German Film Star

Part three: Concluding our close-up of the R107 Mercedes SL.

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.[1]

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,[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

In European markets, the SL 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 most perfunctory variety. The style of alloy wheels (previously Fuchs Baroque) was changed to a more contemporary semi-flush variety,[6] 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.[7]

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.

o0O0o

Sources: Car Magazine/ Motor Trend. Thanks to CB & DOC.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

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

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

24 thoughts on “German Film Star”

  1. Good morning Eóin. It was indeed a brave decision of Mercedes-Benz to produce the R107, but timing was also fortuitous. It was developed in the late 1960’s and launched in 1971, before the oil price shock. Had it been three or four years later, it might have been cancelled, or a very different proposition. It was a fine car in its own right, but it also kept Mercedes-Benz in the sports convertible market and facilitated the development of the sublime R129, possibly the best convertible ever.

    1. I’m going to stick my neck out and say that the R107 saved the two seater convertible/ roadster/ barchetta genre from irrelevance and potential extinction. I’ve wracked my brains and with the exception of the Jenson Healey- which I suspect had very little impact- I can’t think of any other all new true convertible that was launched during the decade and wasn’t spun off from a pre existing closed car.*
      It meant that this sector of the market not only got an injection of new blood that could be delivered in volume but a car that was a class leader on it’s own terms; no 1960’s machine rattling and squirming into a new era and not a cheaply engineered placeholder waiting for the US market to make it’s mind up either.

      *I know that the closed SLC was launched the same year but wasn’t it just after not before the SL?

    2. The TR7 started as a tin top and the softmtop was an afterthought.

    3. Gooddog, the TR7 “Drophead coupe”came a few years after the launch of the fixed head I’d thought it was 1975 and 1980 but Wikipedia says 1979. The silhouette of the fixed head implies that a convertible would be a natural complement to it and a lot of stiffness was designed into the body shell to allow it to sacrifice it’s roof at some future date but as far as I know there was no model strategy that committed them to a roadster right from the start.

  2. Great series – really capturing the context of the times as well as the evolution of the car itself. This is something of a feature of Eóin’s writing. It’s not a car that I have ever known much about – it’s main feature in my early life was as Bobby Ewing drove in Dallas! I am more familiar with its successor and have a much read article from Car on its launch which was a well balanced assessment by Georg Kacher.

  3. Hi everybody. Fascinating read Eóin, I really enjoyed this series.

    Here’s a very early R107 brochure that is interesting in that headrests were only optional. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an R107 or a picture of it without the typical 1970s large Mercedes-Benz headrests.

    Hope the link works:
    https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=http://storm.oldcarmanualproject.com/mercedes350sl.htm&ved=2ahUKEwiUz9q08cPwAhWIPOwKHVCGBn8QFjAAegQIAxAC&usg=AOvVaw1QPl6jyItf_iS7Hu_gNnBn

    1. It doesn’t copy the link, but only the main page.

      In any case, here is one of the pics showing the interior of an early 350SL:

      And to go to the complete brochure, just follow the previous link through the alphabetical list of makes until you find Mercedes-Benz and then 1971 350SL. By the way, this is a great webpage for looking at old brochures.

    2. Good morning Cesar. I’ve fixed the link so it now takes you direct to the brochure pages. 🙂

    3. Cesar: thanks for the images. There it is again, the completely unified car interior. Design is the organisation of shapes (among many, many definitions). A designed object is one which looks like the way you´d draw it if there were no restrictions. The SL interior is as per a drawing. It´s utterly integrated. And also it´s made of materials found nowhere else on earth other than Stuttgart. It takes a special vision to make something look so inevitable and also alluring. Compare that to the sticky, awkward shapes made by pretty much everyone else. You have to wonder what the guys at Cadillac and Ferrari were thinking. Jaguar´s team must also have been shocked by the sheer gestaltiness of it. Nice as the XJ-S (it is a bit special) it´s nowhere near as homogenous as the SL interior. And this 1970. I am not sure if this has really been surpassed. I certainly wouldn´t trade any car currently made for this SL´s interior.

    4. The Citroen SM gets very close in terms of the integration of elements into a unified whole. I suppose it would be a worthy competitor for the SL on the design front. Imagine owning both of them…

    5. The last price list showing equipment code 57/3 (headrests) as an optional extra is from May 1972. The price list from August 1972 shows 57/3 as standard equipment.

    6. Re the interior – no wood embellishments at this stage, either, and it’s made of hard-wearing materials, too. Amazing. That said, the photo above shows a manual model; the auto’s transmission lever surround was all chrome. Still okay, though, as it wasn’t very big.

    7. That´s an important point about the lack of wood. I hadn´t noticed. And it´s not “missing” as it´s not needed either aesthetically or materially. It´s not that I am against wood. It can be nice and fun. The Mercedes is made of such excellent stuff wood isn´t called for. I find this kind of design achievement bordering on the miraculous. It´s not enough to manage away technical problems or imagine a workable shape. It is necessary to see past all the demands of engineering and ergonomics and to summon up the not-previously existing as shape and material. And then to be able to critique the prototypes and demand better until no more can be done. It takes huge will to do that plus vision. Further, the existing, known designs were far from bad. But someone at M-B had to think “I can do better, better can be achieved.” Amazing. Just amazing. This kind of thing is, in my view, much harder to do in industrial design than in most other disciplines. Architects seldom manage such complete assemblies of forms, not without it becoming a bit inhuman e.g the Farnsworth House which is not fit for human habitation. Perhaps Panton achieved it.

    8. Thanks for the comments Richard. Two things stand out for me when looking at these early brochure pictures, 1) the light sand colour of the interior trim and plastics is really nice and perfect for a convertible, and again, I don’t remember ever seeing it in any R107, in person or in photos, and 2) the interior door trim and panel design is quite sophisticated for its time, with large rigid door pockets and styled armrest/door pull. It almost looks current.

    9. Good afternoon gentlemen. You make good points about the sheer quality of the plastics used in Mercedes-Benz interiors, pretty much from the get-go. Other manufacturers struggled for quite a long time to improve their plastics to anything like the same quality. Most 1980’s cars’ interiors produced a cacophony of creaks and rattles from hollow hard plastic panels rubbing against each other.

      Not only is there no wood in the cabin, there’s virtually no distracting brightwork accents either:

      That instrument display is a model of simple clarity and shames Mercedes-Benz and the ‘Tokyo by night’ glitz of the company’s current interiors.

    10. The basic principles of industrial design are fairly timeless. Rams´ work for Braun is still technically and aesthetically correct and so is this. If you don´t like it, it´s a matter of taste. The Mercedes interior is pretty much the result of putting radii on the volumes and planes defined by engineering, ergonomic and comfort. There´s a very moderate amount of expression (angles and curves over and above engineering minima) to give it some character and not more than that. Colour and material are doing the emotional work. Modern interiors have a stupidly limited palette of black and dark grey and then the shapes are absurdly over-complex. Only Volvo and LR seem to be able to resist the temptation to go mad with curving forms.
      I´ve just looked at the current Mercedes E-class interior. It´s quite unappealing. If you want a nice and quiet interior you need to go downmarket where cost clips the wings of design ambition for the better.
      A search for what Opel offer in the Insignia led me to that bastion of stupid prose, “Car”:
      “Despite remaining staunchly unlovable, the Insignia always had an air of quiet competence about it. Does the facelifted model hold the same appeal?” Do they read what they write before hitting “send”, I wonder? Someone called T. Wiltshire offered that confection of received prejudice and sloppy thinking. I haven´t looked at Car on-line for at least three years and now I remember why.

    11. Hello all, and thanks to Eòin for this excellent series:
      One of my aunts had a 350 SL in the seventies and eighties, and when I read cesargrauf’s comment about the headrests it occurred to me that I was quite sure my aunt’s 350 SL did not have them- so some rummaging through old photoalbums ensued with the confirmation. The car was champagne metallic, with medium brown (MB-Tex?) upholstery:

  4. In terms of power, it is true that the US version of the 380SL wasn’t a ball of fire…155bhp vs 200 for the euro version. But that merely followed the sad decline of the 450SL over the “malaise” era; they originally needed the 450 to match the euro output of the 350 engine (200bhp, euro 450 = 225) and then it got worse, dropping to 180 in around 1975 and 160 by 1980 (these are California figures, but that was the market that counted). 155/160 bhp for a tank of a thing? Even my enthusiasm for them would be tested at that level. I know it is a cruiser, but it is supposed to be a effortless one… However, as Eoin states, they pretty much had the market to themselves.

  5. These are great visual documents of the interior of the first series of the R107, which we can admire here thanks to Cesar. I am almost inclined to say that this is one of the best Mercedes-Benz interiors I have seen to date. In my view, it has a wonderfully balanced mixture of restrained elegance, exemplary functionality paired with a quality in the applied composites and their workmanship that is still remarkable today.

    Mercedes-Benz created a style all of its own, which they have maintained consistently and with obvious success for over 20 years. They clearly set themselves apart from the competition, if only because they dispensed with various technical and visual gimmicks of the time with a great deal of self-confidence. A Mercedes-Benz of this era was never opulent, but always dignified in its interior. Very straightforwardly designed, the equipment was almost spartan; a rev counter, for example, was only available on most models – if at all – at extra cost. From today’s perspective, this could almost be described as an environment of deceleration.

    Today, this unique style is history. It is true that some of the rather staid colour schemes have been discarded, which were possible and, at least in the home country of the brand, quite common, if certain interiors were not chosen with a certain sense of style – especially in the W123 and W126. But at the same time, this timeless solidity is also history today. And with it, Mercedes-Benz has relinquished part of its identity and, in my opinion, runs the risk of becoming increasingly arbitrary as a marker.

    Finally, I would like to quote Steve Fowler from Auto Express, who sums it up in a recently published test report on the new S-Class: “We can’t help but feel Mercedes has dropped the ball a little with the new S-Class. Because the company has focused so hard on the technology on board (which we have to admit is hugely impressive) there are essential elements of luxury that just don’t feel as good as before – build and ride quality, for starters. The S-Class used to be head and shoulders above its luxury car rivals, but that’s not something you can say any more”.

  6. I’d just like to point out that (probably) the last appeareance of a R107 in a film makes for a very symbolic reading of the car and the time through its 50 years of history.

    It just shows parked in the street in a still opening and closing shot at Kitty Green’s “The assistant”, as an avatar of the present-but-never-in-sight abusive film tycoon inspired by Harvey Weinstein.

    http://imcdb.org/vehicle_1382225-Mercedes-Benz-SL-R107.html

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