Part three: Concluding our close-up of the R107 Mercedes SL.
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.
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, 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. 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. 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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
Sources: Car Magazine/ Motor Trend. Thanks to CB & DOC.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 The 5.6 litre V8 engine was not offered in European SLs, being confined to the US, Australian and Japanese markets.
 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.
 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.