Mercedes-Benz SL R107 and Jaguar XJ-S

2015 Drive-My

Open Season – Mercedes-Benz SL R107 and Jaguar XJ-S compare. Which of these two iconic convertibles from the Eighties, the XJ-S convertible and R107 generation of Mercedes-Benz SL, is the best? These two iconic Eighties convertibles from different backgrounds today make surprisingly similar-priced classic propositions.

As the Eighties drew to a close, buyers seeking a classy convertible to cruise the length and breadth of Europe would have considered it perfectly reasonable to have the Jaguar XJ-S convertible and the R107 Mercedes SL on the same shopping list. Both were expensive cars with muscular powerplants and a fair turn of speed, both were ideal long-distance grand tourers and both offered seating for four.

Rewind a few years to the beginning of the car models’ lives, though, and it couldn’t have been more different. The Mercedes was designed from the outset purely as a convertible, to build on the popularity of the previous ‘Pagoda’ SL, and was an all-new design with nothing carried over from the older car and a range of engines spanning the sensible 2.8-litre six to a big V8.

The Jaguar on the other hand, began life as a coupe, the convertible not arriving until really rather late in its life, and was available initially only with a massive and thirsty V12 engine. The structure of the car was largely new, but most of its underpinnings were derived from the XJ saloon and the V12 powerplant was essentially the same as that which had debuted in the E-type.

Ironically though, the XJ-S outlasted the SL and, by the end of its life, was looking more modern than the Mercedes, which had seemed suddenly dated once its high-tech ‘R129’ successor had been launched. Today, the SL is a pricey proposition although affordable cars are still around if you search them out, while the XJ-S is only just emerging from years in the twilight and values are beginning to climb. All of which means that the two cars now have similar appeal to buyers looking for a four-seater open classic.

Mercedes-Benz SL R107 and Jaguar XJ-S


Jaguar XJ-S

The XJ-S originally launched in 1975 was a considerably different beast to the elegant convertible you see here.

Although it never quite captured the raw appeal of the older car, the XJ-S was originally conceived as a replacement for the E-type, which by then was looking rather old-fashioned. In a deliberate attempt to shed its stuffy wood and leather image, Jaguar embraced the modern world of the Seventies: designer Malcolm Sayer’s stark lines were a result of employing aerodynamic principles to shape the body; plastic bumpers replaced chrome detailing on the outside; while the wood disappeared from the dashboard to be replaced by modern plastic shapes. The result was a very modern car that, in the mid-Seventies, looked bang up-to-date, but the more traditional Jaguar buyers were to some extent frightened away and the car got off to a slow start. Jaguar worked hard to improve the details, though, and sales started to pick up.

In 1981, the HE cylinder heads were added to the V12 to drag fuel economy up from a dismal 14mpg to a quoted 22mpg – which may sound pretty thirsty, but represents a massive 57 percent improvement. The car received a minor facelift at the same time, gaining higher gearing (a 2.88 diff’ ratio against 3.07) and a move from 6in to 6.5x15in wheels with 215/70 tyres. The suspension was revised, the steering was sharpened up and the stark interior, which was so modern at launch, was given a more traditional wood and leather makeover.

The big news, though, was the addition of a straight-six engine to the range in 1983, courtesy of the forthcoming XJ40 saloon, for which a replacement for the long-serving XK engine had been developed. Dubbed AJ6, the 3.6-litre produced 225bhp, and with a five-speed manual provided a 145mph top end with 29mpg possible. Meanwhile, the lucrative US market was crying out for an open version of the XJ-S and Jaguar enlisted the assistance of German coachbuilder Karmann (responsible for the Beetle and Golf convertibles, among others) to engineer a full convertible. In the meantime, a stopgap was developed with the assistance of Tickford, just down the road in Coventry, to produce the XJ-SC, which retained the side windows of the coupe.

The full convertible was launched in 1988 and was an elegant piece of design, losing Sayer’s flying buttresses and transforming the XJ-S into a sleek cruiser that was still every inch a Jaguar. Launched with just the V12 engine, it was perfect for the US market. The following year, the six-cylinder engine was boosted to 4.0 litres and 238bhp, just as Jaguar passed into the ownership of the Ford Motor Company. This was met with outcry from pundits who feared that the quality of Jaguar products would be sacrificed in the quest for Ford’s profitability, but when the US firm sold Jaguar to Tata nearly 20 years later, it was reckoned that Ford hadn’t made a penny from its Coventry subsidiary. The products, on the other hand, had become a lot better, especially benefiting from Ford’s investment in production facilities – and one of the first decisions was to approve an XJ-S facelift (the car being renamed XJS in the process). A clever update of the original, the looks were streamlined with the awkward side window treatment modernised and the bodyshell pressings modified to use fewer separate components in the name of improved quality and rigidity.

The straight-six engines, now in AJ16 guise, had ousted the V12 as the engine of choice and when paired with a modern five-speed automatic ’box gave the car a useful pace.

When the proposed XJS replacement was cancelled on cost grounds, the facelifted car was left to carry on until the XK8 was ready and the final XJS, a 6.0-litre Celebration model, was produced in 1996. The car we have here is a perfect example of the late model XJS in the shape of a 1993 4.0-litre convertible and in most respects these are the ones to have – they benefit from all the improvements made to the car over its life and, although some enthusiasts will stick out for the 6.0-litre V12 engine and Celebration limited-edition trim, the 4.0-litre is much easier to live with and is still a quick car.

This one is in superb condition and the fact that you wouldn’t guess it had 111,000 miles on it until you were told, illustrates just how durable these facelifted cars are: there’s no corrosion and the bodywork is straight, which shows the benefits of the proper galvanising that the Nineties XJS received.

The interior ambience of this late-model XJS feels very Jaguar, with hardly a trace of the original Seventies interior style left. There is wood veneer on the dash and the doors, leather facings galore and modernised switchgear shared with the contemporary XJ saloon.

Jaguar XJ-S

The AJ16 engine runs modern engine management and fuel injection, and fires quickly to an unobtrusive idle – not as quiet as the V12, but refined nonetheless, and the ZF automatic takes up drive smoothly. Drive it gently and you ooze away from the kerb as serenely as any modern car, although if you bury your foot the big car feels surprisingly lively.

At first acquaintance, the XJS does feel like a big car and that trademark cosseting Jaguar ride can make you wary of driving it too hard, but as with all the best cars, it seems to shrink around you after just a few miles. It’s at this point that the depth of its capability starts to show. In reality, the XJS is a tidy handler and although we treated this one with the respect due, we’ve driven other examples hard enough to discover that when pushed they can be impressively fast crosscountry machines, equally at home on twisting British A-roads as barrelling down the autobahn. The fivespeed ZF automatic on the six-cylinder cars is a world away from the three-speed ‘box as fitted to the 5.3 V12s and makes the most of the engine without the constant need to stab at the kickdown.

The improved rigidity, given to the bodyshell by Ford’s input into production engineering, translates into an impressively shake-free experience. After all, this is a big car to be slicing the roof off, especially since those flying buttresses on the original design were there largely in the name of bodyshell strength. Practicality? Well, you won’t be carrying four adults all the way to Spain, but they won’t object too much to short jaunts out to summertime pub lunches. School-age children, though, won’t be struggling to fit into those back seats and, in that respect, the XJ-S makes a practical family classic. The power roof doesn’t do its trick in the 20 seconds of some new convertibles, but it’s quick enough and the roof itself is a multi-layered affair, which keeps out road noise. One legacy of the conversion from coupe to convertible is that the top is visible when folded, rather than being entirely hidden from sight, and that’s one reason why Jaguar didn’t offer a hard top. For that, you needed to go to Mercedes.


Mercedes SL

The R107 was the second generation of the modern SL line-up, which had begun with the W113 Pagoda – so named after the concave curves of its hardtop. Launched in 1971, it had a lifespan almost as long as the Jaguar, remaining in production until the late Eighties, with its 18 years on the showroom floor making it second only to the G-class off-roader. The R107 was an all-new design. Like the XJ-S, it borrowed bits of its underpinnings from the firm’s saloon range, in this case the W123 series. Because it was designed from the outset as a convertible, it did have an edge over the Jaguar, and Mercedes engineers were briefed to deliver the same levels of crash safety as a saloon car. Crumple zones featured, together with an engine and gearbox designed to be tilted down and back in the event of a frontal impact to minimise cabin intrusion. The A-pillar was also created from a hollow section and a thenunique welding process made it unusually strong in conjunction with the bonded-in screen.

Initially only available as the V8 350SL, the 450SL was added from 1973. In July 1974, the entry-level 280SL was added to the range, with the 380SL replacing the 350SL in 1980, and the 500SL replacing the 450SL in the same year. The facelift in 1985 ushered in a raft of engine changes including the straight-six 300SL, the 420SL V8 and the rare 560SL range-topper. At the same time, the cars were subtly improved, getting a new four-speed automatic ’box, flat-faced alloys to replace the ‘Mexican hat’ design of the earlier cars and the all-important galvanised bodyshell. The SL was offered with ABS from 1980 and buyers could even order an airbagged steering wheel from 1982, which shows just how far ahead of the safety game Mercedes was.

The R107 was replaced in 1989 by the R129, which was a feast of high-tech engineering and massively impressive. Somehow, it was a very different animal to the R107, being further from its predecessor than the Jaguar XK8 was from the XJ-S.

The R107 comes from an age when journalists were still using the phrase ‘hewn from granite’ in Mercedes road tests and these cars really are solid from stem to stern, from the gauge of steel used for the bumpers to the quality of the switchgear. After the XJS, the R107 feels very different and old fashioned in some ways. Drivers new to the SL often comment on how the steering wheel feels very close to the dashboard, and then there’s the traditional Mercedes use of a single chunky column stalk to control everything from wipers to lights. The interior is undeniably high quality, but feels almost stark in comparison to the Jaguar and very Germanic. There’s wood veneer and leather but the SL is somehow less traditional in its use of them and, in the early Eighties, would have seemed far more modern than the Jaguar.

The straight-six 300SL in our photos is another example in stock at the Classic & Sportscar Centre, and would have been a close match to the straightsix XJS back in the day.

Insert the key to the left of the big-rimmed wheel and the injected SL fires crisply into life. Where Jaguar’s saloons of the same era had the trademark J gate for the auto shifter, Mercedes had its own staggered pattern. With the shifter in D, the long-travel throttle pedal needs a good stab to get the car moving, but it feels brisk despite having only 180bhp on tap. Like the 4.0-litre XJS, the 300SL is often presented as the pick of the range, offering an ideal combination of performance and economy.

The ride isn’t as soothing as the Jaguar’s, but the trade-off is that the SL is more sporting, less of a big boat and more of a sports car. After the XJS, it certainly feels noticeably more compact but, oddly enough, the two share an identical width of 179cm, although the Mercedes is some 40cm shorter.

Driving an SL to its limits isn’t something you see being done very often and, in reality, it’s just not that sort of car. Ultimately it’s the XJS that is more capable, its independent rear end allowing higher limits than the Mercedes’ semi-trailing arm set-up. For most purposes, though, the SL is a tidy handler and certainly invites you to make the most of its power – like the XJS, it’s in its elements on fast, flowing A-roads and is also at home on the motorway.

 With the optional rear seats, the SL is just as family-friendly as the XJS, but one ace it does have up its sleeve, which the Jaguar simply can’t compete with, is the hardtop. A properly engineered unit, the hardtop transforms the SL into a snug coupe and saves the fabric roof from the ravages of winter weather. This makes the SL an ideal year-round classic – assuming that you’d be happy to take the car out on winter roads.

In the case of this particular example, it’s less of an issue than with earlier SLs because, as a 1986 model, it benefits from the galvanised body. Just like the XJS, a rusty SL isn’t something you want to be restoring and we’ve seen plenty of examples that show how a neglected example can be a big project to put right. You won’t find that kind of thing at the Classic & Sportscar Centre, though, and like the XJ-S, this SL features pristine bodywork and a service book full of stamps. Just like the Jaguar, a nice SL always makes you feel good about life and, on a summer’s day, with the roof folded neatly away under its cover, it’s an ideal modern classic.


VERDICT

Despite different backgrounds, the XJS convertible and the SL are similar in their appeal as modern classics today, and both offer comparable practicality, style and running costs. The late-model XJS is on a par price-wise with the more affordable SLs and that makes it a really difficult decision. If you had asked me a few years ago, and I would have chosen the SL without hesitation, but since then I’ve spent enough time at the wheel of various XJ-S and XJSs to appreciate the subtle charm of the Jaguar. That just tips the decision for me in favour of the XJS. For now, at least, it’s also the slightly more affordable of the two.

TECH DATA
1993 XJS 1986 300SL

Engine 3,980cc

Power 238bhp

Max speed 147mph

0-62 mph 7.6secs

Economy 25mpg

Cost new £45,100

Value now £10,000

2,962cc

180bhp

124mph

9.9secs

25mpg

£29,280

£10,000

 

Above: Despite different backgrounds, both the XJS and SL are similar in their appeal as modern classics.

Below: Although the interior feels stark compared to the Jaguar’s it’s obviously very high quality and would have felt more modern than the XJS when new.

Above: The straight six in the Mercedes SL starts crisply and is more than a match for the 4.0 in the XJS.

Above: The interior ambience of this late XJS feels more Jaguar like than the earlier models.

Below: Improved rigidity results in an impressively shake free experience.

Thanks to: Jaguar XJ-S Club and Mercedes R107 fun club


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