Not all motor crashes end badly. How the R129 Mercedes-Benz SL was tested to destruction and passed with honours.
In a recent piece on the R129 generation Mercedes-Benz SL, reference was made to a dramatic incident that occurred at the car’s launch event at the Estoril racing circuit on the Portuguese Riviera. Car Magazine’s Ian Fraser was present at the launch and the following is taken from his account, published in the August 1989 edition of the magazine.
When Fraser arrived at the Estoril circuit, there was little evidence of the dramatic incident that had taken place earlier, apart from some tell-tale gouges in the surface of the tarmac. The Mercedes-Benz 500SL involved in the incident had been hidden from public view in a pit lock-up garage. The two journalists who were driver and passenger in the car had retreated to the bar for a stiff drink to calm their shredded nerves, the driver crying uncontrollably for a couple of hours.
What happened was as follows, according to Fraser: the 500SL was being driven at speed by a Japanese motoring journalist when a hump in the track launched it into the air. Seeing an upcoming corner, the driver instinctively turned the steering wheel while the car was still airborne. When it touched down onto its front wheels, now hopelessly misaligned to the direction of travel, the car flipped end-over-end repeatedly before sliding down the track, scattering parts including a front wheel, spring, shock absorber, brake assembly, headlamp glass and numerous other bits of trim that became detached.
Badly shaken but otherwise unhurt, the occupants opened the doors and climbed from the wreckage of the car. Later, having realised just how the Mercedes had saved their lives, the driver returned to it and planted a kiss upon its battered bonnet. Fraser noticed traces of her lipstick there when allowed to view the battered SL later.
With great presence of mind, Mercedes-Benz PR personnel decided to allow journalists subsequently attending the launch event to inspect the wreck. Fraser noted that the pop-up roll-over hoop had activated as soon as the car’s wheels had left the ground. The windscreen frame, despite the extreme forces to which it had been subjected, had deflected by no more than ten to fifteen degrees.
These factors, and the fact that both occupants were wearing seat belts, which were integral to the exceptionally strong seat frames, undoubtedly saved their lives. The car’s aluminium hardtop, although not structural, had stayed in place and protected the occupants from being showered with debris and sparks as it slid along the track.
Interestingly, because it was a prolonged ‘slow-motion’ accident with no sudden deceleration, neither the seat-belt tensioners nor the airbags deployed, which was exactly as intended by the Mercedes-Benz engineers.
Following his own rather less eventful test drive, Fraser praised the SL’s highly impressive rigidity and lack of the scuttle-shake that bedevilled so many contemporary convertibles, especially as it did so without the then fashionable fixed roll-over bar or T-bar arrangement. He also commended its quietness with the hood up, remarking that conversation was still possible at 100mph, with only a little hiss of air coming from the (non-existent) B-pillar area. Fraser thought the suspension’s ability to cope with some of Portugal’s poorest road surfaces was highly impressive, especially for a convertible. He concluded that even people who hate open-top cars would love the SL.
With a degree of hyperbole, Fraser described the SL’s safety features and exceptional rigidity as “the only advance in open car design for more than 100 years”. Little did he know then that the R129 generation SL would later come to be regarded as one of the all-time high-water marks of Mercedes-Benz’s design and engineering prowess.