You really do not need to know to fully understand the meaning of the title: here we’re talking about that kind of cars that resemble more the construction of a main-battle German Panzer rather than lightweight sports cars. You should know, that the name SL (Sport Leicht) has always been a name given to symbolize the continuity of a line of remarkable cars which started with the legendary 300SL of the 1950ies instead of indicating a sporty, lightweight automobile.
However, if you’re familiar with this family of Mercedes-Benzes, you should know that they bear no relationship whatsoever with that original tubular-frame model and have always been cars with a class of their own. Nevertheless, the Mercedes SL has always been one of the coolest cars that you could buy. Since the W121 190, the SL’s mantra has always been to be a formidable, relaxed, gorgeous and indestructible cruiser, good for your daily dose of boulevard parade.
Do not be fooled if we like to use the term “Panzer” in referring to these cars: in this article, it will be used to indicate the SL’s notoriously robust construction and enduring character. These two, the r107 and r129 SL’s are the last of their kind, the last of the over-engineered Mercs from Sindelfingen, while the third, the new r231 SL63 AMG is perhaps the last cry of the SL. They’re the quintessential representation of that classic and unmistakable German savoir faire that seems so far gone now. They embody 3 decades of the finest research for beauty and elegance developed to fit for a car well suited for the real world: besides the gorgeous and smooth design, the SL has always been engineered with the kind of class which was able to withstand effortlessly the rigors of the road.
The first SL as-we-know-it has been the W113 Pagoda. Forget the W121 190SL which was a miniaturized and less-powerful 300SL, the Pagoda was engineered to be Mercedes’ top-of-the-line model. It was the most expensive, elegant and hedonistic offer from Mercedes and indeed the most desirable of all. Based on the shortened chassis of the W111 series, it was a showcase of technology and beauty: Frenchman Pau Bracq styled it and Austro-Hungarian Béla Barényi engineered many of its technical features, including the car’s innovative controlled-deformation construction.
The W113 was a commercial success and it defined the SL’s course in the years to come. In 1971, its successor, the r107 perfected the original recipe and went on to be one of the most expensive and desirable cars for the entire duration of all its life, an outstanding 18 years.. Also the r107 was the first SL-badged Merc that took racing after the original W194 and W198’s 300SL’s, competing successfully in the 1978, ’79 and 80 World Rally Championship, scoring an impressive 4th overall in the Constructor’s standings.
When it came out in 1971, it was more expensive than most “exotics” on the road: just think that for the price of a brand new 350SL you could have bought 2 Jaguar E-types! It was such a success that in 1989 Mercedes had to discontinue it because it was outdated and not because of a decrease in sales!
People still love to refer to these cars as terrible sportcars, but they’re not: they’re real-world, top class GT’s, clad with top features. They’re intended to deliver the best driving experience, engineered to satisfy all of your basic needs. Minimalism and pin-point handling is not the SL’s forte: driving one means truly taking a moment to enjoy yourself, immersed in the surroundings of wherever you might be driving.
Sadly in 2019, Mercedes seems to be letting the SL go. With many of its cars doing exactly what the SL did many years ago, the appeal seems to be far gone now, especially because if you want to buy yourself the non-plus-ultra Merc experience you go directly to AMG and purchase their new GT Roadster. The SL is risking to be amalgamated into the lineup of “normal” Mercedes, appealing only to retiring gentlemen and unknown to younger generations. Frankly, it is important for us that the SL is not a canyon carver? No. The SL is the epitome of cool and we all hope it will always be that way.
To defend the heritage of this great model we rounded up two of the rarest and most intriguing SL’s ever built: the monstrous 560SL from 1986 and the SL60 AMG from 1995. They’re two massive heavy-weights and true power cruisers and among the last Benzes to be engineered for quality and durability. They will endure virtually anything with style and that’s why these are true elegant German Panzers. The new SL63 AMG is perhaps the most complete incarnation of what an SL could be. Surely it’s in contrast with the soft nature of its predecessors: large wheels a sporty set up and a monstrous powertrain will make you feel you need to race the car at every occasion, which is odd: contrarily to the old r129, power here is constantly tempting you as the burbling noise is an ever present sound. Besides, the SL now is stuck between the classic plush and comfortable cruiser and the half-supercar, a role better incarnated by the AMG GT. Nonetheless, this is an SL and cruising it’s still what it does best.
Planning a trip from the Lake Iseo to the Lake Garda it seemed the perfect idea, it’s their natural environment. After all, in summer, almost anywhere you want to go is a good idea if you have a SL. For the sake of historical continuity, we jumped on the 560 SL first in order to have a glimpse of one of the most opulent r107s ever made and perhaps one of the most beautiful.
Conceived as a US-only model, the 560 was produced between 1986 and 1989: finding one in Europe is rare and this one it’s the first that we ever saw in the flesh. If you’re after some American Gigolo vibes, this car is for you. It oozes the same cool-factor and it provides a massive amount of satisfaction when you drive around. Its ride is the epitome of an old-school plush and comfortable suspension set-up: it has plenty of body roll and yaw, but it is very controllable nonetheless. It’s not Rolls-Royce like: in the SL there’s a slight hint of refreshing sportiness.
At first, the r107 behavior it’s not confidence-inspiring and you might think that its huge mass will make you loose it at any moment, but after a couple of miles, the SL rewards you with a unique experience, safe and very enjoyable. Despite the initial body roll, the SL 560’s perfect geometry will ultimately reassure you with plenty of stability: the sensation you have behind the wheel will be to govern rather than to drive. It requires constant and very little steering inputs but it feels so effortless that you’ll become addicted to this feeling. It’s the quintessential classic effortless cruiser, as you do not feel detached from the road but rather above it, with a cushion of air between you and the tarmac.
Modern cars tend to isolate you from the surroundings while the r107 seemingly celebrates every place you go and makes you a participating spectator. On the roads close to the lake, you feel part of the environment: could the SL be considered as a piece of “organic architecture”? Yes. Discreet enough not to be noticed by non-lookers but exciting enough to be admired. What more can you want? Do not think that this 560 it’s short on power and doesn’t possess any trace of vigor: press hard on the throttle pedal and it will immediately jump forward with an unexpected but very welcome force. It’s V8 it’s always at the ready and it never gives you more than what you truly need… and it remarkably does so without electronics and or any sort of complicated gizmos. Power here is like the perfect concierge: discreet, unnoticed but ever present when you need it.
After it went out of production in 1989, the SL perhaps reached its most advanced state, with the r129, universally recognized as “the last Pagoda”. Filled with all sorts of electronic trickeries, it was still a genuine SL at heart, with great presence and cutting edge-technology.
Gone was the r107’s fiddly roof mechanism, replaced by a welcome and functional electrically-operated roof. The style done by Bruno Sacco was a magnificent example in sobriety and sportiness as it was labelled as the “world’s most beautiful car” as soon as it was presented to the public in 1989. The r129 beauty was even praised by renown art critic Bruno Alfieri, as he paired it to an Arp’s sculpture, underlying the car’s perfect and mathematical proportions.
The volumes of this SL speak a language that is unique and you wouldn’t change a line or anything else on it. Simplicity doesn’t get any better than this: its surfaces are smooth and harmonic and the sense of proportions here will school every designer in how to make an elegant car. Look at it from any perspective and it seems perfectly balanced with the environment, giving you a remarkable sense of satisfaction.
The r129 is perhaps the last of the over-engineered SL. It’s not whimsical as almost every other luxury car, and it doesn’t require that special attention that sooner or later will spoil your ownership experience. Back in period AMG remarkably produced quite a few variants based either on the M119 V8 or the M120 V12 engines, and during its production history, the SL60 was the only one offered in the official Mercedes line-up.
AMG enhanced the exclusivity of the SL and took it to new heights, adding more power and modifying the suspension, using larger wheels and offering more on a car that was considered by many, as perfect. Thankfully, AMG didn’t change the styling, maintaining the Sacco-designed body but only added a pair of gorgeous 18” wheels. Driving it, the r129 represent a massive step forward from the r107: as expected, gone is the body roll and the steering is much more precise and power wise… it’s a fury. Press down the throttle pedal with decision and the 6 litre V8 awakens with full force, way more than you would think and plus… it sounds incredible! Surely not a car that will take the podium on a track-day but it handles very beautifully, remaining neutral and firm under every circumstance and yet precise, despite of its weight.
What you truly feel different on the AMG than on any other SL of the period is the ride and the remarkable steering feel, which gives you plenty of satisfaction. In fine SL tradition, power comes in only when requested and does so progressively: kick-down is in two step, and although engineered for brute force this SL never gives you 100% of the available power every time you press down the pedal. This tactile quality results ultimately in a very responsive and refreshing experience, allowing you to feel the car step-by-step: it’s the sign of a very intelligent and road-oriented development that should be appreciated by every driver. Talk about the r107’s “power concierge” feeling: in the SL60 it’s amplified to a maximum.
In the SL, you always feel part of the surroundings. Whether it’s new or old, in the end the perspective that you have of the world is what changes your opinion and makes you discover new things. If we had a penny for every time that we drove any car around this region, chances are that these cars would be in our garage, among many other cars that we’ve driven. Always speaking of perspective, the SL is a car that will make you change your view of the world: it’s a shame that this perspective it’s becoming less attractive now. Sure enough, the SL it’s a fantastic, well built, open-top panzer, but in the end, it will change the way you see cars. Like a tank, the SL have always been built to face a multiple variety of situations and to come out of each one of them always brilliantly. It’s usable under every condition, will make you look like 1 million Euros and eventually will run forever. Track day specials are great, but their fun-factor will only represent a few moments of your time behind the wheel. In the SL, you can always be a hero, even at 5 kph.