Part one: “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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
 As beautiful as the Pagoda was, it was anything but aerodynamic, with a cd of 0.55 with the hardtop in place.
We recommend this fine R107 profile.
Sources: Auto-Didakt/ Motor Trend/ Curbside Classic.
“I’m in Love with a German Film Star” was a 1981 single by UK band The Passions.