R129 Mercedes-Benz SL – The Time is Now

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By Chris Pollitt

There is nothing finer than jumping behind the wheel, dropping the roof and hitting the open road. Yes, many of us live in wet, old Britain, but even so, there are occasional sunny days during which we can enjoy the wind in our hair. It’s an elevated style of driving, a new way of getting about, it’s more exciting to be driving with your dome capped only by the sky. 

There are many open-top classics to choose from, and all offer the same base ‘wind in hair’ experience. However, some do it a lot better than others. A case in point would be the SL cars from Mercedes-Benz. The amount of engineering put into these cars is astonishing and always has been. One common complaint of all convertibles is scuttle shake. This is caused by a lack of rigidity in the shell that comes from lopping the roof off. Ask anyone who’s owned a Saab 900 convertible and they’ll tell you all about it. Mercedes-Benz engineered around it though, and as such, built strong, rigid convertibles that offer the same driving ability and on-road manners as their tin-topped counterparts. 

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Convertibles can sometimes feel flimsy and weak, but not an old Mercedes. Buy a good one and the doors will still shut with a deep, heavy ‘thunk’. The car will be reliable, it will feel solid and it will be an absolute joy to drive. 

The other thing to remember is that a Mercedes-Benz SL is a timeless classic with no pomp or ego. They’re just cool. Look at the old SL Pagoda or the R107 – they’re effortless and free of any self-importance. They exist to please their driver, that’s it. Sadly though, in the case of the Pagoda and the R107, they also exist to empty bank accounts. The R107 has shot up in recent years, for example. But all is not lost, the R129 is out there, it’s affordable and it’s every bit the perfect roofless Mercedes. 

An introduction to the R129

We didn’t get the R129 until 1989, however, Mercedes-Benz engineers were working on the development from 1984, which would explain why the R129 is based around a shortened and strengthened W124 floorpan. The W124 was and still is an outstanding car (and we’d know, as we have a 230E on the Car & Classic fleet). By using the floorpan, the R129 inherited front damper struts with separate coil springs and gas shock absorbers, while the rear was a five-link setup. The rear was also designed to reduce squat and alignment shift, which was handy given that some SLs would be fitted with a 5.0 V8. 

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Speaking of engines, that’s probably where the R129 SL shines the most. It is all things to all drivers. If you just want a reliable, sporty cruiser that has a bit of ‘go’ when you need it, you have straight-six models like the 2.8 or 3.0. There was also a 2.8 and 3.0 V6, a 3.2 V6 and a range of 5.0 V8 engines. Things didn’t stop there though, as there was a 5.4, and a 6.0 too. Oh, and let’s not forget the bonkers 7.0 and 7.2 V12 models. You could have a sports car, or you could have a supercar. The R129 could be whatever you wanted it to be. 

Of course, the most popular models are the 3.0 to 5.0 cars. Many will tell you that you have to go for a V8 model, and while they are indeed lovely, don’t treat them as the ‘be all, end all’ of the R129 spectrum. The straight-six and V6 engines are wonderful, and they offer plenty of grunt in the lightweight R129. 

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Almost all R129s are automatic, with early cars having a four-speed 4G-Tronic ‘box, while later models had a five-speed 5G-Tronic. There were some five-cog manuals, but they’re both exceptionally rare and incredibly fragile. Auto is the way to go. 

Externally, the Bruno Sacco design has aged beautifully. Purists will want early, amber indicator cars but don’t be put off by facelift models.They’re just as beautiful, as the facelift itself consisted only of minor visual tweaks. No matter what era you buy (and remember, this car was available until the early 2000s), you’ll be getting a perfectly proportioned, handsome, clean-lined, two-seat sports car. 

Inside, it’s Mercedes-Benz business as usual, which for the era is no bad thing. The R129 is one of the last cars from the ‘built properly’ era, and it shows. The interior is exceptionally well screwed together, even by today’s standards. The seats are sturdy and comfortable, and if the hydraulic roof mechanism is looked after, it seals the cabin snugly and with a pleasing sense of enclosure. That said, the R129 came with a detachable aluminium hard-top, so if you want to make it feel a bit more warm and solid through the winter months, you can.  

What are prices like? 

The R129 is yet to go the way of the R107, but it is on the climb. The R107 was, ten years ago, a car you could pick up for anything from £5,000. Now, you’re looking at £30,000 for a nice, presentable one. And looking at the data we have here at Car & Classic, it seems the R129 is going the same way.

At the moment, there are R129 examples out there for as little as £3,000, though they will of course need work. £5,000 will put you in the territory of a presentable 3.0 car, while £10,000 will get you into the territory of V8 cars, though at that money they won’t be the best examples. For a quality V8 model, you need to be looking north of £12,000. 

If you can push your budget to £15,000 upwards, you’ll be able to get your hands on a really nice V8 example, or a truly exceptional six-cylinder version if you can live without a V8. £20,000 upwards, and the world is your oyster, as you’ll be in late-model, low mileage territory (though don’t worry about mileage too much. These old Mercedes are built with that in mind). 

Why should I buy one? 

The R129 Mercedes-Benz SL is, frankly, a masterclass in how a two-seat, open-top sports car should be done. It’s built incredibly well, it’s engaging to drive and the design is seemingly ageless – park an SL on the trendiest of high streets and it will fit in with the modern cars around it. But at the same time, it will be just as at home, and just as appreciated at a classic car event. It’s a captivating, elegant machine that, if looked after, will outlive most other cars. 

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Thanks to being based on the W124 platform, the R129 is also a car that you could very easily use every day, and through all seasons so long as the car you buy still has its aluminum hard-top with it. This isn’t a delicate, ‘sunny Sunday’ kind of car. The R129 wants to be driven. It’s happy around town, it’s happy blasting through the countryside and it’s happy to cruise along the motorway for hours on end. As long as you can cope with just two seats, it’s the perfect all-rounder. A car you will look for an excuse to drive. 

How long until I see a return? 

If you’re lucky enough to buy an R129 SL, the trick to maximising its value throughout your ownership is to maintain it properly. The R129 is a luxury German car, and it needs to be treated as such. No cheap pattern parts, no cheap fluids or service items. Look after it properly. If you do this, and if you keep on top of the bodywork and interior, (seats can wear with age, early cars can have electrical loom issues and panels such as the front wings and rear arches can rust), you’ll be sure to keep the value in the car. 

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As the years progress, the rough and unloved cars fall by the wayside and are inevitably being broken for spares. As such, the R129 is becoming progressively rarer, but the demand is in no way declining. Look after it, keep it pristine both mechanically and visually, and you’ll never lose your money on it. Give it as little as twelve months, and you could easily sell the car for a profit. Though, we’ll warn you now, you won’t want to!

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