The sun is out, the roads are free of salt and the world is my oyster, the time cometh to put the top down on this portly pile of Teutonic convertible and head out. My daily driver until June 2016 was an S2000, the Mercedes shares its engine location and location of driven wheels as well as it cloth top with the S2000, can’t be that different can it? Oh what a shock I was in for.
Hasn’t it aged well? I think it has. Originally penned by the great Bruno Sacco, this car has been on the road and in our minds since 1989. Let me say that again, ninety eighty nine, a very long time ago. However despite that, it still looks pretty good. It’s quite an austere thing, there’s nothing overtly sporty about it, however there’s nothing even remotely vulgar about it either. The relative scarcity of examples on our roads in 2017 means that it does get a few looks, maybe even a raised eyebrow, however that’s the end of it. Being a 1990 model, this example left the factory before subsequent revisions and improvements to the body which went some way to reducing the overall slabby feel of the car. There isn’t much to say about the exterior, because I think that’s the way Mercedes wanted it, simple, elegant, understated. No wonder Princess Diana had one…
I always wonder what went through the minds of Mercedes-Benz interior designers in the mid-eighties to early nineties. Everything is rational, simple, well-spaced and generally quite pleasant, then BANG! Stupid wood veneer. Honestly, it makes no sense! It’s a very nice interior, despite being an Italian market car which was very sparsely optioned from new (electric seats but no memory function, air conditioning, but no climate control, no cruise control, no airbags) it still feels classy and well put together. There are no untoward creaks, squeaks or tears, the light-coloured seats wear their 27 years reasonably well but could definitely do with some loving. The only fly in the ointment apart from the aforementioned, horrifying wood is the steering wheel, which if covered in tin foil could easily be sub-let to SETI. I don’t know why Mercedes thought it would be a good idea to fit a tiller of such ridiculous dimensions to the car but it’s preposterous, a quick examination with a tape measure confirms that it’s even bigger than the already quite dignified one fitted to the 500E. Roof up and things are delightfully quiet and the same can be said about running with the roof down and the wind deflector and windows raised, normal conversation can be maintained up to 160km/h, allegedly, officer. Said wind deflector makes the rear seats fitted to this version redundant, but if we’re being honest they were already utterly useless. The only noises permeating the interior are the numerous sounds which are made when the roof opens. I say sounds, what I really mean are pops, bangs and remote explosions, this caused me a degree of worry in the beginning, however my local tame Mercedes mechanic greeted my concern with a Latin shrug and a dismissive “they all do that.”
Depending on which internet outlet you choose to believe, the 300SL-24 covers the 0-60mph interval in a hair under 8 seconds, which if we’re being perfectly honest is pretty bloody pedestrian. The contemporary 500SL romped away a good 2 seconds faster, despite being equipped with a slightly dim-witted 4 speed automatic transmission. The 300SL doesn’t so much start, as begin. SL supposedly stands for Sportlich-Leicht, which is German for Sport Lightweight, there’s nothing Sport about how this car takes off. However to look at the acceleration figures and judge this car on them is to miss the point entirely, chasing shift points and nailing the perfect start from the lights isn’t what this old bus is about, which is a shame because it’s quite an engine, but more on that later.
It’ll stop, eventually, but getting 1.8 metric tonnes of roadster gathered up can take a fair old shove on the pedal. Remember Sport Lightweight? If the acceleration disproves the Sport side of things, the consequent deceleration definitely throws some shade in the general direction of Licht. I cannot attest to their fade resistance because that would have required spirited driving, and again, that’s not what this car’s about.
Glorious, detached, unflappable, calm. This 27-year-old relic could teach many a new car a thing or seven about what comfortable means. Tuscan roads have had a tough old time over this past winter, numerous cracks have appeared, some lanes have descended a good few inches compared to where they were in September, pot holes large enough to swallow Vespas whole are the norm. The Mercedes takes it all in its stride and allows none of that sort of nonsense to impinge on you while you waft your way across the hills. What makes it even more impressive is the fact that it’s a convertible, nothing shakes, nothing wiggles, nothing shimmies.
OK, confession time, every vehicle I’ve ever owned or been custodian of has been taken on the same stretch of road to assess its handling. From 50cc Vespa to 5500cc Maranello, each one has taken a climb on that one stretch of road, I’ve even raced on it. Hairpins, sweepers, camber changes, it’s got it all, everything gets a pasting up that stretch, the road just invites you to drive it hard, even my automatic Toyota Aygo got thrashed within an inch of its unfortunate life. Not this time, perhaps it’s my advancing years, perhaps it was the glorious sunshine or maybe it was the soothing nature of this wonderful car, but this time I couldn’t be bothered to put any effort into it. Therein lies the glory of this magnificent specimen of automobile, it relaxes you, it warms the cockles of your heart, it turned me, a man who has never once avoided a red line in his life into the most relaxed cruiser around. As such I cannot pass judgement on the handling characteristics, so I’ll leave them smack in the middle of the rating scale.
Those people at Mercedes Benz who did the interior probably also chose the gearbox for the SL. What transmission would you choose for your upcoming cruiser? A car which is to motorsport and general sportiness like the pineapple is to word processing? Why a dog-leg manual of course! It’s not a bad gearbox really, a bit rubbery and slightly too long in the throw, but I’ve experienced much worse. Given the nature of the car an automatic would have been perfectly agreeable, however my wife can’t drive automatics so they’re out of the question.
As I mentioned previously this car wasn’t heavily optioned from new. As far as I can tell no boxes were checked when this car was ordered. It has air conditioning (but they all had that), electric seats (they all had that too), electric roof (ditto) and that’s about your lot. It’s not sparse by any means, but the original owner didn’t push the boat out. For my tastes the only thing it’s missing is heated seats, which would make winter roof-down shenanigans more pleasant.
Yes, ten out of ten. The M104 is a PEACH. If there’s a better sounding engine than a twin cam straight six, I ain’t heard it. And it’s a proper straight six too, naturally aspirated and emitting a cultured wail with none of that raspy nonsense associated with BMW aspirated sixes or unnecessary farting that modern turbocharged iterations saddle you with. It happily revs to 7000rpm and sounds astonishing as the needle sweeps around the tach. My wife, a woman hitherto unmoved by the aural delights of a Honda F20C, Ferrari Tipo F133 and Porsche air-cooled flat six, actually commented “oh, that sounds nice doesn’t it?” If there’s higher praise than making someone who couldn’t give the hairy crack of a rat’s arse about cars, their engines and least of all the noise said engines emit actually sit up and take notice, I am yet to hear it.
Tavarish logic to the rescue! Why buy a base-model Fiat Panda when you can have a 300SL? Shop around enough and you can pick up tidy 300SLs for under €12k, under €10k if you’re ok with the 12 valve engine or the automatic transmission. Of course, perfection demands outlay and a very nice car will set you back €15k and you’re looking at that as the starting point if you want a 500SL. I think that’s pretty solid value for a car which has reached the bottom of the barrel when it comes to depreciation. This particular example was a bit of a bargain, but it was purchased in the dead of winter when nobody here has even the vaguest interest in convertibles. As usual, maintenance costs aren’t going to be comparable with your base Panda, but it’s not a fiendishly complicated car to work on and general maintenance can be managed by the competent home mechanic. The only thing I wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole is the roof and all the associated cables, motors and witchcraft.
I love this car. Don’t let the low score fool you, if you want a grand tourer capable of whisking you across vast swathes of countryside in total comfort and serenity, look no further. If on the other hand you wish to be engaged, exhilarated and delighted by a sportscar you’ve come to the wrong place. This is a brilliant cruiser, a phenomenal boulevardier and a great car to own. A car which puts a smile on your face, but that smile won’t get there because of the driving experience, rather than the experiences the car lets you have while it accompanies you. Sit back, relax, stick in in fourth and watch the world slide by your windscreen.
Engine: 2960 DOHC 24 valve straight six
Power & Torque: 228bhp at 6300rpm, 265 Nm (195lb/ft) at 4600rpm
Transmission: 5 speed manual
Drivetrain: Front-engine, rear wheel drive
Weight: 1800kg (3970lb), yes, it weighs more than a 500E
Seating: 2 plus 2 amputees
MPG: I have no idea, when fuel runs out, you put more in.
MSRP: In Italy, in 1990? I have no idea.
The usual caveats for spelling things wrong, calling a hood a bonnet and sundry other offences apply.