Mercedes-Benz 280 SE W111, E320 Cabriolet A124, 280 CE Coupé C123, 190E 2.3 Cosworth W201, 450 SEL 6.9 W116, SL500 R129
The six Mercedes to buy now. Mercedes class reunion from left: 280 SE, E320 Cabriolet, 280CE Coupé, 190E 2.3 Cosworth, 450 SEL 6.9, SL 500. Three-pointed stars (L-R): 280 SE W111, E320 Cabriolet C124, 280 CE Coupé C123, 190E 2.3 Cosworth W201, 450 SEL 6.9 W116, SL500 R129. A good Mercedes elevates a drive from a mere journey into something altogether more sensual. Classic Benzes are hot right now and prices of this sextet still have some way to go. Time to make your move. Words Ross Alkureishi. Photography Charlie Magee.
The Big Test Which classic Merc strikes the best balance between driving appeal, aesthetic cool and investment – 280 SE Coupé, 280 CE, SEL 6.9, 190E Cosworth, E320 Cabrio or SL500? Plus, Quentin Willson gives his verdict on each!
Mercedes-Benz 280SE W111
If someone became successful in the UK during the Sixties and Seventies there was one go-to marque that ensured other people knew they’d arrived, and on its bonnet sat the Spirit of Ecstasy. Actors, comedians, footballers and even gangsters… if they were at the top of their games they marked the occasion by buying a Rolls-Royce.
Yet this wasn’t the case in other countries. As the son of an Arab I know this only too well – over the years, streams of visiting relatives and friends only equated one manufacturer’s name with success, and it was Mercedes. When my father – after numerous Fords and a VW Golf – finally parked a big Benz on the drive, his sense of pride was palpable.
Despite the modern rise of other upstart Germanic brands, that same Mercedes-Benz legacy of stately upmarket cars engineered to an exacting standard remains as solid as its products. So we’ve scoured that illustrious back catalogue, and gathered the six cars that we think represent the best value models to snap up today. Time to find out exactly why.
‘Cool’ is a much-overused word in the world of classic cars, that's applied far too often to any vehicle of quasi-beguiling design. Yet to watch Clive Ricketts drawing up in his Mercedes-Benz (W111) 280 SE Coupé, all four windows down, sunroof open and music washing softly out of the cabin, is to enter a fight with yourself to avoid a reflex action of using the blasted term.
These were supremely elegant cars back in period, but a Coupé stands out like a stylistic beacon in a vast sea of the mundane on today’s roads. A good one elevates a drive from a mere journey into something altogether more sensual. You don’t buy one for the performance, decent though it is – you buy one to relax and cruise in.
The original 220 SE Coupé arrived in 1961. It was based on the W111 Fintail saloon but with fresh de-finned styling and an inline six-cylinder engine making just 120bhp. A 300 SE – twice the price – joined it in ’62, kicking out a further 50bhp, before the 250 SE superseded the lower model. The biggest change occurred in 1965 with the launch of the new 250 SE Coupé – its bodywork remained the same as the old guard, but now with the seven-bearing engine from the W108 saloon. This car is a later 280 SE, with 2778cc fuel-injected lump and 160bhp. I reluctantly peel my eyes away from the graceful, Paul Bracq-styled bodywork and pop the driver’s door to reveal a cabin ambience anchored in the decade before this car was born. That large ivorycoloured steering wheel and twin-gauge binnacle dominate, and the leather seat affords a driving position that can only be described as pleasantly relaxed, bordering on louche.
The straight-six comes to life with a brief whirr, then settles into a creamy tickover. Engage drive, off with the parking brake and it pulls smoothly away. It moves efficiently through the rev range but loses a little of its elegance under heavy load – much better to feather the throttle and allow speed to build at a more languid pace. At 1510kg there’s a fair bit to shift, and with just 160bhp it’s a mite underpowered – the later V8-powered 280 SE 3.5 has a healthier 200bhp.
The six revs freely but it feels undergeared at motorway speeds. It’ll sit fairly happily at 60mph with 3000rpm showing, but anything over that becomes a little too frantic – and why on earth would you entertain such a concept? Braking prowess – via discs all round – is particularly good for the period and the suspension is forgiving, ensuring bumps barely interrupt your cabin calm.
‘It was a very exclusive and expensive car, and only made for a short period of time,’ says specialist Charles Ironside. ‘The V8 has more power and better gearing, as well as a lower grille and bonnet, both of which make it look more purposeful. But either variant is very reliable.
Coupés start at £25,000 and rise to £100,000 while the Cabriolet is £50,000 to £150,000. Personally, I think the Coupé is better-looking.’ I'm with Charles on that one. Yet those prices still suggest we’re suckers for a drop-top. From the front, with that imposing grille and vertically stacked headlamps, the Coupé is upright and statesman-like, but from the side the hardtop looks like a fixed convertible roof and lends it an incredibly rakish profile.
Combined with its Americana-inspired chrome accoutrements – the US market was key – this is a car you never tire looking at. So what word sums it up? Hmm. Well, I’ll need two. Oh, and a hyphen. It’s positively sub-zero.
‘These were supremely elegant cars in period, but stand out in a vast sea of the mundane on today’s roads’
280 SE Coupé’s inline six is famously reliable. Interior is more Fifties than Sixties. Grin is unavoidable.
Owning a Mercedes-Benz W111
'My dearly departed father passed on his almost fruitcake passion for Mercedes to me,' says Clive Ricketts. As a teenager I remember a W111 whooshing past the family car on the motorway; its grace and beautiful proportions had my jaw on the floor. Even then I knew I'd own one in my lifetime. Ten years ago I found this example on eBay and stayed up into the wee small hours nervously bidding. Over the years I've done a few major jobs, including some chassis welding and fitting a new gearbox. It gathers heaps of attention and has been a real pleasure to own - most of the time. Regular maintenance is essential and a key factor of ownership. When things go wrong you have to expect to reach deep into your pockets, as parts are expensive. Most are available from specialists, but some - such as windscreens - are considered rare, so stockpiling should become a second hobby.'
We often take what’s all around us for granted, and it’s only in the past decade and a half or so – as numbers on the road finally declined – that the once omnipresent Mercedes-Benz W123 and its ‘C’ for Coupé sibling have begun to be viewed as bona fide classics. It took so long because they were engineered so brilliantly that nothing short of a direct missile hit seemed capable of removing them from the road.
The saloon arrived in 1976, its Friedrich Geiger-designed threebox profile aping the solemn lines of the new S-class, which itself was born four years earlier. Mechanically it was business as usual and that meant the same vast array of engines in both petrol and diesel form and ride-enhancing semi-trailing arm suspension from its predecessor, the W114/W115 ‘Stroke 8’ – named after its 1968 arrival.
Timing is everything and while British crooks and coppers invariably stuck to Fords and Jags, the W123 quickly became the staple steed of choice for non-British villains in both The Sweeney and The Professionals; the sensible option for your urbane European or more commonly, Middle Eastern, terrorist. My own dad – a medical man, I might add – was in London during that time but luckily one remained beyond his means, otherwise he too could have fitted the profile that might have seen Bodie and Doyle on his tail.
After the visual glamour of the cars from preceding decades, Bob Gascoigne’s Thistle Green Coupé could be accused of being a little uninspired. If Clive Ricketts' W111 280 SE Coupé is akin to going home with husky temptress Felicity Kendal, then the man who bought one of these was definitely waking up with the more prim and proper Penelope Keith. But take the time to look at the pages under its conservative cover and you’ll still experience The Good Life.
Open the door, slip in and it closes behind you with a quality timbre to its thunk; comprehensive use of synthetics and alloys allowed the engineers to keep the W123's weight down to an impressive 1337kg, while still providing a strong steel hull. All-round visibility is superb from the driver’s seat and this particular example is loaded with extras, including heated leather seats and air-conditioning.
It was possible to ramp up the purchase price considerably despite this being the entry-level model to Mercedes ownership. Body style, engine choice and extras would have seen this car's first buyer pay double the basic £10,990 list price. The choice of a light interior colour is a highlight, though; darker hues can combine with the black plastics for a gloomier ambience. They’re also incredibly rugged, as proven by the excellent condition of this one despite having just over 100,000 miles on the clock.
It’s simple to drive on the hoof and elegant in power delivery in range-topping twin cam 2.8-litre, 185bhp form. There’s no lack of grunt – something lowlier models suffer from, particularly the taxi-friendly 59bhp diesel-engined 200. Midrange is particularly impressive and the ride smooths out road imperfections flawlessly.
The Coupé’s lack of an upper B-pillar and its two-door format lend it a sportier persona than the Saloon and T (estate) versions, but it’s a cheque the driver can’t really cash; you can twirl that huge steering wheel around a bit, but the Coupé will roll like a yacht in a storm under hard cornering and in reality is at its best smoothly pottering in town and cruising on the motorway.
They remain good value in today’s market. ‘Prices are climbing,’ says Leigh Holbrook of specialist The Only Way Is W123 (towiw123.wix.com/ towiw123). ‘A running car needing work will be £2000-£3500, a good one £3500-£8000 and a concours example £8000 to £20,000. The models of choice are the 280 CE auto and 280TE. Key checks are for rust in the arches, sills and floors, and below the rear windscreen. Bumper chrome for Coupés is rare, so check for corrosion.’
The variety of body styles and engine choices ensures each model offers real choice, with the estate a particularly practical classic. ‘Reliability is a byword for the W123. With regular servicing they’ll do mile after mile, needing nothing more than fuel. I have a 216,000-mile 280TE and wouldn’t hesitate to take it across Europe.’ That longevity means that there remains a wide choice of cars out there from just under 100,000 Coupés produced. But it's still much harder to find a good Coupé than a saloon.
‘The W123 quickly became the steed of choice for non- British villains in The Sweeney and The Professionals’
This is the 2746cc petrol six. Taxi drivers favoured the 59bhp diesel. Our test car is fully loaded; it even has heated seats.
Owning a Mercedes-Benz 280CE C123
'I'm a serial collector of the model, having owned upwards of 50 in the past five years,' says Bob Gascoigne. This car was an eBay find at a small dealership in Cambridgeshire; he didn't really know that he had a car with a rare specification. Driving a Coupe that was designed and built some 31 years ago - when engineering quality really counted - is a special feeling, and with the windows down and sunroof open you get used to the word 'wow' from passers-by. It gives you the impression it's hewn out of solid rock, and rumour has it if they're looked after with regular servicing and preventative maintenance the W123 is capable of covering one million miles. In three years of ownership there’s been nothing that couldn't be fixed with a Phillips screwdriver and 13mm spanner, but I did decide to have it resprayed by my good friend Martyn Marocco. He made an absolutely superb job of it.'
1985 Mercedes-Benz (W123 based coupe) 280CE Coupe C123
A colossal 405lb ft of torque is produced by the V8. Cabin is serene, in contrast to the SEL’s performance. Six point nine litres was, and remains, the magic number in the world of the three-pointed star. Simply take the 6.3-litre M100 engine of 600 Pullman and 300SEL 6.3 W109fame, bore it out to 6834cc and then pop it in your latest flagship Sonderklasse model. To this, add the latest in automotive technology, your company’s famed build quality and the most discreet of outer garments. And then announce: ‘Meine Damen und Herren, ich gebe dir das Mercedes-Benz 450 SEL 6.9.’
That the company had to do so not long after the first Seventies fuel crisis could be put down to bad luck, but the fact that it shifted a staggering 7380 units demonstrated that a ready market remained for this opulent über-beast. Plutocrats and politicians lined up for the subtle executive express, making you wonder how many of them Mercedes would have sold if the Middle East hadn't been imploding. Meanwhile the company ensured that a number of F1 drivers – including playboy superstar James Hunt – had one as their steed of choice.
But boy, did you have to pay for one – almost unbelieveably it cost twice as much as the standard V8 450 SEL. For that you got that huge dry-sump engine, plus hydropneumatic suspension – design patent bought from Citroën and improved upon – central locking, air-conditioning, headlamp washers, disc brakes all round and, in a volume production car first, anti-lock brakes. And breathe. Too soon – I forgot the limited-slip differential.
If Bob Gascoigne’s 280 CE C123 is loaded to the brim with extras, then the engineers carried out the automotive equivalent of over-filling a suitcase and then sitting on it to close the catches to build Ian Keers' 6.9. That luggage analogy applies to its three-box profile too. There’s very little variation in design cues but, as we all know, size is everything in the world of luxury saloons – it’s a direct reflection of model hierarchy, performance capability and, most importantly, purchase price.
Up close, this car is monstrous – only a 600 Pullman would outdo it. When I approach it for the first time I barely notice the E320 Cabriolet hidden behind – the 6.9 is so large it almost completely obscures what is hardly a small car. Yet only slightly wider tyres and a discreet 6.9 badge on the bootlid indicate its potent capabilities.
It’ll haul itself from 0-60mph in a stunning 7.3sec despite its 1842kg heft – impressive today, but sheer bonkers back then and enough to put the straight-line frighteners on many a pedigree sports car. I need to be careful with throttle application because it’s still possible to spin the wheels in lower gears despite the limited-slip diff. There’s only 286bhp but it’s the 405lb ft of torque that grabs the headlines – bigblock Corvette Stingray territory.
There’s a subdued growl and a perceptible rise from the nose as the big V8 releases its staggering thrust. Time for a bit of Ronin-inspired high-speed action then? Er, no. Not with the owner sitting next to me – one who just so happens to be chairman of The Mercedes-Benz Club. Well, what else would he drive? Instead I resist the urge to engage warp drive, sit back in the suave cabin, relax and enjoy the effortless high-speed cruising ability at my fingertips.
I head towards snake country after several laps of our scenic test circuit to put the 450 SEL 6.9’s handling to the test. If the two Coupés here roll considerably in the bends, then the 6.9 must look like a pantomime dame hitching up her skirts to reveal substantial suspension bloomers. And yet, the Citroën-derived hydropneumatic suspension ensures that the 6.9 feels composed from within the cabin no matter how hard I press on.
‘This is Mercedes at its peak,’ says specialist Charles Ironside. ‘There’s a real smile factor pulling up alongside someone when they think it’s just an old Merc and then it takes off like a rocket ship. It’s good-looking and has aged well. Finding a nicely sorted one is hard, but if you do they’re very reliable with nothing too taxing for a specialist to sort out – even the suspension spheres. A runner can be had for £5000 but the very best will be closer to £50,000.’
If the W109 300 SEL 6.3 – the original 600-engined hot Merc – paved the way in its own inimitable, if semi-refined manner, then the 450 SEL 6.9 is its more civilised younger brother. It’ll provide you with a refined ride, attractive cabin and, most importantly, the ability to obliterate unsuspecting rivals in true Q-car fashion.
“It’ll haul from 0-60mph in a stunning 7.3sec despite its 1842kg heft – impressive today, but sheer bonkers back then”
Owning a Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9 W116
'I wanted a car with the big M100 engine and when I saw this one I had to have it,’ says Ian Keers. 'I found it through the Owners'
Club in 2005 - or rather it found me - and I paid £7500. It had only covered 22,000 miles and had stood around a lot, so I replaced lots of rubber hoses and pipes when re-commissioning the car. Since then I've tidied up the paintwork around the wheelarches and lower half, but other than that it has had one service per year. I’ve taken it to Dublin and Salzburg twice, Munich and Berlin once - it was built for those types of journeys. It never ceases to amaze me that, despite being 37 years old, it can still be driven on today's roads without having to show the slightest deference to modern traffic. The self-levelling suspension means its attitude never alters, and it can be driven at high speed under any conditions - you never have to apologise for it being an old car.'
When two tribes go to war, this type of car is the result. But the Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3 Cosworth wasn’t designed to do Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters battle with the BMW E30 M3; it was originally conceived with rallying in mind but Audi’s all-conquering Quattro put paid to that. And it had to play second fiddle to the M3 in touring cars, right up until 1992 when – in wild Evo II form – it finally succeeded in securing the DTM crown.
If the original 190 concept, as a small compact saloon, was a real departure for the company, then the hot 2.3-16 came out of the furthest left of left field. Mercedes used the existing M102 engine as the basis, but employed the skills of Cosworth Engineering to give it 16-valve technology. It produced a light-alloy cylinder head to match the 10.5:1 Mahle pistons and a free-flow exhaust manifold before shipping the lot to Germany.
The chaps there hadn’t been idle. In came a Getrag gearbox, stiffer and lower suspension, limited-slip differential, a sharper steering box and an aerodynamic body kit. The resultant 1260kg 185bhp beast made its debut in a single-model race at the 1984 opening of the revised Nürburgring, where a novice Ayrton Senna destroyed a field that included nine former world champions.
‘A good Cosworth is a very hard car to find,’ says specialist Charles Ironside. ‘Most fell into the wrong hands. They’re tough little things and will go on and on, but they suffer a lot because of this. It’s very rare to find a nice, garaged example. They’re also complex cars and getting the rear suspension and engine right can cost thousands. Avoid knackered cheapies for a couple of grand – decent examples will start at £12,000 rising to £30,000 for the very best. Most purists understandably want a manual car.’
Which is what we have here. Currently for sale at Xclusive Motorz it has just over 100,000 miles on the clock but still feels like a nice, tight example. Inside, the purposeful cabin – a study in black leather, carpets and plastics – is more nihilistic than our other cars’ interiors, with an Eighties Porsche or BMW feel to it. The driving position is spot-on, with three dials straight ahead and magnificently bolstered Recaro bucket seats in the front – and, bizarrely, also in the rear.
The engine is unlike anything else here, in that it redlines at 7000rpm – nosebleed territory for a Merc. You drive it in a completely different way because it’s fairly benign below 5000rpm; it responds best to hard throttle movements with a meaty exhaust note and bags of torque, punctuated by weighty shifts on the sturdy dogleg gearbox. The ABS brakes respond well, with plenty of pedal feel and power.
But it’s the suspension that removes us from what we know and expect of the marque. Its multi-link, self-levelling arrangement at the rear allows me to attack corners at high speed while the car remains largely benevolent. Brake hard, turn the thick-rimmed steering wheel sharply and power through. The handling remains predictable despite gentle provocation and it feels as if I'd have to get all hooligan to change that.
The good, or bad, news is that it’s not quite as hardcore an overall package as an M3 and as such lends itself to more regular use. It does a surprisingly good impression of the standard 190 at civilised speeds, which means town driving isn’t too much of a chore. Despite the lower and stiffer suspension, the ride remains acceptably pliant – perhaps Stuttgart couldn’t completely dial out the previous two decades of plush sophistication.
The later 2.5-16, with its stroked engine, offers an extra 15bhp and isn’t quite as frantic in its power delivery as its older brother. Like the BMW Evo variants, the Cosworth Evo I and IIs – highly adapted homologation specials – have gone stratospheric. But in terms of the price they command, both standard road-going Cosworths still lag behind their poster-boy M3 equivalents by 30 to 40 per cent and that means you can still pick up a good example for about £15,000.
What you get for that is a saloon that couldn’t be further removed from the 450 SEL 6.9. Both offer high performance but deliver their wares in completely different manners – excitable and lithe versus smooth and cultured. The Cosworth demonstrates that a company many thought could, and would, only build a certain type of car, was in fact able to think outside its traditional box.
‘The engine is unlike anything else here, in that it redlines at 7000rpm – nosebleed territory for a Mercedes’
Driving position is perfect for getting a shift on. Cosworth’s light-alloy 16v head helps four-cylinder engine make 185bhp.
Owning a Mercedes-Benz 190E Cosworth W201
‘I’ve owned my unrestored Rauchsilber 16v 2.5-litre Cosworth for 14 years,' says Rhys Mangat. 'It left the factory with a high specification including full leather electric heated Recaro seats, electric sunroof and many other toys. Although a standard road car, it currently has a racer-themed look that includes 16in period Penta wheels, blue Samco hoses and full DTM Snowbeck Racing Services livery. Most of the work I’ve carried out has been maintenance, as it’s been very reliable.
Running costs are reasonable and it’s good on fuel too; some people run them as daily drivers with no complaints. Parts availability is great and there’s a wealth of information from specialists, enthusiasts and forums like Mercedes-190. co.uk. They were almost £40k when new and if you listen to a few old rap songs, the car ‘Benz 190’ is mentioned – it was quite notorious.’
The W111 Coupés and Cabriolets played a key role in defining the Sixties for Mercedes-Benz and yet the surprise is that it would take another 20 years before the arrival of another four-seater ragtop after the last 280 SE Cabriolet rolled off the production line in 1971.
There was still the two-seater SL, but surely families deserved the same opportunity to be ferried around stylishly in the open air?
This could be viewed as Teutonic pragmatism because the numbers simply didn’t add up or a straightforward case of Mercedes choosing to focus its attentions on other, more important matters.
Finally, though, everything changed with the arrival of the W124-based Mercedes-Benz E320 Cabriolet at the 1991 Frankfurt Motor Show. Derived from the shorter-wheelbase Coupé – 3.3in down on the saloon – and with 24-valve, 231bhp engine, it had a fully electric fold-down top that stowed neatly under a tonneau cover. A fourcylinder budget model would follow.
Mercedes added strengthening to the windscreen frame, A-pillars, chassis side rails, transmission tunnel, soft-top storage well and floors. New engine mounts and dampers were also introduced.
This car feels phenomenally solid on the road with a complete absence of scuttle shake. The days of sacrificing structural rigidity in the name of an open top is consigned to the past.
For extra peace of mind, the rear head restraints are designed to pop up automatically in an emergency and combine with the reinforced windscreen frame to offer as much rollover protection as the tin-top. I won't let that knowledge affect my exuberant driving style too much…
The cabin is luxuriously finished, with Zebrano wood trim and black leather combining to better effect than in previous models, where they could feel like a collection of expensive materials that were just tossed together. The wood and leather steering wheel is particularly pleasing and incorporates an airbag with the utmost discretion. Electric everything – including steering column – makes getting comfortable a cinch, and there’s room for two full-sized adults in the rear.
Stowing the power hood eats into the boot space but there’s still plenty of room available in there, so it's a car that a family of four could genuinely take touring on the European mainland. And to do so would be bliss. Like the R129 SL 500, it doesn’t do shake, rattle and roll. Instead, it delivers its punch with effortless refinement. As a post-’94- facelift E320 model – Mercedes simplified its badging, with all W124s receiving E-class designations followed by an indicator of engine size – it has a handy 220bhp and 229lb ft of torque.
Nail the loud pedal and there's very little loud. The straight-six is quiet and smooth, as is the five-speed autobox. This example has tweaked AMG suspension package and larger alloy wheels, and that brings an extra level of tautness and grip to the ride without sacrificing ride comfort too much. There’s very little body roll and it responds surprisingly well to being cheekily thrown into corners, much of Mercedes‘ earlier, barge-like handling having been dialled out.
‘Cars start at £5000,’ says specialist Charles Ironside. ‘But for a reasonable one you can expect to pay £10,000. Around £20,000 will get a very good one and you'll need up to £30,000 for a one-owner, low-mileage example. The front wings are prone to rusting and you must check that all of the electrics work, including the fully electric roof-lowering mechanism. Cylinder head gaskets are prone to failure on six-cylinder cars, but not on the four-cylinder 220. The 320 is the most soughtafter but the 220 is no mug – you just have to work at it through the gears. If you can’t afford the 320, it makes a good choice.’
Is it a pretty car? No. Perhaps handsome is a better descriptor – or ruggedly modern. The AMG body kit on our example, while discreet with its subtly flared wheelarches, hardens the E320's lines making it look less delicate than the standard car. It isn't gaudy like some other AMG kits but I think the clean original car is more attractive.
What’s not in doubt is the sheer level of competence it displays. The combination of the refined engine, accomplished handling and subtle opulence marks the W124 out as a convincing return to four-seat, open-air touring.
"This car feels phenomenally solid. The days of ofsetting rigidity in the name of an opentop are consigned to the past."
By 1995 the straight-six E320 had electronic fuel injection. Airbag in the steering wheel is discreetly done.
Owning an Mercedes-Benz E320 Cabriolet C124
'It's my second favourite Mercedes after the Pagoda,’ says Charles Ironside. ’I love the rarity of it, and when it came out the design really hit me. They lowered the roof by an inch and a half compared to the saloon and estate versions, and it really made the car. I've owned many, and sold even more. For a car that's 20 years old it still has a very modern feel. They tend to be quite highly specced and are reliable, with the perfect combination of economy, power and versatility. My wife and I have taken an E320 Cabriolet over to France - to tour the WW1 and WW2 battlefields - more than once. It's always a pleasure, because it’ll store your luggage easily and is also straightforward to lock up and leave. And unlike other classic Mercedes-Benz convertibles, you don't have the hassle of separate hard and soft tops.'
The jump from the W107 to Mercedes-Benz (R129) 500 SL was akin to going from the Stone Age to Space Age in a single leap. No surprise really, because the new droptop project had been shelved numerous times while the company focused on updating its key saloon and coupé models – something that saw the venerable old cruiser put in almost 20 years of dedicated service. Revealed at the 1989 Geneva Motor Show while still rectangular in profile, the new Bruno-Sacco-designed convertible had less of a hewn-from-steel-billet look than its predecessor. The sloping front end lent it a dynamic profile, while air vent strakes on the polyurethane side mouldings cleverly invoked memories of the legendary Gullwing 300 SL.
The biggest leap was in terms of safety, because the 500 SL was rammed to all four wings with the latest technology. The safety cell was constructed from high-strength steel and combined with light alloys to ensure the bodyshell was merely 20kg heavier than the outgoing car, yet torsional rigidity was 30 per cent greater. Sturdier cross-bracing ensured it was as capable of dealing with side impacts as it was frontal collisions. There was also a pop-up roll bar that would deploy in the event of the car overturning – a thought that owners of classic ragtops try to avoid.
Reined V8 speaks quietly but carries a very big stick. Mercedes took cabin safety to new levels with the SL 500.
Talk of safety is hardly sexy but was, and remains, at the centre of the car’s appeal. This example (currently for sale at charlesironside.co.uk) is a post-1995 facelift SL500 R129 – Mercedes switched its numberletter order in 1993 – and today with its colour-coded bumpers it still looks decidedly modern. Naturally there was a rush towards the facelifted versions when new, but the original R129's uncluttered lines are just as sought-after today.
Either way, it’s a large car, and a little profligate for a two-seater convertible in today’s eco-conscious times. But it’s this that ensures the ultimate in leg-stretching cabins, one that can accommodate even the largest occupant. Like all of our cars it’s finished in the highestquality leathers, woods and carpets but where it differs is the small – by Mercedes standards – steering wheel, a sop to the car's semisporting prowess.
The safety belt itself is housed within the super-strong seat structure, something that cured the age-old question of where to mount them in a convertible when there is no upper B-pillar.
The V8 fires with an underwhelming fanfare and settles into a whispery thrum – this is no extrovert power unit and prefers to carry out its duties smoothly and discreetly. But don’t mistake that for a lack of prowess because, with 332bhp and 332lb ft of torque, there’s more than enough grunt available.
It’s also loaded to the brim with electrickery – ABS brakes, adaptive damping, an Electronic Stability Programme, a Brake Assist system… I could go on but by the time I finished explaining them all we’d be in the next feature. Suffice it to say, combined with the advanced multilink rear suspension layout with five arms on each side, and anti-squat and tail-lift geometry, it makes for an immensely predictable car.
You could accuse it of being an anodyne experience from a sports car perspective but that would be to miss the original purpose of the Mercedes Sports Leicht roadsters – to be a glamorous, stylish and yet still swift open-air road car. It cruises effortlessly and accelerates hard with a minimum of fuss; you can nail the throttle but still easily hear Just a Minute on Radio 4.
‘They’re affordable, stylish, well-built and very reliable if you buy one in good condition,’ says the SL Shop’s Bruce Greetham. ‘Ensure it’s an original car that hasn’t been messed with and that there’s a complete history of maintenance. If you do, then you can budget between £300-£500 per year to keep it on the road – not including insurance and road tax.’
Between £3000 and £5000 will buy you a runner, but it’ll likely cost you more in the long run. A nice one will be £8000-£12,000, while £15,000-£23,000 should secure a low-mileage, mint example. The rare AMG models – including the 354bhp SL55 and 525bhp SL73 – can cost considerably more. These were very expensive cars when new, so you shouldn’t expect to run one on a shoestring.
If you’re seeking a modern, open-topped experience of undoubted style and grace then a 500 – either pre- or post-facelift – should be at the top of your list.
‘The biggest leap was in terms of safety – the 500 SL was rammed to all four wings with the latest in automotive design.
Owning a Mercedes-Benz 500SL R129
'In its Pure' early 500SL form - orange Indicators, contrasting "Sacco panels" and many other nuanced details - it's one of the best-looking cars ever made, ’says Richard Clouston. 'Once they messed around with the design and started facelifting, Mercedes had lost its way. I was specifically looking for an excellent, low- mileage early car in my favoured colour - "199 Blauschwarz" - and when one came up I bought it immediately. It's a discreet, elegant car. Given that it's a 32-valve, 5.0-litre V8, I love that the exhaust pipes are concealed - imagine a manufacturer doing that today! Around town and over long distances it's very relaxing to drive, but when you press on it's highly rewarding. It's imperative to replace all worn parts, and I recommend having a specialist carry out preventative maintenance. Buy the very best, then budget a further £10,000 to bring it up to muster and future-proof the car.'
Our assembled cars offer real choice within the Mercedes-Benz world. You’ll never run them on a shoestring but then neither should you want to. The old maxim ‘buy the best you can’ applies to all.
In the saloon category, the 450 SEL 6.9 W116 and 190E Cosworth W201 occupy different poles; both are performance machines but deliver their considerable thrust in entirely different manners. If you like highrolling and understated styling, then go for a 6.9. For wannabe Touring Car drivers who like a focused driver’s machine then the Cosworth delivers that in a more modern and compact visual package.
In the battle of the drop-tops, there’s very little to separate them. Despite being heavier, the V8 SL 500 delivers the greater performance punch, but it simply boils down to whether there’ll be two of you travelling or if the whole family will be coming along. Each offers a smooth and sophisticated driving experience, safety aids aplenty and modern styling that remains fresh.
Our final category, the coupés, is an easy choice. A sorted W123 is a cracking buy and trumps its rival on affordability. Both have legendary longevity, but if you have the budget then it has to be the 280 SE Coupé. It’s an enigma; there’s nothing show-off about it, and everything show-off about it at the same time. With style and substance in abundance, it’s the Barry White of coupés. And such is its presence, if a woman saw you behind the wheel she’d instantly know you’re a lover, not a fighter.
Thanks to: The owners, The Mercedes-Benz Club (Mercedes-benz-club.co.uk), Charles Ironside (charlesironside.co.uk), Xclusive Motorz (xclusivemotorz.wix.com/ xclusivemotorz), The SL Shop (theslshop.com), Rhys Mangat, Bruce Greetham and Richard Clouston.
Want elegant, relaxed transport? Take your pick (apart from the fiery 190E 2.3 Cosworth...)
Quentin's Willson's analysis
Most classic Mercs are hot right now, particularly the modern Eighties, Nineties and Millennium cars. Fine, low-mileage Cosworth 190Es W201 are usable, fast I and in very short supply, so I can see them improving further. The Mercedes-Benz R129 500 SL has really picked up in value lately but only consider proper, small-mileage examples. Shabby, starship 500s will always cost a fortune to recondition and never really appreciate due to weight of numbers. But find a fresh and lovely sub-50,000-mile original one and it v/ill make a very wise investment with potential to hit £20k before too long. V8 R129s are definitely on the move, and don't forget the V12 600 SLs either.
The W124 E320 Cabriolet is another rising star and worth buying now. You can still find decent ones for less than £15,000 (just) but good E320 rag-tops are also well on the way to £20.000. The W123 280 CE is the real bargain of this test, with decent examples still buyable for around £5000. All low-mileage and mint 280 CEs are definite gainers. The iconic Sixties 280SE Coupes are going to carry on rising - particularly the RHD 3.5-litre specimens as there were only 259 built. The Coupe W111 is gilt-edged and can only go one way. And that's broadly true of the hot-rod V8 450 SEL W116 as well with prices hardening fast. Which one would I buy? Easy - the big, bad 6.9. For smiles-per-mile it's my winner by a huge, tyre-smoking margin.
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