, four-spoke steering wheel absorbed crash energy more efficiently than previously. With a fresh look that owed little to previous interiors, the R107’s cockpit was Mercedes’ first modern passenger compartment and served as a precursor to those that would follow, especially for the upcoming S-Class. At the time of its launch in 1971, the R107 was an immediate hit worldwide.
But back then few people would have predicted that its production run would last almost two decades. Over that time, the US would see five presidents occupy the White House: Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and finally – for a short time – the first President Bush.
In the US the first R107 launched was the 350SL but this was a little confusing, as under the hood was found a 4.5-litre V8, the smaller engined version deemed insufficient for the US market. This was due in part to the 1970 US Clean Air Act that strangled all engines in the effort to reduce tailpipe emissions.
What also distinguished the US SLs from their European counterparts were their round headlights, as a result of the US mandates in place at the time the R107 was introduced. This didn’t stop many US owners from installing Euro style single headlights to give their SLs a distinctive look over the years, and even though the headlight laws changed in 1975, SLs destined for North America sported round head lights to the end of production in 1989.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the R107 SL defined the marque in the US, establishing Mercedes-Benz as the car that was engineered like no other in the world, its benchmark advertising tag line of the era. In its day the R107 was the choice of many A-list celebrities, especially in Hollywood and became a pop culture icon, appearing in dozens of movies. The 560SL appeared in autumn 1985 for the 1986 model year, for sale in the US, Japan and Australia, coinciding with a minor facelift for the R107. Its 5.5-litre V8 came with a standard fit catalyst (three years before this became mandatory in Europe), hence power was 227bhp compared to the 238 and later 296bhp that the non cat, European spec version of this engine gave in the S-Class saloon and coupe. Its derestricted potential is one reason many R107 fans in Europe feel cheated that it was never sold there.
That it spanned the transition of cars like the almost delicate W113 Pagoda to the tank like R129 that followed is a testimony to the inherent excellence of the original design, conceived at the end of the 1960s. But as the R107 departed the scene in 1989, in the US, Mercedes- Benz faced new challengers, first from BMW, then from Lexus. But it’s impossible to imagine either marque, no matter how successful, producing a car that could match its longevity.
California resident Michael Mendonca already owned an R107 450SL when he bought his 560SL
To track down a late example of the 560SL, one of 49,347 built over a four-year production run, Classic Mercedes looked west, all the way to sunny southern California to find this car, a final year 1989 model owned by financial planner Michael Mendonca. But this 560SL is neither his first nor his only Mercedes-Benz SL.
“I waited until relatively late in life to own my first classic car,” says Michael who at one time worked in the marketing department of the famed Ford Mustang tuner, Saleen. “It was a 1979 Mercedes-Benz 450SL, which I still own. I enjoy the 560SL quite a bit, but still use both these cars as second and third vehicles. I liked the car ever since having seen the movie American Gigolo with Richard Gere back in high school.”
One of just 5,351 produced for the 1989 calendar year, the 560SL was in exceptional condition, nicely broken in with just 87,000 miles, and talking with Michael about how he acquired the car illustrates how easy it is to find such a good example in the US. “I actually wasn’t looking for another SL since I owned the 450, but the 560 was in such great shape and the price was right that I could not pass up the deal. I enjoy also that the cars are considered classics and I can get classic car insurance on the cars, which keeps my overhead down.”
“I attend the Cars and Coffee show in Irvine, California on a regular basis and saw the car for sale,” relates Michael. (Cars and Coffee is the legendary yet informal car show held every Saturday morning at the former headquarters of Ford’s Premier Auto Group that once included Aston Martin Jaguar, Land Rover, Lincoln and Volvo). “A friend of mine wanted the car but could not come up with the cash so I grabbed the car from who turned out to be a really nice guy. The owner happened to live in the same city I reside in, which made the purchase quite easy.”
“I’ve owned the 560 about a year and a half now and usually take it out for a drive once or twice a week,” says Michael in a follow up interview when we photographed the car several weeks later. “I especially enjoy the car in the spring and summer.”
Michael Mendonca drives his SL for pleasure, on classic insurance.
“The United States was one, if not the most important overseas markets for this, the most sporting model in the Mercedes-Benz line up”
TECHNICAL DATA SPECIFICATIONS #Mercedes-Benz-560SL-R107
Power 227bhp @ 4,750rpm
Torque 275b f t @ 3,250rpm
Transmission 4-speed automatic, RWD
Top speed 139mph
Years produced #1986
Number built 49,347
All figures from Mercedes-Benz
Above. SL’s cabin is a neat fit, but is beautifully finished and with lovely tan leather.
ABOVE LEFT. The warm, sunny climate in southern California suits the R107 perfectly.
Twin headlamps and rubber edged bumpers mark out the North American R107s.
Chromed wheels more more popular in the US than in European markets.
Above. SL’s dash is a masterpiece; outside temp gauge is in place of the middle vent.
ABOVE right. US emissions tuned V8 had 227bhp, way down on European spec 5.5-litre.
ABOVE far right. This 560SL was a great find, barely run in having covered just 89,330 miles.
The boot, or should that be trunk, looks quite small but you can pack a lot into it.
ABOVE LEFT. Original Becker Grand Prix radio/cassette is still in place and looks fantastic.
ABOVE right. In reality the R107’s rear seat is a very luxurious fold down parcel shelf.
“In the US, the first R107 launched was the 350SL but this was confusing, as under the hood was found a 4.5-litre V8”