Mercedes-Benz 350SL and 500SL - two V8 powered R107 from the beginning and end of production
Two V8 powered R107 SLs from the beginning and end of production make very different impressions. Why would anyone feel the need to own two R107SLs? From both ends of R107 V8 production, the defining features of this 350SL and 500SL make them surprisingly different propositions.
Written by Aspi-Rant Friday, 23 January 2015 23:00
Test-drive Mercedes-Benz 350SL and 500SL - two V8 powered R1072015 Drive-My
Built from April 1971 to august 1989, the R107 SL was in full scale production for 18 years and four months - over which time 237,287 were made - before Mercedes-Benz deemed it ready to be replaced and let it slip gracefully into retirement, assured of classic status in the not too distant future.
The model’s trumpet has been parped for this very reason many times before, and that is because such a long and unspoiled lifespan really is quite an achievement in the automotive world. How many other series production models can you think of that lasted so long and yet changed so little over the course of their lives? Talking Mercedes models, only the G-Class trumps it.
This should undoubtedly be seen as a good thing, for many reasons. But it does lead to a most pertinent question regarding these two particular SLs, both owned by Municher Marcus Diamand. That is, why would anyone feel the need to own two of them? OK, there is the obvious answer: because they are brilliant cars, and two of any brilliant car is better than one of any brilliant car. But what is in it for the owner other than a bit of car based gluttony of the best kind? Surely, even though they were built at the opposite ends of the R107’s life cycle, they provide such similar driving and ownership experiences that owning just one of them would suffice?
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
The answer to that will come shortly, but first a bit of history on the two cars and their one lucky owner. Or maybe it is better to start with their owner’s father, as he is the person responsible for his son’s love of all (or almost all, Marcus would probably like us to point out) things Mercedes, having owned various Benzes, from a W100 600, through to a W111 280SE Coupe and W116 450SE (the first one in Munich, incidentally).
Having duly acquired a taste for Mercedes himself, Marcus owned a few W123s before buying, in 1985, a 1972 350SL,a lovely one-owner, low mileage car in beautiful condition. And that, 28 years on, is the Blue-Black metallic one that you see here. As you might imagine, it is still in fantastic condition, having been owned by just one devoted keeper all those years - but it has not had a totally easy time of it.
“I ran it for seven or eight years as a daily driver, and did some long summer trips in it too. And then I put it away for 10 years because I moved to the United States,” Marcus recalls. “When I returned to Germany, I basically had two choices: completely restore it, or throw it away - it was that bad. Of course, since it had been such a big part of my life and I had such great memories of it, I decided on the restoration.”
Dropping the car off at classic Mercedes specialist Fritz Wallner, he parked next to a perfectly restored Pagoda, and the request was made simply to “make it as good as that one”. A new interior and hood, complete respray in Blue-Black metallic (a late period SL colour; originally the car was white) and a mechanical overhaul with many new parts followed, and a few years later it was finally finished. It has not just been restored but improved as well, benefiting from air conditioning, electric windows and many other retrofitted parts and upgrades.
ONE BECOMES TWO
Marcus enjoyed the car for six years before deciding he could do with another R107, buying the white 1988 500SL featured here (a Monte Carlo car, no less, with just 40,000 miles on the clock) in spring 2011. But why? “I consider myself an SL guy, especially an R107 one, and since my original SL is one of the first manufactured, I thought it would be nice to have one of the last, with the technical improvements of the facelift, and the bigger engine. And also simply because it’s a great car.”
But just how different can they feel? And which one is better? In fact, is it even possible to say that one is better than the other? And are they that different beyond their varying power outputs? And the answers are: surprisingly so; you will find out in a minute; not really; yes they are. I could almost wrap things up here, couldn’t I?
It can be difficult comparing old cars, because the way they drive can vary so much from example to example. So it is reassuring to know that Marcus’s 350 has benefited from a recent and comprehensive cosmetic and mechanical overhaul, meaning that it should not be hamstrung by its many additional miles and years of service compared to the newer, lower mileage 500.
Indeed, the first round goes to the early car. The interior is simply a nicer, more characterful, more special place to sit. Some of this is personal preference - I love the dark green of the earlier car’s insides - but there is no denying that stuff like the vertical slide controls for the heater, the smaller chrome wing mirrors and the elegant, thin rimmed steering wheel are prettier looking things than the R107 500’s plastic, safety approved versions, even if they are not as easy to use, or as forgiving in a crash. Ease of use and practicality is for the daily driver, after all. That said, the seats of the newer car are miles more comfortable and more supportive.
The later car claws it back as soon as you pull away, though. The four-speed automatic of the 500 is far smoother during take off and gear changes than the three-speed auto in the 350. The engine is quieter and more refined, and the car feels more solid and sturdy. It is just generally the better, more competent and composed, and more relaxed car to mooch around in.
But hold on. Is that the point of classic cars like this? Should it be all about competency and good manners? The older car is busier in noise and feel, and more involving and interesting to drive, and that is what people love about classic cars. That theme continues when you exercise the engines. Sure the newer V8 is quieter, smoother and much more refined. But is that a positive or a negative in a car like this? Marcus prefers the sound of the early M116 eight-cylinder, and it is so much louder and more ^ mechanical sounding that it actually seems like the more potent powerplant.
But it definitely is not. Whereas the 197bhp, 3,499cc V8 provides adequate performance - that is, just enough but nothing more - the performance of the 242bhp 4,973cc V8 is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the way it drives, providing a bigger jump in acceleration and general ability than the extra 45bhp would suggest. Perhaps the additional 78lb ft of torque and closer spaced ratios of the four-speed gearbox are the real reasons behind its extra urge. There is more ‘engine’ than you really need in a car of this type, but who really cares about that?
GIVE AND TAKE
When you up the pace, more differences make themselves felt. On an open road, the newer car feels better tied down, more stable and more composed. However, thanks to the older car’s smaller 205/70/14 tyres (compared to the 500’s 225/60/15s) it smothers bumps better and actually rides more smoothly (despite the younger car’s lightly revised front and rear suspension set ups) and, combined with the softer, more springy suspension, it actually feels more serene, which suits the SL’s character better. The 350’s steering is nicer, too - not as light and as slick as the 500’s and with an extra third of a turn of lock, but more generous in feedback and involvement.
Despite this, it really is a very close call. Me? I would take the 500 - the performance of that big V8 is very appealing. However, is it not necessarily a better classic car. I can quite understand why anybody would choose the earlier SL as their favourite
R107. Like Marcus, for instance. “Due to the technical changes, the younger 107-series roadster is an improved car. But even with all the improvements, I think the aura and the character of the SL is better demonstrated in the older model. The vertical slide controls for the heater, for example - that is how the car is meant to be. Out of the two, I prefer the black one, besides the fact that I have a long history with it.”
Point well made. A point which, we hope, demonstrates perfectly why Marcus has two R107 Mercedes-Benz SLs, despite them appearing to be so similar at first glance. They really do provide very different driving experiences, feeling almost, but not quite, a generation apart. Besides, they look great parked next to one another, and what more reason does anyone need to own two of them than that?
Space behind the seats ideal for a few bags.
Me? I would take the 500 - the performance of that big V8is very appealing
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