“Nice car mate,” shouted the fluorescent vested workman outside the pub.

“Thanks, it certainly is,” I said, muttering it’s not mine as I walked past.

We laughed. He, because he probably thought I’d stolen it. How else was a 22 year old able to get around in such luxury? Me, because he hadn’t noticed the German plates, therefore had not realised I was the passenger.

Perspective From The Passenger Seat

It was 1991. Summer had befallen the UK, all two days of it, and coincided with a road trip from London to Southport and back again to attend a wedding.

The car was a brand new Mercedes 500SL. Silver and utterly gorgeous. Black leather interior, roof down, music blaring, marvellous.

What could have been better? Well the chance to drive the thing for one, but to no avail. My girlfriend had promised her father and he made sure she knew no-one else was insured. Being German, of course she followed the rules. Looking back, how could I blame her? Or him? Would you let a youth, an English youth at that and one you barely knew, drive your brand new $200,000 plus machine across another country with your daughter in tow? No, I wouldn’t either. It’s amazing he let me in it in the first place or even let his daughter take it.

He was a large man and so fitted the car well. SL’s were designed for rich men like him. He also fitted a soft tail Harley, something he asked me to procure for him, as it was cheaper for some reason in the UK. But his trust did not extend to his silver arrow.

But Is It Comfortable?

We drove the length of England and back, a round trip of some 700 kms. A paltry distance to most Australians but the time it took was not. The norm with any trip in the UK is that with every wonderful motorway minute at speeds above 80, 90, 100 mph, more often than not you spend ten in a long, snarling traffic jam. Caused no doubt by some caravan wielding maniac. Or a hoon who doesn’t understand braking distances.

Sounds atrocious doesn’t it? Not a bit of it. I climbed out after hours in that roomy, slippy passenger seat feeling as fresh as when I first entered it. At one point we encountered another SL in maybe the third jam of the day. Like Torvil and Dean, we mesmerised our fellow road users with the dance of our soft tops opening with electronic synchronisation.

The piece de resistance came along one, amazingly lonely straight. My willing driver drove her svelte foot into the carpet and we watched 150 mph come up in barely more than 20 seconds. I was entranced.

Thirty two years later, what can we expect?

Those wonderfully straight lines and huge proportions still look as good. However, the rich men, like my ex-girlfriend’s father, have moved on to newer models and well before any problems arose. So we should tread carefully as there is a gap of some 15 to 20 years since the smart money left. Cars like these are never cheap to maintain. So a fully loaded log book is a must. Otherwise buyers are staring down the barrel, a gold plated barrel. Or are they?

Mercedes over engineered these cars to some incredible degree. This was pre-Chrysler days remember, before that period of poor workmanship and crappy parts that almost lost the marque its bullet-proof reputation.

The grill slats, for instance, were made from spare jet fighter titanium engine blades. Incredibly aerodynamic and lighter than plastic, yet stronger than steel. The soft top had rain gutters to channel water to the rear rather than letting it drip down the sides. The hard top was made of aluminium, so weighed a mere 33 kilos. It had two, yes two, reverse gears. The first propelled you to over 75 km/h, which is fast enough. The second took you to 135!! Simply select the “W” for winter mode and off you go. Backwards.

The Car Was at the Cutting Edge of Electronic Wizardry

ABS, traction control, automatic roll over bar and automatically adjusting seat belts. It had fully independent suspension, front and rear. Though the norm today, you would have been hard pressed to find any of these things 32 years ago. It even had airbags, which were simply unheard of back then.

Under the bonnet you get a fuel injected, double overhead cam, 32 valve, 5 litre V8 that produced 320 bhp or 240 kW, and 450 Nm of torque. When new, it could drive all day at the limiter, 155 mph (250 kmh). It hit 100 k’s in around 6 seconds and 160 in under 15. Not bad for a car that weighed a fat man short of 2 tonnes.

But you do need to check a few things …

..before you run to the bank, sell your soul or rob your children’s college fund. It’s not cheap at the pump. Expect 15 litres per 100 kms if you are lucky.

Only use a specialist for maintenance. They will be more expensive than your local guy, but the trade off will be worth it.

Make sure the oil pressure gauge reads ‘3’ most of the time. It can drop to 2 or little less when it’s hot and idling, but otherwise it needs to be ‘3’. If it is low when on the move, give it back and continue searching.

The spark controller for the ECU system can be expensive to replace, so ensure you service the ignition and replace the 4 coils and distributors regularly. It will work out cheaper.

Oil starvation can cause problems to the camshafts too. As we are talking about a car that has done up to 100,000 kms or more, expect to change hoses and pipes as they will crack once disturbed. If this hasn’t been done before, walk away, you’ve met a lazy owner.

The transmission fluid needs to be changed every 60-70,000 kms. Don’t listen to Merc dealers, as they were told this wasn’t necessary. According to long standing owners, however, this has proven to be a top tip to keep it in fine fettle. The oil should not look burnt or brown, if it does you are back to the lazy owner again. I’ve read that transmission systems can go at 160,000kms. You may not have to replace it, or it could just be a problem with the speed detector gear. It is a little plastic part that is not too expensive. If there is any hint of a slip between gears whilst driving take it as a warning though. Also go for a drive with the roof down and listen for any noises coming from the rear.

And The Interior?

Any warning lights on the facia, as you would expect, suggests problems. Check the roof works, and ensure the fabric is in good condition. It should take less than 20 seconds to extend or retract and fit snuggly into its compartment. Check there is a hard top. If there isn’t, don’t bother. They all came with one, whatever anyone says. They will be more than $12-14,000 to replace. By the way, the hard top will only unlatch with the ignition on.

The roll bar must work, you will find it handy in a serious crash. If it is stuck in the raised position the roof won’t work.

The steering can feel a little wooly and this can be worn steering dampers, but are not too expensive to replace. Make sure there is no warping on the discs and replace the rotors when you service the brakes, never turn them.

What About Rot?

Rust is a lesser problem in Australia, but check the boot panels near the battery box, the leading edges of the front wings and the jacking points. The latter is often over looked as they are covered with a plastic protector and owners may not be aware there is a problem.

Otherwise, these cars were built to last. If you find a fastidious owner, chances are you have a well-maintained car to look at.

And Finally The Price

As mentioned, R129 SL500’s were in excess of $200,000 when new. But today, you can get a great car for around $50k with less than 100,000 kms on the odometer. Between $35-45k for higher mileage examples. Interestingly, prices have increased over the last few years. Budget around $2-3k per year in maintenance and you have a car that will make you look like a rich man, a fat German rich man if you are so inclined.

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