German Film Star

Part one: “It’s a glamourous world”.

Image: honest-john

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 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.

[1] 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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

26 thoughts on “German Film Star”

  1. Good morning Eóin. A thoughtful and acutely observed critique of a car that I had previously (perhaps lazily) regarded as almost perfect. And you’re right: the front grille and headlamps do look a touch oversized for the car. The tail does look less than pert and those ribs on the lower flanks are rather fussy:

    Oh dear, another automotive hero defenestrated. As the redoubtable Margo Leadbetter would say “Well, thank you very much Eóin!”

  2. You know what? The car infuses such a notion of being rectilinear I’ve actually never noticed it tapers down at the rear? I’d say they are within the limits of being subtle in that regard, therefore it works for me.

    Also, I’ve always liked the bright amber turn signals on that generation of Mercedes. The backwards slant of the indicators of the R/C107 and the W116 makes for a very aggressive “face” full of Teutonic self assuredness. Making it rounded on the W123 erased all of that and made a friendlier but also less assured face. I think it is a design trait they could’ve used more in its line-up including up to this day, it is very much a missed opportunity of using a design language they already owned. Nothing says “Mercedes” to me any clearer than that face.

  3. There’s at least one W113 Pagoda with enough power:

    Erich Waxenberger built it for himself using the M100 6.3 engine from the 600.

    I remember the R107’s presentation quite well. As there had been plenty of spy photographs showing W116 prototypes (don’t forget that the average time for development of a new Benz was eight years then) the R107 gave an indication of what was to come in saloon form a bit later. The R107 also introduced many of the W116’sfeatures like the pull out door handles, tandem wipers, dirty water managenent system and a closely related interior design.
    At that time there was a clear discinction between saloon and saloon derived Benzes and their sports cars where the former were allowed to have the upright Mercedes grille and the latter had to make do with something supposedly resembling the W196’s nose

    Under no circumstances would there have been a ‘sports’ Mercedes carrying the upright grille and vice versa – something they also lost in their transition to nu-Merc.
    One major criticism of the R107 was its lack of interior space because the seats couldn’t be moved backwards far enough for longer drivers because their backrests hit the B post and roof storage compartment.

    1. And the wraparound indicators were there because they allowed US style lighting without the need for separate side marker light units.

    2. Speaking of light units: The ribbed ‘self-cleaning’ rear lights were no rip-off of Pininfarina’s design for the BMC 1800, but Daimler-Benz had bought the rights to the design from PF – quite unlike Citroen, who allegedly weren’t even inspired by that concept car…

  4. Oh, well, I’ll simply transfer my SL-shaped affections to the R129, here in its original and best guise:

    1. The original R129 is so beautiful! I remember when I first saw it, still covered in dull, protective wax, parked in front of a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Caracas, on my first year of university. Its unexpected presence stopped me in my tracks. The R129 had just come out worldwide and there it was, a silver 500SL right in front of me as I mindlessly walked by; the last thing I was expecting to see that evening. This was at a time when imported cars were basically absent from the Venezuelan car scene, let alone one so new in its design, so you can imagine its effect on a young and impressionable car nut.

      Harry Metcalfe did a video a few years ago on his SL600 he kept (maybe still does) in the French Riviera as a kind of beater, haha! He sings praise on its over engineering. Here below is the link:

  5. Film and TV star, indeed (“and when they met, it was moider”).

    It had a rather odd habit of squatting under acceleration, which reminds me of a speedboat. It’s shown extensively in this early promotional film, so perhaps they thought it demonstrated power.

    It’s funny – as is often the case, this article has articulated points about the car’s design which I felt slightly uneasy about, but hadn’t been able to pin down. Lovely car, though and my affection for it is undimmed.

    The film has no sound, but the visuals are good; it’s interesting to see the car when it was the ‘latest thing’.

    1. A very interesting video.
      I was surprised to observe that the car’s back suspension was sagging during acceleration fron stand still but also when achieving the 200km/h.
      Very strange to see that in a video promoting a new car. Is it just my idea? Can’t figure it out. Was it considered OK back then?

    2. Hello Constantinos, the car did have quite soft suspension, and I’d expect some squat.

      I’m trying to recall other cars that had a similar tendency; the previous SL looks as if it was more firmly sprung, but it had a swing rear axle which looks a bit dodgy under heavy braking.

    3. Charles: The R107 SL employed a semi trailing arm rear suspension (as mentioned in the text above), a modified version of that developed for the 1968 ‘Stricht Acht‘ mid-sized model and also used in further modified form in the later W116 S-Class. The 107 SL did have a very noticeable degree of pitch and squat – certainly more than the engineers at Browns Lane would have been happy with.

      According to a 1971 report in US imprint, Motor Trend, engineer, “Uhlenhaut explains that more anti-dive could be added to the front end, but that it could have the adverse side effect of causing the wheels to “hunt” on extreme braking, putting added control responsibilities on the driver, who might already be in an emergency situation. The amount of anti-squat that can be added to the rear suspension, on the other hand, is determined by the geometry of the suspension, and a reduction of this would require new geometry or the installation of a complicated and expensive control device.”

      What this suggests to me is that firstly, Mercedes were being rather mindful of the expectations and experience of customers in their most lucrative market, and secondly, that the use of semi trailing arms, while perhaps less invidious than swing axles in extremis, are no substitute for a set of double wishbones or indeed a five link axle…

    4. Absolutely. It’s very interesting to have the additional information and explanation, Eóin. I suppose that the car’s dramatic behaviour would signal that it was time to back off. Also, I don’t think that many owners would have driven very sportily in the first place.

      I had a quick look at an early XJ-S road test which showed it accelerating fairly hard from rest, and it squatted a bit, but not as much as the SL.

      I also had a look at some SL prices and the R107 seems to go from £40k upwards for the best ones. The best Pagodas are £175k plus.

    5. Rudolf Uhlenhaut’s comments are quite illuminating aren’t they? I’m currently writing the second part of this (short) series and as is the way of these things, learning as I go. Hence, as a result of some further information, I have felt the need to revise the text above in places where some additional clarity was required and where in one or two areas – educated guesses on my part were shown to be correct. I’ve also sourced a few better photos.

      The price of W113s staggers me.

    6. That quote from Uhlenhaut was very interesting and telling, because it sats they were not only aware of the problem but had a remedy already in development or at least in the pipe-line. Didn’t their five link suspension cost something like an astronomical billion dollars in r&d or whatnot? Nobody but Daimler Benz at the time would have sunk such a cost in a rear axle/suspension setup.

    7. Charles: My apologies. I misread your comment – the W113, as you rightly point out did have the low-pivot swing axle rear suspension. I had some experience of this car – a friend of mine used to loan her 1963 230 SL to me while she spent the London winters in Middle Earth. Suspension-wise it felt quite taut and driven within the boundaries of decorum, and mindful of the rather vague and stiff power steering (not to mention the fact that it was someone else’s much loved property), Glamour Car handled in a surprisingly modern fashion. It was really quite impressive. But not a car for a shrinking violet.

    8. With the introduction of the 4.5 litre engines the 450 and higher models of W116 and R107 got a modified rear suspension that all but eliminated squat under acceleration by an additional link in the axle.

  6. I couldn’t resist having a stab at improving the R107. Original vs my tweaked effort:

    Smooth lower bodysides, a higher and flatter rear deck and slimmer front lights.

    1. Well, improvements on a car that never touched me emotionally.

    2. As always with these kind of experiments, the result is less dynamic and more static. The subtle curves of the original makes it intrinsically more dynamic, like a cat contracting its muscles waiting to jump on a prey.

    3. Interesting proposal Daniel, but I prefer the lower bodyside ribs 🙂 Maybe it’s just because of familiarity, but to me they add character and a bit of a welcome yet unobtrusive “just because” quirk to an otherwise extremely rational design. Well, at least extremely rational for a roadster. My biggest beef with that side profile pic though is that the stance is totally wrong; it’s too high in the rear.

    4. Hi Cesar. Yes, it’s a moot point as to whether the removal of the ribbing has improved the design or otherwise. The high-tailed stance might have been a function of the apparently soft and long-travel rear suspension. It’s nothing that a few bags of cement in the boot wouldn’t correct!

  7. I had a couple of these in the years of my (pseudo)pomp. There is nothing quite like them for a sense of self-satisfaction, save a Rolls-Royce in my experience; that’s OK in California, up to a point, but in dear old chippy Blighty it comes at a price. Leaving the roof open outside a bar in Notting Hill, it was only a matter of seconds before some passing lads in a Transit lobbed a couple of eggs in the general direction, luckily landing on the bonnet rather than inside the car. Lesson learned!

    If truth be told, they drive exactly like a contemporary Mercedes saloon, which is fine for someone like me who believes that fast cars are pointless (take the motorbike if that’s your mood for the day), but it troubles those who have a penchant for “sports” cars as zesty devices. Elegant, useful, reliable, reassuringly expensive but a bit stodgy. Maybe it is time I got another one to go with the non-existent villa on the Cote?

  8. Dear Eóin

    At this point I must admit that I have always had a rather ambivalent relationship with the Mercedes-Benz brand. And therefore I am anything but objective about their products. Perhaps it was because I spent parts of my childhood in the greater Stuttgart area, where the brand and its employees all seemed ever-present at the time.

    For me, there is actually only one model that has always impressed me and still makes my head spin today: The W113 Pagoda. Decidedly timeless and infinitely elegant, yet never obtrusive or even vulgar. And far removed from that stuffiness that for many decades always gave Mercedes-Benz models a bit of the frumpiness of Stuttgart suburbs, where, thanks to the tirelessly practiced sweeping week there, pavements were always sparkling clean, but otherwise lacked any form of charm, aesthetics and desire for design.

    What is it that makes the W113 so graceful? At this point I am inclined to say that Paul Bracq must obviously have succeeded in saving his sense of style, demonstrated several times (unfortunately only with other brands), over the tables of Swabian engineers. French refinement obviously triumphed in this case over the always somewhat awkward demeanour that still catches up with many people in the home of the Mercedes-Benz brand whenever questions of good taste, style and elegance are involved (the pathetic design attempts around the (sub-)brand Maybach still prove this in an impressive way today).

    In this respect, the W107 is the metal consequence of obviously putting its design back into the hands of a designer whose gusto was obviously perfectly socialised in the Stuttgart environment. Robust and constructed with Swabian meticulousness, it was seemingly born for eternity. In this respect, the technical qualities are still beyond doubt today. These, in turn, are still awakened in me today when it comes to the style, elegance and aesthetics of this vehicle.

    1. Hi Mark,

      You make good points. For me the timeless beauty of the W113 comes down to three main design triumphs: 1) Perfect proportions, not only bonnet to cabin to boot, but also front grille to head lights, 2) Clean detailing; not an extra line, crease or fold present and none missing, and just the right amount of chrome jewelry, and 3) The perfect relationship between wheels and body, as well as stance. The W113 is a car with rather large wheels for its size and that works beautifully because it’s such a petite car. I guess that could be triumph number 4, its perfect size. As I’m writing all this, another car from the same era came to mind for which the same things can be said and it’s the 1961 Lincoln Continental. To me these two cars, however different they certainly are, both share the same “just right” design and size. They are small roadster and large car versions of the same design ethos and zeitgeist.

  9. Mark,

    like you, I too believed for a very long time that it was Monsieur Bracq who acquainted those uncultured Swabians in charge of Mercedes’ visual matters with the concept of elegance. However, having studied the man’s body of work in some detail, I’ve come to the conclusion that Bracq’s sensibilities were rather more baroque and American-influenced than most records would have one believe.

    In this context, I’d suggest you take a look at some of Bracq’s earlier proposals for W113, W100 and R107, all of which boasted a tangible transatlantic flair. It should become clear that the guidance of Friedrich Geiger played just as important a role on those car’s design process as Bracq’s talents (in R107’s case, the overly baroque aspects were mostly connected to Karl Wilfert, Geiger’s superior, whose tastes indeed resembled the teutonic clichés you so vividly described). Bracq’s proposals were significantly altered and edited, to the benefit of the final design – as it should be, in a competently run design department.

    Bracq unquestionably played a significant role in the creation of some the most graceful cars to ever roll off German production lines – but it was hardly as dominant as most accounts would suggest. As with most great designers, he was as reliant on his colleagues and the corporate context he worked in as these benefitted from his talents.

    As another illustration of Bracq’s ‘undiluted’ style, I suggest this sketch of a large BMW coupé, which may have been an early proposal for the E24 (incidentally, Bracq fought tooth & nail for that car to feature a backward-tilted front design, which lent it a 1980’s Oldsmobile Cutlass flair):

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