German Film Star

A car made for its times, Mercedes-Benz’s 107-series helped define them. We tell its story. 

Image: honest-john

“It’s a glamourous world”.

In the field of creative endeavour, matters of an unintended nature often have an inconvenient habit of altering initial intentions, and while in some cases this may be to the detriment of the finished product, more often the outcome emerges simply as different.

This being so, it certainly would not be wildly inaccurate to suggest that a series of conjoining initial factors would ensure that the 107-series Mercedes SL/SLC would become something of an anomaly in Super Leicht terms; a Mercedes model unprecedented in breadth, longevity, execution, not to mention celluloid iconography.

A curious combination of the brutal and the balletic, defined by somewhat chintz-laden, heavy-handed detail design, albeit a highly respectable visual demeanour, the 1971 SL and its SLC Coupé sibling were as much tank as supercar when first introduced – in marked contrast to the timeless, shapely form of its immediate predecessor.

The 1963 W113 Pagoda SL model had proven a considerable critical and commercial success for Mercedes-Benz, its finely judged lines, superb proportions and delicate detailing making the Sixties SL the darling of the monied set across Europe and in the United States. However, even in late-era 280SL form, the Pagoda was not a particularly quick car, its considerable heft blunting the Sindelfingen six’s better intentions.

Mercedes W113 SL. Image: Arthur Bechtel

In the US market in particular, this would prove something of a liability, because while the 280SL was very much seen as a car to arrive in, it was not as adept at making as fast a getaway as its looks and price tag might have suggested, especially as it became weighted down with ever-increasing, power-sapping emissions gear.

The Swabians remedied this deficiency somewhat adroitly for the larger and more expensive W111/2 Coupé and Convertible models; the elegant and stately big Benzes gaining a version of the Mercedes 3499 cc M116 V8 amid a re-engineered front end, lending the car a renewed lease of life. However, as a design rooted in the late Fifties, time was clearly running out for the model.

The Pagoda SL on the other hand still very much looked the part, so why Mercedes didn’t see fit to do likewise? The rationale was rooted in the breadth and complexity of changes required as a result of the regulatory situation facing not only Mercedes, but all carmakers intending to market vehicles (especially open-topped ones) in the US by the mid-1970s. It was simpler to start afresh.[1]

The backdrop to the R/C107’s development therefore was as much political as commercial. A new two-seater was essential; the SL being as much halo car as profit centre for the three pointed star, but customers wanted more interior space, more comfort, more convenience. All of which spelt weight and complexity, and this additional bulk would necessitate larger, more powerful engines, simply as a matter of keeping pace.

When one then factors in the mandated emissions and safety considerations, the possibility of making cars which adhered to the SL’s original Super-Light definition was nigh-impossible. Hence, for luxury carmakers such as Mercedes-Benz, the development of ever-larger, more ostentatious vehicles was not just an inevitability, but an outright necessity.

When Mercedes’ engineers were considering their new roadster , they were constrained, not only by customer preference and the onslaught of market regulation, but by the fact that despite Daimler-Benz’s size, reach and resource, neither manpower nor money were limitless.

Image: Honest-John

The SL, dubbed R107 internally, would carry-over front and rear suspension designs from the new for ’68 midliner, subframe-mounted semi-trailing arms replacing the low pivot swing axles of yore. The R107 was to be a more expensive, more cossetting car than its W113 predecessor, and the creamy Swabian 3.5 litre V8 powerplant would reflect this.

While the technical side of the equation would prove a straightforward, if creative raid on the parts bin, the R107’s body style and safety structure would entail a good deal more soul searching. Marking the final design to be overseen by longstanding design chief, Friedrich Geiger, prior to the ascension of Bruno Sacco, the R107 styling process followed time-honoured Sindelfingen practice.

A wide range of proposals were considered from a team of Geiger’s designers; some of these early proposals being somewhat outlandish and far from marque-specific, however, it was to be Ferdinand Hellhage and Josef Gallitzendörfer who would ultimately tease out the definitive shape.

Image: Christopher Butt

A number of Targa-roofed solutions were initially evaluated as a means of circumventing the proposed US market ban on convertibles, but it was decided that Mercedes ought to take the road less travelled in this instance, if only to underline Untertürkheim superiority in this, as with all other matters. Hence, a great deal of time, resource and ingenuity was expended to ensure the windscreen pillars were robust enough (50% stronger than of yore) to withstand a rollover situation, the R107 meeting both existing and proposed US mandates.

The R107’s style carried forward continuity elements from the W113, but the forms were more linear, less delightful to the eye. Large horizontal headlamps (using halogen elements) which merged with blunt-looking wrap around indicator units were a nod both to modernity and safety, but along with the more elaborate, yet cheaper-looking grille treatment, the delicacy of the earlier car was lost.

1971 Mercedes 350 SL. Image: Motor Trend

Along the flanks the lineal theme continued, with a reverse-fold light line running the length of the car and a stout rubbing strip at bumper level – a clear nod to American (and some European) parking habits. A curious feature was a series of horizontal ribs along the base of the doors and lower quarter panels – a feature which would be seen again on successive Mercedes models. These were the result of Mercedes’ wind tunnel tests – a means of mitigating road excited grime.

As were the soon to be ubiquitous ribbed tail-lamp units, first seen on Pininfarina’s 1967 Berlina Aerodynamica and adopted by Béla Barényi as a safety feature. The 107’s tail treatment was more of a visual success – instantly recognisable as Mercedes, and featuring those signature wrap-around lamp units, the design of which would prove impervious to the passage of time.

However, the most obvious stylistic shift lay in the 107’s stance. While the ideally proportioned W113 SL appeared foursquare and planted, the 107’s stance was less assured. In addition, a notable taper towards the rear gave the car a tail-down appearance and a certain visual limpness. This factor, combined with the surfeit of chrome garnish, viewed in contrast to the otherwise rather indelicate forms and graphics lent the SL a somewhat bipolar aura.

Image: Motor Trend

But in true Mercedes-Benz fashion, it was all superbly executed, thoroughly realised, fully functional and assembled to a standard few could approach, let alone match. Introduced as the 350 SL in the Spring of 1971, the 107 went on sale across Europe and for the 1972 model year in the United States. US models, while badged 350 were in fact fitted with the larger 4.5 litre V8, a derivation which (very) well-heeled Europeans could avail of from 1973.

Observers were understandably impressed by the thorough nature of Untertürkheim’s newest and most indulgent offering, but that October, the three pointed star had another, larger surprise up its sleeve.

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The matinée idol’s lesser-appreciated sibling. Image: str2.ru

Like everybody else, Mercedes-Benz’s engineering teams had rather a lot to contend with by the late 1960s. Not simply developing the nascent W116 S-Class, the most ambitious and luxurious mainstream saloon yet to bear the three pointed star, or perfecting the advanced rotary-engined C111 prototype – in addition to ongoing developments for both conventional petrol and diesel powertrains, there was also a seemingly limitless tsunami of emissions and safety mandates emanating from the land of the free.

Facing large investments, and no small level of commercial risk associated with new model programmes, the Mercedes-Benz supervisory board are believed to have vetoed a proposal to directly replace the existing W111/112 coupé and convertible models.

Early, rather baroque looking clay model of C107. Image: Christopher Butt

However, longstanding head of Body Development and Research, Karl Wilfert believed he had the solution, developing a proposal for a fixed-head, four-seater coupé version of R107, which was then presented to the supervisory board.[2] Given the level of technical and production-engineering carry-over, a business case was established and the programme officially sanctioned in 1969.

The C107 which emerged employed a longer wheelbase version of the R107 body, lengthened aft of the door strike-plate by a not inconsiderable 360 mm (14.2 inches). Rear compartment aside, the cabin was near-identical to that of the sister-SL model; the driving environment being as up to date in ergonomics, and materials as it was in passive safety features.

R/C107 cabin. (c) Motor Trend

While the SLC’s external style closely followed that of its 2-seater sibling, the extra length in the body did not simply provide a more commodious cabin, it also moderated the SL’s somewhat truncated silhouette – a factor of its short 2460 mm (96.6 inch) wheelbase – the extra length enabling a somewhat more balanced shape.[3]

But while one dimension giveth, another taketh away; the addition of the fixed canopy raising a number of packaging and engineering-related questions which the car’s slightly inharmonious mien would have difficulty answering. A certain mismatch between height and length for example, meaning that like its SL sibling (if for differing reasons), the C107 too lacked a wholly convincing set of proportions.

Furthermore, as Mercedes body engineers discovered, despite the additional length aft of the doors, the retracting rear quarter windows as designed could not avoid fouling the rear wheel wells. Since a Mercedes coupé without a fully retractable suite of side glazing was as unthinkable as larger, thicker C-pillars would have been from a visual perspective, an ingenious trompe d’oeil solution was arrived at; a series of metal louvres vacuum-sealed between an additional pair of fixed rear quarter panes, the upward slanting DLO outline closely reflecting that of the SL’s removable hard top.[4]

Image: Christopher Butt

It was a clever if rather frivolous solution, one which not only seemed a little out of character for the normally somewhat po-faced Sindelfingen carmaker, but one which successfully masked the rather seat-of-the-pants nature of its execution. But not only would it prove as aesthetically divisive as it was influential, it would become the SLC’s defining feature.[5]

Very much in the US Personal Luxury Coupé vein, the SLC, while not entirely in a class of its own, lacked much by way of direct opposition at its Frankfurt motor show debut in October 1971. This would arrive in the fullness of time, but not before the paradigm shift of the 1973 oil embargo.

1971 Mercedes SLC. Image: classiccarcatalogue

Two years later saw the advent of the SLC’s closest on-paper rival, Jaguar’s much delayed XJ-S. Browns Lane’s offering was faster, more sporting in responses and arguably, more rakish in appearance, but neither car were what the gentlemen of the press would describe as ravishing beauties. In Autumn 1975 Car Magazine pitched a 450 SLC against Jaguar’s newly launched GT and found the two cars very closely matched indeed.

While Car’s Mel Nichols found the Jaguar’s handling to be beyond reproach, he discovered that the SLC, while initially feeling less nimble, was in fact just as surefooted – a possible consequence of that longer wheelbase. The XJ-S could show the Mercedes a clean pair of heels in the higher speed ranges, where its superior aerodynamics aided matters, but in most conditions Nichols found the SLC to be just as quick. Where the Mercedes really scored was in cabin space, ambience and standard of finish, which was light years ahead of the rather austere looking (and in places, feeling) XJ-S. The Mercedes got the nod, by a hair.

The SLC’s fine chassis was likely the rationale behind the car’s motorsport career, initially fielded by AMG in 1978’s European Touring Car Championship, driven by Hans Heyer and Clemens Schickentanz. The SLC scored a single victory in three years of campaigning, taking the win at the Nürburgring Six Hours in 1980 with Schickentanz and Jörg Denzel sharing driving duties.

Photo: Marko Mäkinen via WRC.com

In the Autumn of 1977, Mercedes introduced the 450 SLC 5.0, featuring a brand new all-aluminium 4973 cc V8 engine, destined for the upcoming W126 S-Class range. This model, featuring front and rear spoilers was intended to homologate the car for the following year’s World Rally Championship, where the SLC would be fielded in selected events, driven by amongst others, Hannu Mikkola.

From the outset, both 107 models had been intended to receive a wide range of engines; Mercedes’ M130 six cylinder, the 3.5 litre M116, 4.5 M117 litre V8s and ultimately, the M950/3 and M950/4 Wankel units. However, Mercedes, like everyone else lost faith in rotary power, while the advent of a newer 2.8 litre M110 unit saw this selected as the entry level powerplant.

This 182 bhp fuel injected 2746 cc unit made its debut for both SL and SLC models in 1973, the delay arising from supply being prioritised for the saloon models. Despite being no great performer in the heavyweight SL/SLC duo, this economy engine did much to maintain European demand in a more straitened post-1974 environment.

1980 saw the 5.0 litre V8 become standardised, alongside a smaller capacity 3818 cc V8, which would become the mainstay US market engine, owing (it’s believed) to CAFE fuel efficiency strictures. The 1979 advent of the W126 would seal the SLC’s fate – Mercedes-Benz product planners decreeing that Sindelfingen’s large coupé ambitions were henceforth better served under S-Class underpinnings. In 1981, the C126 was introduced – the big coupé rendering the SLC obsolete with close to 63,000 built over a near-ten year lifespan.

Image: (c) Auto Bild

Overshadowed by its more glamourous SL counterpart, which not only outlived it by some considerable margin, but outsold it as well, the C107 SLC nevertheless proved surprisingly successful, and given its shared underpinnings, highly profitable. But more than anything, the SLC would prove unique in the Mercedes-Benz pantheon – the first and last of its ilk.

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Three dimensional actor. Image: Autoevolution

Despite entering a world yet to experience the true meaning of the term, Oil-Shock, Mercedes-Benz’s 1971 newcomer did not find its way bestrewn with rose petals, as one might have envisaged with half a century’s hindsight to draw upon. The product of a great deal of regulatory hurdle-jumping, Sindelfingen’s engineers did themselves proud on the safety and technological side of the SL coin, even if stylistically, few seemed poleaxed in mute adoration. Which isn’t to suggest that it wasn’t well received. It was. However, it is possible to discern from the reportage of the time that R107 was viewed with something less than rapture.[6]

With the 350 SL, Mercedes were also entering a market in decline. Sales of open cars were falling year on year in the United States (the convertible format’s largest market). In a considered article published in Car magazine upon the 350 SL’s 1971 debut, Financial Times journalist, James Ensor examined the market for such vehicles and his prognosis was not optimistic,[7] citing a combination of rising insurance costs, the effects of a US recession, impending safety and emissions regulations, the rise of Japanese imports and above all, the sheer cost of entry to European carmakers.

It is most unlikely that Mercedes-Benz planners were ignorant of these factors as they steered R107 into production, but as Ensor observed, they might have spent the development money more wisely on a saloon model instead – or were they simply indulging their engineers? Asked whether Mercedes would ever consider withdrawal from the US owing to ever-changing regulatory hurdles, veteran engineer Rudolph Uhlenhaut told Motor Trend that Stuttgart could not in good conscience leave its US dealer and distribution network high and dry.

Meanwhile, despite it operating at a more rarefied altitude to its primarily British antagonists, the 350 SL would not enjoy an entirely unfettered run upon its introduction.[8] Nevertheless, like its predecessor, “the safest sports car ever” slotted into its role as the car for the beautiful people to arrive in, quickly becoming a staple within the better-heeled enclaves of Southern California and amid the Beverly Hills set in particular.

As the 1970s rolled dispiritedly on, R107 seemed impervious, its combination of snob value, unmatched build, active and passive safety proving irresistible; its more rugged visual appeal straddling gender lines in a manner its comelier looking predecessor proved perhaps less adept at. Immortalised on one hand in celluloid, and on the other amid a wide array of (primarily) US TV shows, the SL, initially casting shorthand for the indolent rich, the socialite, the vamp, became, as screen icons often do, an edgier, more compelling screen performer in the middle part of its career.

During the 1970s, a replacement had been considered, only for the programme to lose impetus as both money and resource was funnelled into more pressing matters. In the wake of the second oil crisis and economic recession which followed, it was decided the R107 would have to soldier on.[9] But ill-winds often blow in unforeseen directions, because as the US economy not only recovered during the early 1980s, but began to experience a stock-market-fuelled consumer bonanza, sales of the SL rose sharply; there now being little or no meaningful competition to the greying, but still bankable matinée idol.

Despite being visually disfigured by the requisite US market sealed-beam headlamps, and dodgem-bumpers, the SL aged gracefully, its brutish modernism, which seemed discordant in 1971, was viewed a decade on as being more akin to timeless classicism. And in the consumer-led, brand-obsessed world of the ’80s Yuppie, the R107 simply reeked the requisite values of upward mobility.

Image: Auto-forever

In maintaining the SL’s competitive edge, Mercedes-Benz didn’t need to strain every sinew, the bulk of technical changes being limited to powertrains, which were updated in line with the saloon models (in Europe) or in compliance with CAFE fuel economy strictures as mandated in the US. Hence the downsized (and rather strangled) 3.8 litre V8 being exclusively fitted in 1980 – the power deficit only being remedied with 1986’s 560 SL.[10]

In European markets, the SL (as with the SLC model) received a full suite of six and eight cylinder engines; the larger powerplants being supplemented in 1980 by new, more energy-efficient 3.8 and 5.0 litre capacity units. In 1985, a new-generation 3.0 litre in-line six was offered, marking the return of the 300 SL nomenclature for the first time since the 1950s, while a 4.2 litre V8 supplanted the 380 unit.

Visually, changes were of the more perfunctory variety. The style of alloy wheels (previously Fuchs Baroque) was changed to a more contemporary semi-flush variety,[11] while the addition of a deep front air dam was complimented by the option of a more discreet boot-lid mounted spoiler. Apart from badging and trim details, that was about it.[12]

But having enjoyed an almost unbroken run without serious rivalry, the R107 met something approaching its match in 1988 with the advent of Jaguar’s XJ-S Convertible. This fully realised open top version of the existing Jaguar coupé (itself enjoying something of an Indian Summer), was aimed directly at the SL and while it lacked the Mercedes’ bullet-proof structural and build integrity, it ran the Mercedes hard.

But Sindelfingen was not asleep; its engineers having started from scratch during the earlier part of the decade. The R129 programme, the result of considerable soul-searching on the part of Untertürkheim’s engineering leadership and Bruno Sacco’s designers led to a complete rethink as to what a Mercedes roadster for the 1990s should be – the end result while evolutionary, being utterly correct, in concept and design.

Image: Auto Evolution

But even as the sun began to set upon it, R107 continued to find buyers who appreciated its qualities of solidity, sobriety and its bank-vault aura of reassuring high-brow, cost-no-object expense, bowing out in 1990 with its head held high. Even now, the German film star, still trying not to pose for the cameras and the girls, retains its allure – eliciting desire – love even. Fifty years from its debut, the SL still embodies a glamourous world.

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[1] As beautiful as the Pagoda was, it was anything but aerodynamic, with a cd of 0.55 with the hardtop in place.

[2] According to some sources, Karl Wilfert developed the C107 in secret, thereby risking censure from his superiors. This however is not borne out in the official telling of the car’s development.

[3] Was the R107 SL’s wheelbase slightly too short? There is reason to suspect that it was, just as there are (purely aesthetic) reasons to suggest the SLC’s was (slightly) too lengthy. Proportions notwithstanding however, the SLC presents a more realised, more convincing visual proposition than its 2-seater sibling.

[4] The incredibly complex three-quarter vent treatment was very much Karl Wilfert’s idea and visual taste, for which he argued forcibly, and successfully. In addition, he is also said to have espoused the Pagoda-style hardtop and concave bootlid arrangement.

[5] The C107 SLC was received with a good deal of interest at Allesley, Coventry; with none other than Sir William Lyons singling it out as a benchmark for the nascent XJ-S then in development. Curiously, a similar issue arose with the treatment of the rear three quarter glass – Jaguar stylists also opting for a less than convincing vent arrangement. The influence of the 107 series proved more widespread – seen in the the De Tomaso Longchamp/ Maserati Kyalami duo and arguably, Cadillac’s Allanté.

Another notable SLC aficionado was a certain LJKS.

[6] While Sindelfingen engineers were said to have been justifiably proud of the R107’s safety features, it was viewed at the time as something of a compromise design, not just in Untertürkheim, but by Car’s Ian Fraser in his June 1971 report, who seemed a little underwhelmed.

[7] Ensor was not clairvoyant and didn’t envisage the 1973 oil embargo, but it was clear that life was getting harder for all European carmakers (to say nothing of the domestic ones) as US regulatory measures tightened.

[8] In 1971 the SL’s closest US rivals were the just-introduced V12 E-Type Jaguar, and to lesser extent, (from a price and prestige viewpoint at least), the Triumph Stag, both of which fell victim to Britain’s labour unrest at the time. Neither car really gave Mercedes-Benz American distributor sleepless nights.

[9] In a 1980 issue, Car magazine’s Georg Kacher (incorrectly) stated that Mercedes would shortly introduce a new SL model, illustrating with a speculative artist’s impression based closely upon a shortened (C126) SEC styling theme.

[10] The 5.6 litre V8 engine was not offered in European SLs, being confined to the US, Australian and Japanese markets.

[11] The Fuchs Baroque style of alloy wheel, employed widely by Mercedes during this period was also known as the Bundt – named after a popular type of cake, which it resembled. The later Manhole-Cover style of alloy wheel seemed to improve the SL’s stance – the semi-flush design having the visual effect of pulling the rear wheels outwards.

[12] Well not quite. The R107’s mid-80s MOdellPFledge (or facelift) also incorporated rubberised door handles instead of the solid metal variety. In addition, and not inconsequentially, the bodies were galvanised, aiding longevity considerably.

We recommend this fine R107 profile.

Sources: Auto-Didakt/ Motor Trend/ Curbside Classic/ Car Magazine/ Mercedes-Benz 280 SL – 500 SLC – Der Schritt zur Modellvielfalt : Günter Englen.
I am also indebted to Christopher Butt for his kind assistance.

“I’m in Love with a German Film Star” was a 1981 single by UK band The Passions.

 

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

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