1965 Mercedes-Benz 230SL W113 vs. 1977 350SL R107, 1995 SL320 R129, 2000 SLK230K R170 and 2003 SL55 AMG R230

The Big Test The Merc SLs to buy now. In to the Leicht 5 Mercedes SLs. Our sharp choices for stylish cruising plus Frank Knothe’s SL design secrets. ‘No car makes you feel quite so good about life as a Mercedes-Benz SL, yet they’re still amazing value’ We make the case for the most undervalued yet rewarding Mercedes SLs to own. Cover Into the Leicht The long-running Mercedes-Benz SL has always offered reliability, luxury and style in spades – but some variants offer particularly good value in today’s market, too. We gather our five sharp picks for stylish cruising. Few other cars can make you feel as good about life as a Mercedes-Benz SL. We pick the best buys across five generations. Words Russ Smith. Photography Charlie Magee.

Russ Smith Written by Monday, 30 October 2017 12:29

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Mercedes-Benz – the choice of the sensible enthusiast. It’s a stereotype with substance and the long-running Sports Leicht series has provided ideal fodder for those who want a sports car and are willing to trade a little excitement to own a car they can spend more time driving than fixing; one that won’t leave your garage floor looking like a war zone. People will pay a premium for that kind of thing, which usually elevates SL prices above those of their rivals.


1965 Mercedes-Benz 230SL W113 vs. 1977 350SL R107, 1995 SL320 R129, 2000 SLK230K R170 and 2003 SL55 AMG R230
1965 Mercedes-Benz 230SL W113 vs. 1977 350SL R107, 1995 SL320 R129, 2000 SLK230K R170 and 2003 SL55 AMG R230

But there are still a few models that we think are behind the curve and we’ve gathered them together for a closer look. Even better, some of them disprove the above theory by not trading of much excitement but still conforming to Mercedes’ principles of quality.


1965 Mercedes-Benz 230SL W113 vs. 1977 350SL R107, 1995 SL320 R129, 2000 SLK230K R170 and 2003 SL55 AMG R230
1965 Mercedes-Benz 230SL W113 vs. 1977 350SL R107, 1995 SL320 R129, 2000 SLK230K R170 and 2003 SL55 AMG R230


 

1965 Mercedes-Benz 230 SL W113

The 1963 Mercedes-Benz 230/250/280 SL W113 was the first of the ‘Pagoda’ series of roadsters, so-named for the shape of their optional hardtops, that added a dash of glamour-puss to Mercedes’ range in the Sixties. Those who really know SLs will also tell you it’s the best of the Pagoda bunch to drive, thanks in no small part to less weight and a slightly revvier engine. But unlike many other classics, from the Jaguar E-type to the Fiat 124 Spider, the original concept-pure model is also currently the cheapest to buy. Buyers are still being seduced by the larger-engined, more luxurious and plentiful 280 SL.

That is patently quite daft, especially because you are more likely to find a 230 SL with a manual gearbox, which further improves any SL’s behind-the-wheel appeal. Not that the 230 SL is ever short of that, whatever the gearbox. You’ll always be wooed by the elegant styling and exquisite details; you feel special just being in it.


1965 Mercedes-Benz 230 SL W113 road test
1965 Mercedes-Benz 230 SL W113 road test. Don’t overlook a 230 SL Pagoda thinking it’s underequipped – it’s just as good to drive yet costs 15% less than its bigger-engined siblings.

That compensates for the fact that the 230 SL, though capable of being chucked about a bit if you must, is more in the mould of a GT than a sports car. It is often compared with the E-type I mentioned earlier, but really the Merc is closer in character to the Aston Martin DB5. No surprise because when new the 230 SL was much closer in price to the Aston than the bargain-basement Jaguar that is far more race-bred.

Where the SL wins is in areas like comfort, with some of the most comfortable and embracing seats to be found in any Sixties two-seater, and detail. For me the car’s trump card is that slickly body-coloured and chrome-trimmed rear deck panel that is hinged out of the way then clicked into place to conceal the lowered soft-top. It makes everything else in its class look untidy.

Despite what I’ve said, don’t think the 230 SL is completely devoid of sportiness. There’s a pleasant directness to the steering and it’s always eager to change direction, with a lot less body roll than I was expecting and an impressive level of grip from those skinny-looking 185/70 tyres. Criticism by others of the swing-axle rear suspension proves largely unfounded too; the tail only gets twitchy if you brake too late for a corner or lift of in the middle of one. I’d call that operator error more than serious design law. There’s also a lightness of touch to the whole car that you just don’t get in the later SLs.

Most of the time the engine note is quite subdued, but get it over 4000rpm – where its revvy nature is happy to take you – and it does the right thing and makes proper snarly straight-six sounds. Even more impressive are the brakes, which are remarkably strong and predictable for a car of this era. Put an E-type owner in one of these and they’ll be green with envy on that score.

These Mercs are a lot more affordable than an Jaguar E-type too. You will see some 230 SLs advertised for close to six figures but unless they are really exceptional and fresh out of restoration that’s more than a bit speculative. There are properly nice cars to be had in the £50-75k range, and complete restoration projects can be found for under £20,000. Take care though – those can easily end up costing six figures in a rebuild. All that is a good 15 per cent less than you’d pay for a similar 280SL. It doesn’t take a great stretch of imagination to see that gap closing.

‘Unlike E-types and the Fiat 124 Spider, the original concept-pure model is also the cheapest to buy’


Owning a 230 SL W113

Lyn George’s 230 SL was a present from her husband Rob five years ago. ‘It was chosen because it’s a very nice original car that’s not been apart,’ she says. ‘Other than regular maintenance by Mercedes specialist Kim Cairns, it’s just had a new hood and carpet since I got it, along with some correct original hubcaps. One day it didn’t start because a sticking fuel pump, but that was a ten-minute fix. I’ll admit it doesn’t get used as much as I’d like, though I do sometimes use it for shopping and to take the kids to school. But therein lies one of its benefits: I can leave it for months and – apart from that one time – it always starts easily. It’s not fast but is much nicer to drive than a 280 SL and is just painless classic motoring. I’ll probably keep it forever because it’s so nice, both to look at and to drive.’


TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1965 Mercedes-Benz 230 SL W113

Engine 2306cc iron block/alloy head inline-six, sohc, Bosch fuel injection

Power and torque 150bhp @ 5500rpm; 159lb ft @ 4500rpm / DIN

Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Steering Recirculating ball

Suspension

Front: independent by coil springs, wishbones, telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar.

Rear: independent swing axles with coil springs, radius arms, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar

Brakes Discs front, drums rear, servo-assisted

Weight 1328kg (2933lb)

Performance Top speed: 121mph; 0-60mph: 10.7sec

Fuel consumption 24mpg

Cost new £3595

Classic Cars Price Guide £32,500-£80,000


1965 Mercedes-Benz 230 SL W113 interior
1965 Mercedes-Benz 230 SL W113 interior. 2.3 inline-six is less potent but rev-happier than larger variants. A picture of Sixties elegance – plus you’re more likely to find one with a manual.

 


 

1977 Mercedes-Benz 350 SL R107

Even Mercedes-Benz must have been surprised by the success and longevity of its R107 roadsters. After all, it did take a bit of a flyer with the Pagoda’s replacement by focusing on beefy engineering rather than any real sporting pretensions. It’s hard to argue with those who say that with this generation, the SL stands for ‘Solid Lump’. The reason for doing that was to grow sales in an increasingly safety-conscious America, so the body was made larger and all from steel, forgoing the predecessor’s use of aluminium and reinforcing everything to, in effect, make it a good car to crash. As a result, the first R107 to be launched, in 1971 – the 350 SL, which is also our pick for this feature – was 240kg (17 per cent) heavier than the 280 SL it replaced, and that in itself was 87kg heavier than the 230 L, which is where we came in. That growing obesity used up all the extra oomph provided by the new 3.5-litre V8; both 280 SL and 350 SL posted an identical 0-60 time.


1977 Mercedes-Benz 350SL R107 road test
1977 Mercedes-Benz 350SL R107 road test. As with all cars that were cheap for long periods, always chose condition and history over a low mileage when evaluating an R107 for purchase.

If that sounds disappointing, none of it mattered to buyers. After the Jaguar V12 E-type bowed out in 1973 Mercedes pretty well had the premium two-seater drop-top market to itself, and the R107’s Paul Bracq-led styling proved so timelessly elegant that the car continued to sell well for 18 years almost unchanged. In that time Mercedes built almost a quarter of a million of them. When it finally stopped, the SL became an instant classic.

Much of the above probably undersells the 350 SL’s virtues. Sure, you aren’t going to be lighting up the rear tyres at the traffic lights any time soon, but 195bhp is still not to be sniffed at. It’s best to think of the R107 as a very capable GT which, when fitted with the heavy optional hardtop, it very much is. On the other hand they’re also very good at the fresh air thing and employs the same hide-the-hood-under-the-rear-deck trick as the Pagoda.

The other thing that adds to the 350 SL’s GT persona is that most were bought with an automatic gearbox rather than the standard four-speed manual. So that too dulls the performance edge, even if it does actually suit the Merc’s wafting, long-journey nature. To be honest I’m enjoying the car enough to quickly forget about it.

And that’s the point – however underwhelming some of what I’ve said may sound, the R107 really is a lovely car to drive. It’s other natural rival, especially later on when Jaguar finally got round to engineering its open versions, was the XJ-S, alongside which the Merc does start to feel sporting. Though its light power steering doesn’t provide much in the way of feel, the SL goes exactly where you point it and the handling is delightfully neutral in most situations, only giving way to mild understeer when you take liberties. The smaller and twistier roads get, the more the Merc’s advantages over the Jag come to the fore. That’s helped by a quite upright driving position that makes it seem smaller and easier to place in corners.

When buying one of these don’t be too hung up on mileage. If looked after properly an R107 will clock up mega-miles without trouble. It is almost always far better to buy a well-used car from the hands of a keen and diligent enthusiast than a low-miler that’s sat around for years. It is also worth remembering that R107s were pretty cheap for a long time and many got matching low levels of care. Read the history file with your best cynical head on.

Like any car from this era they rust, but the Merc can hide it well so check carefully. It is well documented that the most important area to check is the front bulkhead, and holes here will also cause damp carpets and musty smells. The SL Shop now sells a bespoke set of replacement panels for £250, but fitting them is involved and time-consuming because the dashboard, heater and wiring will need to come out. Labour costs will add several thousand pounds. So it’s best to look for a car that’s had this work done or doesn’t need it, but if the price is right it can still be worth the investment as R107 values continue to rise. It will add value and appeal.

The six-cylinder 300 SL and V8 500 SL variants fetch the biggest money, which is why we’ve highlighted the 350 SL. Along with other non-double-zero SLs, it lags behind the favourites to the tune of about 20 per cent – you can still find a nice example for £13,000 if you take the time to look around.


1977 Mercedes-Benz 350 SL R107
1977 Mercedes-Benz 350 SL R107 interior and engine. Most were specced with the optional auto ’box, but that suits the R107’s character. Understressed V8 helps the 350 SL waft with ease.

‘Servicing costs are low if you do a modest annual mileage – mine usually only needs an oil change’

‘When compared with an XJ-S an R107 starts to feel sporting, despite the heft’


Owning a 350 SL

Tony Fuller has owned his R107 280 SL for seven years. ‘I do about 2000 miles a year, mainly to shows and days out to the coast, though we’ve also been on a Mercedes Club tour to Spain,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to put too many miles on it – currently 91,000. I have an R129 SL 500 that I use for longer trips. With the low annual mileage, servicing costs are good – mainly just an oil change – though as a retired engineer I carry out any work myself. Mine did suffer from the common scuttle shake caused by hardened rubber mounts so I replaced the engine and front subframe mounts, suspension rubbers and engine stay and, with the 18-yearold tyres replaced too, it transformed the car. A tip regarding bulkhead rot – pour a jug of water into each scuttle vent and if it leaks into the footwells walk away.’


TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1977 Mercedes-Benz 350 SL R107

Engine 3499cc V8, sohc per bank, Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection

Power and torque 195bhp @ 5500rpm; 202lb ft @ 4000rpm / DIN

Transmission Three-speed automatic

Steering Recirculating ball

Suspension

Front: independent by coil springs, wishbones, telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar.

Rear: independent by semi-trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar.

Brakes Front: ventilated discs; Rear: solid discs, servo-assisted

Weight 1640kg (3611lb)

Performance Top speed: 128mph; 0-60mph: 9.3sec

Fuel consumption 20mpg

Cost new £7555 CC

Price Guide £6k-£20k



 

1995 Mercedes-Benz SL 320 R129

The R107 was always going to be a hard act to follow, so Mercedes-Benz didn’t rush into it. In fact, the R129’s eight-year gestation period was longer than many cars’ production runs. It took five years alone to develop the roll-over bar that pops up in 0.03sec if the car titls to 26º. As ae result it arrived as a very well-resolved machine, built the old-school Mercedes way and without the cost-cutting and corrosion issues that plagued other Nineties Mercs.

It was also, in the manner of the R107, quite a lump – best viewed as a fast convertible rather than an out-and-out sports car. But that’s what SL buyers had become attuned to and wanted. They still do; the car played to the established market. In that way it is a true successor to the R107, a little larger and heavier but finally making a break and moving the SL’s appearance on into a new era from the recognisable style set by Bruno Sacco with the first Pagoda more than 25 years earlier.


1995 Mercedes-Benz SL 320 R129
1995 Mercedes-Benz SL 320 R129 test drive. This is a car that makes you want to drive to warmer destinations, so make sure the roof works.

You do feel that weight from behind the wheel. I owned a W124 saloon for several years and you can sense the family connection from the driver’s seat, particularly with the SL’s top raised. The saloon may have rolled more in corners, but both have the same feeling of being solidly planted on the road, with the same steering tactility that manages to be both effortless yet somehow meaty at the same time. It gives you utter confidence in the car’s abilities, along with the calming embrace that comes from feeling safe, even if you can’t pin down exactly why. That might make the R129 sound a bit dull but it isn’t. In fact the V8 and SL 600 V12 models were serious performers, but you’ll have to pay significantly more for one of those in the current market. But, usually lost in the shadows of their rowdier brothers, the six-cylinder models are no slouches either, as the figures in the specification box show.

That 231bhp from the SL 320 we have here really gets the job done, especially when I flick the switch to put the auto ’box (the UK got no manual option) into Sport mode. That holds onto the lower ratios for longer so you feel the full torque-thrust and hear a bit of growl from the engine that at other times just purrs.

It all makes the supportive – if a bit on the firm side – perforated leather seat a pleasant place to be, and there are enough (electric) adjustments to that seat and the steering wheel to allow anyone outside the cast of a circus to find their perfect driving position. Control position is out of an ergonomics textbook and everything has that built-to-last feel to it. And that applies equally to even the electric hood mechanism, which is a joy to watch, if not quite as balletic as the SLK’s folding solid roof. My overall impression is of a car that makes me want to plan long drives to warmer destinations, secure in the knowledge that I will arrive as planned, unflustered and looking forward to the return journey.

Given all the above you might start to wonder why they are not more expensive. Let’s add a ‘yet’ to that, because we are convinced they will not stay this cheap for much longer. Remember that the same thing happened to the R107, because its epic production run meant it took longer for the early examples to be accepted as classics while the later ones were merely considered secondhand cars. The R129 also managed a long run of 12 years, only being replaced in 2001.

There are still a lot about and they tend to last well, and this is the time to seek out the good ones. We recently saw a smart 71,000-mile SL320 sell at auction for £6820, and that isn’t an exceptional figure. Compare that to where R107s are now and you can see the future. The V8 and V12 models are starting to rise. Buying an R129 isn’t too scary, either. You do need to check the straight-six engines for signs of head gasket failure – mayo under the filler cap and traces of oil in the coolant and vice versa – but it’s not the end of the world and these super-tough engines will do 300k if regularly serviced. The weakest point on R129s is electronics, so poor running is likely to be sensors or ECUs, and make sure everything electrical works as it should. That may take a while but don’t skimp or you will regret it later.


Owning an SL 320 R129

Keith McLean bought this four years ago. ‘It was in a kind of swap deal for my old Merc R107 with the dealer Coupe & Cabriolet in Lancashire,’ he says. ‘It had only done 24,000 miles and was a good honest, straight car. It still only has 28,000 on the clock, though I’ve twice been to the continent on Mercedes-Benz Club tours, where I’ve had close to 30mpg. In that time it’s never been out in the wet and the only thing that’ needed replacing was the nearside door mirror because the old one wouldn’t adjust. I picked up a new old-stock one. I had an early history in the motor trade so do my own oil and filter changes and any brake work, so it’s cost nothing to run. I suppose I might sell it for the right money if I had something else in mind to replace it, but at the moment I don’t.’

‘The only thing that needed replacing was the nearside door mirror – I picked up a NOS one’


TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1995 Mercedes-Benz SL 320 R129

Engine 3199cc iron block/alloy head inline-six, DOHC, Bosch KE-Jetronic fuel injection

 Power and torque 231bhp @ 5600rpm; 232lb ft @ 3750rpm / DIN

Transmission Five-speed auto, rear-wheel drive

Steering Recirculating ball

Suspension

Front: independent by damper struts, lower wishbones, coil springs and anti-roll bar.

Rear: Independent with five-link axle location, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar.

Brakes Front and rear: ventilated discs, servo-assisted

Weight 1782kg (3925lb)

Performance Top speed: 149mph; 0-60mph: 8.4sec

Fuel consumption 23mpg

Cost new £60,700 CC

Price Guide £3500-£11,000


‘You might wonder why these are not more expensive. They won’t stay this cheap for long’


1995 Mercedes-Benz SL 320 R129 interior and engine
1995 Mercedes-Benz SL 320 R129 interior and engine. Seats and steering fully adjustable – very comfortable. Six-cylinder gets the job done well, especially in Sport mode.

 


 

2000 Mercedes-Benz SLK 230K R170

You could see the SLK 230 Kompressor (K for kurz, which means ‘short’) as a bit of an imposter here because it’s not a pure SL and – despite ever-growing car dimensions across the board – is a foot shorter and a couple of inches narrower even than the original 230 SL, and 78kg lighter. However, it does follow in the spirit of the original Fifties Mercedes SLs – with the top-dog 300 SL Gullwing and Roadster and their kid brother 190 SL. When the 230 SL was introduced it replaced both of those, so you can in effect take the SLK 230 as a late replacement for the 190SL.

With that out of the way we can get down to the nitty-gritty and point out what an absolute bargain this Porsche Boxster and BMW Z3 rival is now. Our 53,000-mile test car could be bought for £3500, and that isn’t an exception. That’s not a lot of money for a supercharged 193bhp sports car with a folding electric roof that is so much fun you could play with it all day long. Other SLK models are available but we’re focusing on the 2.3-litre 230 Kompressor because as it exists in large numbers, why would you want one of those with a lesser engine for hardly any less money? This is also the model we see as having the best long-term growth potential once their numbers start to decline. Never underestimate the power of the word ‘supercharger’ or ‘Kompressor’ on a car, guys.


2000 Mercedes-Benz SLK 230K R170 road test
2000 Mercedes-Benz SLK 230K R170 road test. SLK stays firmly planted, even on rough surfaces, although ride can be a little on the bumpy side.

Because they have identical power outputs, the direct comparison is between the SLK 230 and the BMW Z3 2.8, a car I know well because my ex has owned one for years. Much as I like the Beemer, it’s not a car you can totally trust. In fact it can be unnervingly twitchy when it comes to camber changes or rough surfaces. Show the Merc the same roads and it doesn’t blink, but remains planted – it’s that word again – and well-trained, not something that’s likely to turn and bite you at any moment. The SLK doesn’t feel as alive in your hands, but I’d happily take the trade-off in this case and not live on the edge quite so much. The ride isn’t top-notch, like a Boxster; in fact it can be a bit lumpy, but it’s still not bad enough to put me off owning one of these.

Even better is the way power is delivered. When asked to trickle around town between Halfords and the M&S Food Hall it’s as docile as a Renault Clio; smoother if anything. But press the right pedal a little nearer the carpet and from anything above 2000rpm you get a rewarding and unflinching wall of torque all the way up the rev range. Not that you’ll ever need to wring out the revs like you would in the Z3, because an early shift will plonk you right in that big torque band and keep the steady thrust going all the way.

Special mention must be made of the Recaro-made seats, which manage to be Mercedes-firm yet comfortable and supportive at the same time. They are also unusually narrow for a Merc, adding to the sporty feel you get from the cockpit. Falling nicely to hand next to the handbrake is a big red button that might be mistaken for operating the hazard warning lights if it weren’t shaped to match the folding hardtop. Hold it in the ‘down’ position and the windows drop, the boot tilts backwards, there’s a double-thunk from the header rail as it unlatches, then the roof folds itself in half and disappears into the boot and the lid closes again.

And if you are buying an SLK one of the first things to do is to raise and lower the roof a couple of times to make sure it does all of that. They are well made but also have a lot of mechanisms that can wear and go wrong, and putting a bad one right can cost almost as much as the car is worth – and they are more likely to develop problems if not used regularly.

As with all Mercs from this era, check for rust. It’s a bit of a lottery as to whether an individual car gets affected or not, but you are most likely to find it in wheelarches, around door handles, and creeping in from panel edges. That’s the cosmetic stuff; you should also check the underside too, of course.

You can pick up SLKs for less than £1000 now, but a far better investment is one of the many low-milers about with good history. Even the current top-end figure of £4750 doesn’t feel like a lot for a car that should give a lot less trouble.


Owning an SLK 230 Kompressor R170

Bruce Greetham has had his SLK Kompressor for four years. ‘It’s my wife’s car really,’ he says. ‘It only gets used on high days and holidays and averages about 1500 miles a year. Nothing significant has gone wrong and it has cost no more than £250 a year to service and maintain. That’s the key – the mechanical bits are pretty good so regular maintenance and use will keep a good SLK running for years without much expense. It’s rust that’s the big issue with these, most often found on wheelarches, the lower parts of both front and rear wings and under the boot handle. Other things to check for are a rattle from the compressor bearings and electric seats not moving because of a failed relay. It’s also common for the centre console covering to peel away, making it look scruffy.’


TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 2000 Mercedes-Benz SLK 230K R170

Engine 2295cc iron block/alloy head inline-four, dohc, Bosch ME-Jetronic fuel injection, Eaton supercharger

Power and torque 193bhp @ 5300rpm; 207lb ft @ 2500-4800rpm / DIN

Transmission Five-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive, traction control

Steering Recirculating ball

Suspension

Front: independent by wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar.

Rear: Independent with five-link axle location, coil springs, telescopic dampers

Brakes front and rear: ventilated discs, servo-assisted, ABS

Weight 1250kg (2750lb)

Performance Top speed: 142mph; 0-60mph: 7.3sec

Fuel consumption 24mpg

Cost new £31,640

Value now £1500-£4800


‘Around town it’s docile, but from above 2000rpm you get a rewarding and unflinching wall of torque’


2000 Mercedes-Benz SLK 230K R170 engine and interior
2000 Mercedes-Benz SLK 230K R170 engine and interior. Supercharger liberates 193bhp from 2.3 litres. Cockpit has a sporty feel. helped by narrow, but comfortable, Recaro seats.

 

2003 Mercedes-Benz SL 55 AMG R230

Anyone who doubts this car’s early pass into the classic hall of fame may not quite get what they are looking at. That may be understandable, as even in bad-ass black AMG’s spin on the R230 model, the SL 55 AMG hardly shouts ‘supercar’. But that’s near as damn it what it is. Only the arch-filling tyres and underplayed ‘V8 Kompressor’ badges hint there’s something special going on here.

The R230 was a nice enough replacement for the R129 – neat modern styling and a genuine step up in technology, with even a nod to the true meaning of ‘SL’ as they came out around 50kg lighter than equivalent R129s. But put into the hands of the engineers at Mercedes’ tuning arm, AMG, a legend was created. Starting with the awesome supercharged 5.4-litre V8 from the E55 saloon, a few tweaks added 22bhp to make this the most powerful Mercedes-Benz ever produced at the time of its launch in 2002. Try this for context – it was also more powerful than a V12 Aston Martin Vanquish, and produced more torque than a Ferrari 550 Maranello. So not just any old SL then.


2003 Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG road test
2003 Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG road test. If you’re expecting a rock-hard ride you’ll be pleasantly surprised – the AMG is wonderfully compliant.

AMG attended to the rest of the running gear too, setting up the self-levelling active suspension to cope with the new demands without overdoing it. I’d expected to experience something set rock-hard for Nürburgring blasts but found a level of compliance more in tune with a pockmarked B1052. A neat trick, accompanied by brakes that are nothing short of epic; apparently the front pads are twice the size of those on a stock SL 500. They feel like it, too.

I’m also impressed by the view ahead, which is computer-game clear thanks to the car’s wedgy profile, meaning that without actually doing so I feel I’m sitting quite high and the bonnet falls away from an already low starting point at the base of the screen. It helps me feel confident about going quickly quite early on. But the truth is there’s almost no other way to go in this car, it just eggs you on and, thanks to the massive torque that kicks in from remarkably low revs, even the slightest toe-flex has it haring off down the road. I have to tame it – tough when you want to keep hearing the engine note, a muted tribute to American muscle cars.

The feel and layout of the cabin tells me it’s from the same stable as the R129, though the seats are a little more embracing and there are more post-millennial shiny plastics in evidence. I also spare a wry smile for the twin-binnacle instrument pods that house the speedo and rev-counter and look like they’ve been lifted from an Alfa Romeo. Still, compared with the early SLs, the cabin does look sportier for them.

The best news is that you can buy into all this action for prices that are currently in the mid-teens for average examples, rising to high teens for smart ones with below average miles, of which there are quite a number about. SL55s seem to have been commonly bought as second car toys by people with the money to also look after them properly. That should be reassuring for a buyer, because any car with this potential and complication needs to be cared for and have the proof of that. I’d run scared from any example that didn’t have all the right servicing paperwork and stamps, but you’ll not struggle to find good examples. They appear to be at the bottom of their depreciation curve now, and some dealers are starting to price the best examples in the £20ks – and we don’t see those levels remaining speculative for long.

Main checks should be for water leaks into the boot (feel and sniff for damp), which causes all manner of knock-on problems, and operation of the folding electric roof, plus that of the central locking system. As with the R129 there can be issues with ECUs, so be wary of anything with even a hint of misfire, and walk away from anything with an illuminated warning light.

All these SLs have that intangible Mercedes thing that makes you feel special to be driving them. OK, even a £200 banger Merc can do that, but it’s multiplied by being able to drop the roof and aim for some bends. They all have their merits, and all five we tested have the potential to increase in value, even if only by sums that could cover enough of their running costs to make you feel even better about having bought one in the first place.

I’m tempted into buying an SLK simply because they offer so much for so little. It would have to be another colour than silver though. Pagodas are bewitching and the delicacy of the original 230 SL makes it hard to believe they remain cheaper than the later 250 and 280 models. Even after a lot of miles in the 350 SL I hadn’t tired of it, helped by that V8, and the SL 320 is even more tempting thanks to its cost/benefit ratio. But it’s the AMG SL 55 that’s left the greatest mark on me. An awesome car that really is worth raiding the piggy bank for.


Owning an SL 55 AMG R230

Former 280 SE 3.5 racer Peter Jackson has owned this since January. ‘It’s my latest in quite a range of Mercs,’ he says. ‘My wife has an SL 500 which is a lovely car so I had to have one too. While I was looking I saw this for sale and wondered what all the SL 55 hype had been about. When I drove it I had to have it. The difference between the SL 500 and the SL 55? They’re chalk and cheese. It’s now my everyday car, doing about 12,000 miles a year. You really have to keep on top of the maintenance, though. I have it looked after by IG Motor Services in Swaffham, and on top of servicing it has so far needed engine mounts and one new front strut. Oh, and a solenoid washer was leaking oil, so that was sorted too. It’s never going to be a cheap car to run, but it’s worth it.’

‘The difference between the SL 500 and the SL 55? They’re chalk and cheese’


TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 2003 Mercedes-Benz SL 55 AMG R230

Engine 5439cc all-alloy V8, sohc per bank, SFI fuel injection

Power and torque 476bhp @ 6100rpm; 516lb ft @ 2650-4500rpm / DIN

Transmission five-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive, traction control

Steering Rack and pinion, power-assisted

Suspension

Front: independent by wishbones, coil and self-levelling hydraulic springs, telescopic dampers.

Rear: independent with five-link axle location, coil and self-levelling hydraulic springs, telescopic dampers.

Brakes Front and rear: ventilated and cross-drilled discs, servo-assisted, ABS

Weight 1955kg (4305lb)

Performance Top speed: (limited to) 155mph; 0-60mph: 4.7sec

Fuel consumption 20mpg

Cost new £91,345

Classic Cars Price Guice £9500-£18,000


2003 Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG interior and engine
2003 Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG interior and engine. The interior is unremarkably R129, with lots of shiny plastic, although seats hug more firmly. Supercharged V8 makes the SL 55 more powerful than a V12 Aston Martin Vanquish.

 

The engineer who drove the SL to greatness

Frank Knothe has been one of the key figures in the engineering and development of Mercedes-Benz SLs from 1966 to 2006. When he joined the company he worked on the W113 Pagoda up to the R230, including the SLK (R170) before, spanning a four-decade stint at the Stuttgart-based company. Here are some of his thoughts and highlights of SL development during these years.

What was your earliest highlight at Mercedes?

One of my first jobs was installing the M130 engine (2.8-litre, six-cylinder) into the 280 SL. This was my first recollection of the Pagoda. However, at that time development engineer Erich Waxenberger wanted more power for the car, so he installed the 6.3-litre V8 engine. It was a special occasion when he presented the car to the board of management. The test Pagoda pulled away with spinning tyres and smoke, partly owing to the terrible weight distribution… the board decided it was not the right project!


Frank Knothe
Frank Knothe

What changes were focused on during R107 development?

We developed a totally new suspension set-up and axles – the latter similar to the W114/W115. There was also a huge push to increase passive safety. The strengthened A-pillars were important, especially for the US market for rollover protection.

Why was the R107 in production for nearly two decades?

It sold well, and unlike today there were no legal or environmental reasons to push through the release of a new car. Obviously, we were working and developing its successor. My personal relationship with the R107 is special, because it was the first car and range I was totally engaged with. I actually bought a facelifted model in the late Eighties, a 300 SL. It was a car that formed part of our Mercedes-Benz fleet for a number of years as we were busy developing the R129. I also have an old Austin-Healey.

When did the idea for the SLK surface?

The discussions about this started in the late Eighties. The Mazda MX-5 had come to market and we were thinking of developing a competitor. We actually could have brought out the SLK sooner if we had finished our discussions earlier. In the end, it wasn’t such a bad idea to take our time in developing the car, because we then launched it with a retractable hardtop, which was a unique selling point at the time.

In terms of electronics, how groundbreaking was the R230?

This was a very satisfying project for me. The dynamic capability of the car was high on the priority list. The result is that we installed the ABC (Active Body Control) suspension system. We were quite proud of the fact that we caused a little headache for our colleagues at Zuffenhausen.

Is there one range or model that stands out for you?

All the cars are highlights. But sometimes it is the people you meet, work with or the special memories you make that connects you on an emotional level with a car. That is not to say that one car is better than another.


Thanks to: The SL Shop (theslshop.com), Anglia Car Auctions (angliacarauctions.co.uk), Mercedes-Benz Club (mercedes-benz-club.co.uk).


Frank Knothe
Clockwise from above: Knothe’s SLs included R107, R129 and R23

Russ Smith

Road tests editor and expert

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