Like shipwrecked men clinging to their last shards of happiness and passion, we continue to indulge desperately in the smell of carburetion and gasoline fumes. You can’t do it again. This is evidenced by the apology of one of the most beautiful V8 convertibles in the history of Mercedes, still too little known: the 500 SL.
By François Tauriac
There are few easy solutions left to travel without a roof, and incidentally in V8, at a lower cost. There are hardly any more opportunities to find a real big engine in an accessible youngtimer. At Mercedes, there is no shortage of mythical blocks. There is of course the SLK 200 and 230, but without any ostracism, we are here on a compressed 4 cylinders and an aesthetic too stubby for our taste. Not our thing. The 500 SL (type R129) represents, in our eyes, the best compromise ever proposed by the brand with the star. Let’s keep a low profile on the 12-valve, 24-valve inline-6 that’s also offered on this roadster. Without being a bad block, like the V6 that succeeded it, it was never up to the weight – 1.8 tons – of the vehicle. And then, when you’ve tried a 5-liter V8, it’s hard to forget its phenomenal torque and melodious power surges. We could also have opted for the 600 SL’s V12, but the 6-liter block, while 60 hp more powerful, is much heavier and cruelly unreliable. So the Mercedes V8 is an indestructible monster. And as long as you know how to maintain it properly, it can run for 400,000 km.
But let’s not get blinded by the morning fumes of cold starts. First of all, the SL R129 is beautiful. This does not spoil anything. Normal, it was born under the magic pencil of Bruno Sacco. An Italian whose legend tells that he decided to start designing cars after falling in love with a Studebaker Starlight. Hired by Benz in 1958, he assisted the Frenchman Paul Bracq and worked on the Mercedes 600, the 230 SL Pagode and even the C111 – the German brand’s laboratory car that resembles the Maserati Bora – to end with its most outstanding work: the R129.
SL stands for Sport Leicht in German – light sport. As much as the appellation is deserved for the first SL 190, it is a little less the case for the 500. It must be said that the car designed in 1988 is, as it were, USA ready – ready for the American market. In addition to its wrap-around bumper shields and large turn signals, it has a technical safety armada that does not lighten the ensemble. Air-bag, seat belts integrated in the seats, roll bar with automatic release in case of rollover, reinforced windshield surround… All this is not a big deal, because we are driving a V8 twin shaft, 32 valves – 330 hp. At the risk of repeating ourselves, the engine is very powerful. The climbs are therefore “beguiling”, despite the sluggish four-speed automatic transmission, to be used only in sport mode – and whose longevity will depend on oil changes and strainer changes. In terms of braking, this is not Porsche. The 4-piston front jaws do their job. But the same cannot be said for the tiny rear discs. A bit short for a car capable of reaching 250 km/h and which haunted the German autobahn for a long time. At this speed, you will have two big braking options. The third might be a little less enduring. Ditto for the lighting, we are at the minimum of the admissible. On the other hand, the handling is very good, for GT driving of course. And if the electronic aids still work, you’ll be able to take advantage of ASR, as well as the piloted suspension, sometimes replaced by a conventional spring system.
In terms of equipment, the car remains a pure Mercedes. In Stuttgart, they don’t make floats for the Techno Parade. So we do in the sober and effective. A few wooden inserts on the dashboard and always the famous yellow hatching on the speedometer at 60 km/h, like in the elevators of aircraft carriers. To note, a deploying trap door containing an on-board computer with liquid crystal. Never consult cold consumption for morale. It exceeds 30 liters, then slowly returns to around 12 or 13 liters while driving with an egg under the right pedal. The original Becker sound system – often changed for multicolored Asian sets with unbearable orange or green lights – is looking pretty bad. No matter, the music in 500, we will look for it in the clouds, hair in the wind, anti-burglar net lowered, with a stainless steel exhaust, obligatory option.
Especially since the beast is not a simple convertible for the beautiful days. She can do almost anything. It is a monster of reliability and power, as comfortable on the streets of Beverly Hills in an episode of Columbo as on the highway. It’s no wonder that it reigned unchallenged until 2001. But let there be no mistake, the R129 was worth 710,000 francs when it came out in 1989 – 110,000 euros. So it’s not an easy car. Even though more than 200,000 were made and many used parts are available, the price of some new parts remains prohibitive. So choose a well-maintained model. Beware of the hyper-technical soft top mechanism, the super expensive and sometimes capricious Bosch K- tronic injection, the ball steering box that wears out and loses its precision, the exhausts that are susceptible to corrosion, the tires that are often 16 inches, rarely under 100 euros each – the Chinese style Wanli and other Nankang being obviously to proscribe. And above all, never deprive yourself of the hard top. The latter has been so well designed that the 500 SL is able to transform itself into a smooth and silent luxury coupe as soon as the first cold weather arrives. For a price of 18 to 22,000 euros, it is difficult to find such a concentrate of pleasure, especially since the first models can benefit from a collector’s license.