Roll of Honour

Not all motor crashes end badly. How the R129 Mercedes-Benz SL was tested to destruction and passed with honours.

(c) Car Magazine

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.

(c) autoevolution

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

22 thoughts on “Roll of Honour”

  1. I watched a Harry’s Garage YouTube video from a few years ago the other night, about his early 90’s 6 litre V12 R129 that he picked up for £5K and uses to drive around the South of France. All the electrics and electronics still work. Just a beautiful car from a bygone age that passed all too quickly.

  2. There is a discussion on yesterday’s piece about the 456 and the last ‘proper’ Ferrari.

    I am not really on board with that, but would make a case for this car being one of the last proper Mercedes, alongside the W140 S class.

    It seemed that in the 1990s Mercedes Benz became a fundamentally different car company, one driven by market forces and global finance rather than engineering. The building of a factory in the USA to build SUVs pushed the company into aggressive expansion and more frequent product cycles, but product quality dived.

    1. ‘I (…) would make a case for this car being one of the last proper Mercedes, alongside the W140 S class.’

      Precisely. To me, the beginning of the end of Daimler-Benz as we used to know them was the ousting of Werner Breitschwerdt as Vorstandsvorsitzender in 1987. Breitschwerdt was the ‘father’ of W126, the quintessential Swabian engineer and as such a champion of engineering excellence – but he was useless at corporate politics, which rendered him a pawn during the monumental infighting between Edzard Reuter and Werner Niefer.

      Breitschwerdt also happened to be the last low-profile Daimler-Benz chairman. The (in)famous names of Reuter, Schrempp & Zetsche need no explaining, whereas even industry insiders would have to research Breitschwerdt, Joachim Zahn, Walter Hitzinger, Fritz Koeneke, Heinrich Wagner or Wilhelm Haspel (who were the other chairmen of Daimler-Benz AG since the end of the war).

    2. Of the German Big Three Mercedes is the most vulnerable and exposed to stock market fluctuations. BMW and VW/Audi are more or less family and partly state owned businesses and therefore much less in danger of a hostile takeover.

    3. I agree wholeheartedly regarding both the R129 and W140. The timing of the latter’s launch was pretty unfortunate, but that didn’t detract from the brilliance of its engineering. We are unlikely ever to see its like again, at least as an internal combustion engined car.

  3. A couple of videos, below, demonstrating the SL’s safety. See 3:11 in the first one. The second is an impressive real-life demonstration on the autobahn. I believe those involved were fine, afterwards.

    1. Great stuff and thank you for sharing, Charles. The high-speed crash in the second video is terrifying, but a tribute to the car that the occupants were not badly injured.

      The commentary on the first video is rather amusing. Although delivered, I think, by an American native English speaker, it sounds like a literal translation from German, with odd phrases such as the “light metal” hardtop and “side upholstery in body colour” to describe the revised bump protection panels.

    2. This reminds me of a short piece of news I read in the late 1990s and that somehow stuck in my memory.
      It was about a high-speed motorway chase between police and robbers driving a R129. It was reported that the chase ended in a massive crash at a speed around 100 kph. The bandits were then caught while trying to flee the scene on foot.
      However inaccurate the reported speed might have been, I do not for a minute doubt the possibility of having such a crash in a R129 and escaping alive and kicking.

  4. I see that no one has brought up the infamous ‘Elk’ test yet… DtW is truly an oasis of kindness in the online desert of despair and fury.

    However, it would be topical to mention the occasion in 1997 when a journalist from a Swedish publication put a Mercedes A class through this test (designed to replicate swerving to avoid a large mammal) and managed to roll the car.

    Needless to say, the car was not designed to behave in that way. Mercedes panicked and recalled all A classes released to date, fitting mandatory ESP to make sure the A class would no longer roll over (but just understeer at moderate speeds instead).

    Two rollover events, less than a decade apart – it’s a bit trite to use these two events to measure the declining standards of Mercedes, but it is tempting.

    A shame, too, because the original A class was at least a novel engineering concept… but perhaps not tested to destruction before release.

    1. Hello Jacomo,

      I think it’s more memory failure than kindness in my case. Funny how quickly one forgets these negative associations – the Audi TT had a difficult time early on with people driving it beyond its limits, but that’s no longer widely recalled / referenced.

      The good thing that came out of these incidents was to speed up the development and and fitting of ESP systems, so every cloud…

    2. The infamous elk test debacle was the watershed between engineering-led Benz and marketing/hot air-driven Benz with ‘shareholder value’ Schrempp at the helm.
      At the time it happened I was working on a consulting contract at Mercedes’ truck factory where they had the running gag that A class production would be transferred to them because their responsibility was to produce all Mercedes tippers…
      It also showed the long gone thoroughness of Mercedes.
      The ‘teknikens värld’ test happened to catch the A class at its harmonic resonance frequency so there was little chance to avoid the flip over accident.
      Mercedes bought an example of every competing product, calculated its resonance frequency and made a video of the car toppling over when driven through the elk test at the correct speed – and they made sure every competitor knew they had the appropriate video.

    3. That thing about “harmonic resonance” sounds like a lot of baloney to me? Could you clarify on that?

      The “elk test” was nothing controversial, and should never have been. It was a standardized test that Teknikens Värld put all the vehicles through they were testing. And it was simply unheard of a car would flip during an emergency situation, I can’t even remember when it happened before. I remember a rear engined Skoda flipping over because of wheel tuck-in, I remember the Suzuki SJ flipping over because of short wheelbase/high gravity. That a Mercedes would fail a simple emergency maneuver that every other car succeeded in was a disaster of unprecedented proportion, it was the biggest fiasco the car world had seen since, I don’t know? The Ford Pinto and the Chevy Corvair?

    4. Like every mechanical apparatus with moving parts a car’s suspension system has a critical frequency at which its behaviour gets out of control.
      The A cass’ combination of excessively high centre of gravity, narrow track, trailing arm rear suspension and relatively soft suspension resulted in an unusually low critical frequency which was very much in the range of potential slalom/cornering tests regularly performed by the press. Mercedes knew they were facing a big problem here and they investigated all slalom tests they could find to make sure the A class would pass them.
      The only test nobody at Mercedes (and most or the world) knew before was Teknikens Värld’s elk test and of all things this particular test happened to trigger the A class at its resonant frequency with the expected outcome.
      Mercedes’ reaction was to fit short travel rock hard suspension based on the intended sports/AMG setup which shifted the critical frequency in a region that was hit only highly improbably in real world driving. This would have been enough to cure the A class’ suspension problems but Schrempp wanted to make a media coup by announcing the retro fit of ESP to all existing A classes. Audi’s situation with the hot TT was very similar, the TT was given a different suspension setup that fixed the problem but German media (particularly a certain weekly magazine from Hamburg that is not known for particular knowledge of things automotive) created such pressure to fit ESP and a completely nonsensical rear spoiler that Audi simply had to obey.

    5. Thanks, Dave.

      My point is, the fiasco here is that they benchmarked the car to the absolute lowest denominator, and thought nobody would notice. I say they were lucky the faults were caught in that test, because the outcome would’ve been the same in the real world, only with hundreds of unnecessary deaths.

  5. The crash video makes my blood run cold until you see the figure hurry away from the wreckage. Another amazing thing being the cars that actually seem to stop to help the poor soul. In Britain I guess someone would eventually stop but I fear most would be holding up camera phones and rubber necking.
    Stunning car the 129. The end of the engineering over profit era

    1. Hello Andrew,

      The Germans have a ‘good Samaritan’ law, so if you’re among the first to arrive at the scene of an accident you have to stop and help. It’s to their credit that they actually put it in to practice.

    2. Not providing first aid can get you a substantial fine or up to one year’s imprisonment.

  6. Hi Daniel,

    I thought it was a bit strange when you said the driver cried for 2 hours even though there were no deaths in the crash and the occupants were “well” enough to go to the bar. But then you said the driver was Japanese and I understood everything.

  7. NRJ, I do not understand fully your comment…is it a Japanese time-honoured habit to cry for hours after accidents?
    I notice that “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.”
    So I would suppose that the Japanese driver was a female Japanese driver….
    I write this knowing fully the risk of appearing a pedantic old-fashioned male chauvinist using stereotyped feminine features, but in this case it would appear to be the most likely hypothesis.
    So apparently nothing related to Japanese distinctive traits….or am I missing something?

    1. Hi Anastasio. While Japanese people are generally quite stoic, there is a tradition known as ‘rui-katsu’ where it is believed that crying, particularly in public groups, is an effective way to reduce stress. Also, Japanese people who are found guilty of doing something dishonourable often cry profusely in public to express regret at what they have done.

      In the case of the driver of the SL, I would hazard a guess that a combination of shock and the realisation that she could have killed herself and, more importantly, her passenger, was enough to provoke the reported reaction.

      I suspect, in those circumstances, I might respond in a similar way.

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