In the pantheon of automotive legends, few walk taller than the R107-generation Mercedes SL. It’s no coincidence that the production run of this desirable roadster is the second-longest in Mercedes-Benz’s entire history, trumped only by the evergreen G-Wagen. The R107 SL debuted way back in 1971, and remained in production right up until 1989. People couldn’t get enough of them then and, judging by the number of them still on the road in 2020, that’s very much true today. The SL’s enduring appeal is down to two key things: firstly, the design was absolutely spot-on – crisp, clean and near-timeless. There are few cars that would still look at home in the showroom after eighteen years, but this pretty form carried it off with aplomb. And secondly, the mechanicals were bulletproof: taking chassis components from the rugged W114 saloon and stuffing in the brawny but cultured V8s from the sizeable S-Class flagships, the SL roadster served up vivid performance in a solid and playful package, with class and reliability fused with effortless style.
A great many variants were offered over the R107’s lifetime, from the lowly six-cylinder models to those top-tier offerings that packed 5.0-litre V8s (and, sometimes, above that). Whichever one the buyer chose, however, the fundamental packaged remained the same: quite simply, an SL is an SL. It speaks for itself as a marker of quality. A refocusing of approach in 1980 meant that seventies SL's were markedly different to eighties ones, as the 350 and 450 versions were discontinued, as was the old 3-speed auto ’box, and the new 380 and 500 models arrived along with a 4-speed transmission. The V8s were tuned for improved efficiency and lower fuel consumption, and the roadster entered its new age with a keener edge. The example we have here, a 380 SL, is very much the apogee of this way of thinking: a 3.8-litre V8 serving up a vibrant 215bhp and 221lb.ft carried the sylph-like roadster to an impressive 134mph, but this was never about being a road-racer. An SL is an exercise in tactility, and comfort – a cruiser with a sporting edge. A sumptuously crafted machine built to waft in opulent style… but sweaty palms are merely a throttle-blip away.
We can blame Quentin Willson for this one. The present owner of this 380 SL, who has owned a number of classics over the years, was inspired by hearing Willson espousing the virtues of the R107 on a television programme, and the notion struck a chord. The motoring celeb’s rationale was that these cars are supremely solid in their construct, fabulously well appointed, and thoroughly reliable – the sort of thing a QC might swank around London in. And so the owner went out to find one, the best one he could, and – lo and behold – it transpired that B990 VTC’s first owner was indeed a London-based QC. Tony Blair’s QC in fact, or so the story goes.
The history of this car can easily be traced back across the decades to that first owner, by virtue of the fact that the SL’s history file is complete, comprehensive, and stuffed to bursting with sheaves of data – not just receipts and MOTs, but handwritten letters, bills of sale, old tax discs, photos of restoration work, the lot.
Restoration work? Yes, as it transpired the current owner’s quest to buy the best car he could find did in fact present a little sting in the tail. Having taken the 380 to a renowned specialist for a thorough once-over, and it turned out that the R107’s Achilles heel was an issue here: bulkhead rust. These cars can enthusiastically rot in this area, and the owner was keen to eradicate any trace of this, so the SL received a full strip-down, the bulkhead was sorted to as-new standard, and the entire car resprayed in its original colour. The front wings, which are similarly known for corrosion, have also been perfected.
The owner bought the car five years ago, so all of this remedial work is still very fresh. Having spent around £8,500 on the body resto, a further £1,500 was then shelled out for a high-quality soft-top roof (a genuine hard-top will also be included with the sale). The seats have been tastefully re-[trimmed in the original cloth, which had to be imported from Germany. Following all of the restoration work, he then pressed it into daily duties, and reports it to be a beautifully reliable car, just as enjoyable through the winter as it is in the summer.
With its fresh paintwork having recently been fully machine-polished, the SL certainly cuts a dash in the summer sunshine. Indeed, our photoshoot in Battersea Park elicited an endless stream of admiring comments and wistful glances (along with one or two idle offers to buy…) The car is beautifully presented, with all the period-correct accoutrements you could hope for; the chrome is dazzling, and all the panels are straight and true. The only real area for potential improvement is the front bumper, which is pitted on one side and corroding a little on the other, although such things are easy to come by. There’s also a smattering of rust bubbling beneath the fuel filler flap, something which would easily be sorted by a topical repair. The alloy wheels are in perfect condition, wearing recent Maxxis tyres with attractive whitewalls.
Under-bonnet presentation is superb, with every element correctly in situ, and pains have been taken to keep everything clean and tidy. An interesting detail is the small Alan Day plaque screwed to the slam panel next to the VIN plate – this is the dealer which originally supplied the car to its first owner, and Alan Day paperwork can be found throughout the car’s early history.
The interior presents a thoroughly usable proposition. The re-trimmed seats are firm and supportive, the windows wind up and down as they should, and the quality roof is extremely easy to put up and pull down. In the name of originality, the car still has its original carpets, and these could perhaps benefit from a steam-clean, but this doesn’t detract from the overall effect. The dash-top has the odd inevitable age-related crack from sun exposure, and the lacquer is lifting a little on the wood of the centre console, but everything that should be in here is present and correct, and everything works as it should. The SL also benefits from a key-fob immobiliser and alarm, as well as a modern Kenwood CD/radio.
Inside the boot you’ll find the original toolkit and first aid kit, as well as a correct spare alloy wheel. (The boot support struts are weak, a common R107 issue, but again it’s an easy fix.) You’ll also find the sun visors in there – the owner has removed these as they can get in the way for taller drivers – although they do clip straight back on, and they have been re-trimmed! There’s a small patch of corrosion in the spare wheel well, but nothing structural. And underneath the car is amazingly solid – everything just as straight and true as you’d hope, and pleasingly rust-free.
The beating heart of any desirable SL is that creamy-smooth V8 engine. In the case of the 380 SL, we’re looking at a 3.8-litre 90-degree V8 whose peak torque is delivered at just 4,000rpm, meaning that this can be an effortless wafter as much as an effervescent sports car.
Everything we see under the bonnet here is completely factory-standard and it runs like clockwork. The owner took the car to respected marque specialist James Leigh for analysis, and it was confirmed that the mechanicals of this SL are tip-top. With a comprehensive service history to back it up, this is a car which is ready to be pressed into daily duties. No leaks, no rattles, no knocks, just trademark Mercedes-Benz smoothness.
The cruise control is currently disabled, as James Leigh had advised that the system is generally unreliable on these cars and so best avoided.
Being a 1984 car, this SL enjoys the later four-speed automatic transmission, and again this is all in perfect working order when in motion – there is just one issue to be aware of here, and that’s the fact that the engine can only be started when the transmission is in Neutral, rather than in Park. We are advised that this is not an uncommon fault with the R107; it doesn’t affect the car’s operation provided that the driver remembers to put it in Neutral before starting. The chassis is pleasingly trouble-free throughout, with no worries from the steering, the brakes or suspension – everything behaves as you’d expect and nothing is unduly worn.
There’s a reason why there are so many R107s still on the road today, and it’s the same reason that Mercedes-Benz found themselves simply unable to stop making and selling the things for a remarkable eighteen years: they’re just lovely machines. The perfect fusion of luxury and amusement, of style and flair – it’s an instantly recognisable classic, and yet it can behave like a modern car. Naturally there’s an old-timey feel to the way it operates, that’s an inherent part of its charm, but the point is that you can treat it like a modern machine: keep it serviced correctly and it’ll reward you with impeccable reliability and daily thrills.
It’s a car which would be equally at home on the Kings Road or cruising into Casino Square, although posing and peacocking isn’t the sole element of its multi-faceted character. It’ll eat up B-roads with eagerness and energy, cruise along European autoroutes in comfort, put up with the traffic jams of the daily commute, you name it. It’s a polymath.
Any quality SL is capable of this, but this particular SL really does make a very strong case for itself above others. The history is unimpeachable (as well as making for fascinating reading), thanks to the fastidiously maintained records. The recent restoration work has left it gleaming like a new pin, as well as addressing the dreaded bulkhead issue that can hang over these cars like the Sword of Damocles, and it represents a period-perfect example of what a 380 SL should be.
Perhaps the most crucial element to bear in mind is that this is an all-seasons proposition. It’s more tempting to buy convertibles in the summer, particularly with the sort of glorious summer we’re enjoying right now, but as the current owner’s daily use of this car has proven, it’s a quality winter cruiser to. This 380 SL, quite simply, can do it all.
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