1995 Mercedes-Benz SL 320 R129The 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.
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
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’