Separated by over 30 years, can the R107 500SL’s genteel character hold a candle to the modern (classic?) R231 SL500’s thumping brawn?
Words: Wilhelm Lutjeharms
Images: Charles Russell
I think it is fair to say that the V8 engine is the motor of choice for a good number of car manufacturers. Some people perceive a six-cylinder powerplant as too small for a performance car, and an exotic V10 usually commands a high premium that the vast majority of customers cannot afford.
Meanwhile, the V12 can be just as expensive, and is predominantly manufactured for those wealthy clients who simply won’t settle for anything less. So, the V8 represents a happy medium, but this was not always the case.
Looking back at its history, the V8 had a rather haphazard birth. Between its implementation in boats and aeroplanes, automotive manufacturers were slow in applying this engine blueprint to their cars.
Mercedes waited until 1964 to launch its first V8 powerplant in a passenger car, called (somewhat appropriately) the 600 Grosser.
Since then, the V8 has become the pivotal engine in several Mercedes models, be it in naturally aspirated form, with a supercharger, or with turbochargers. Over the past few decades, it has been the V8 models that have drawn the attention of Mercedes-Benz enthusiasts, and the SL range, old and new, is no exception.
That said, the early generations of this car came with no more than six cylinders under the bonnet (the 190SL model that was sold alongside the 300SL Roadster used a four cylinder). In fact, the V8 would not play a part in the SL’s history until 1971, when it was slotted into the R107 350SL. Today, the best R107 500SLs values have crept to close to the values of high-mileage second hand R231. We spent an afternoon with both drop tops.
Six decades of research and development are immediately evident in the design of these two SLs, the technology on show in the later model being particularly eye-catching. The R231’s headlight clusters hold not only bi-xenon lamps, but also LED strips. These clusters force you to look at them, even study them, to fully understand how they function.
Open the bonnets and you realise how much things have moved on in this area too. There is a lot of space in the R107’s engine bay, while the newer R231’s bay has barely enough room for a technician’s hand.
There is, however, one common theme in the cabin. Mercedes-Benz had clearly tried to introduce more "tradition" in the R231... As in the R107, there are three air vents in the centre of the R231’s dashboard, with a more modern, four-spoke design, which is a neat and classy touch. This is the only interior similarity, though. Silver detailing is in abundance in the R231, and its gearlever is far shorter than the R107’s, the stubby shifter surrounded by buttons for the Active Body Control (ABC) suspension and seven-speed automatic transmission. The buttons themselves are flush and fall perfectly in line.
In the older SL, it is even easier to understand the cabin’s controls. Soft touch materials weren’t as high on the agenda as they are today. This means the dash, facia and all its surrounding controls are hard but durable, with a fail-safe feeling when you operate them. The R107’s driving position feels a little odd, though, putting you much more on top of the car, compared to the lower and more cocooning position in the R231.
The later SL’s seats offer incredible support and are more comfortable despite a firmer feel than those in the R107, which have a springiness you really notice over irregularities in the road. Look into your side mirror and the simplistic lines of the R107 are in stark contrast to those of the R231. The latter has a wide and high rump, while the R107 features a sleeker and more compact rear end that slopes away slightly.
This is a clear indication of how cars have grown and evolved during the past few decades. I think the R231’s red leather interior is far more contemporary and inviting than the beige-coloured cabin of its forebear. The greatest contrast of all, however, comes when you attack a corner.
The more modern SL's 4.7-litre biturbo V8 feels almost as powerful as the 5.5-litre biturbo V8 in this generation’s SL63 AMG. Not only is turbo lag minute, but the engine revs with gusto. Although this roadster-cum-coupe is a grand tourer, once you tackle a mountain pass the R231 will surprise you. It gives the driver more feedback than other cars of this type, while the lightweight aluminium body shell clearly helps its agility.
Use the throttle aggressively and the 700Nm of torque will overpower the tyres in first and second gears. Fortunately, the standard steel brakes (ventilated and perforated at the front) have no problem slowing the car.
You are constantly aware of the newer SL’s size, though. Parking and navigating tight roads require a higher level of concentration than in the R107, which feels at its most comfortable when cruising. The latter car’s rev needle can be pushed, using the automatic’s kickdown feature, but the result is always languid progress. The vague steering is actually quite suitable for the mood this car inspires in its driver. Sit back while cruising on an open road, and you can’t help but think back to the scenes in the original TV series Dallas, where Bobby Ewing enjoyed driving an R107.
To drop the hardtop of the R231, you simply have to press a single button. If you know what you are doing and have a helping pair of hands, the R107’s cloth roof can be lowered in roughly the same time. This manual labour creates a greater sense of occasion, as you’ve worked harder to have the wind in your hair.
It is easy to understand why many considered the R107 500SL the ideal roadster to cruise around in back in the 1980s. Until 1985 when the 560SL came along, it was the most powerful SL in the range. Several generations later and, on paper at least, that is not the case anymore. With its twin-turbo V12, the R231 SL65 AMG borders on being a supercar, but its useable, on-road performance isn’t actually superior to this SL500. You also need to consider the small matter of a huge price difference.
Moving with the times
Four generations represent a galactic leap in the automotive industry, especially if you consider the pace of development and the fact the R107 had the longest production run of any SL so far (over 18 years). In R231 form the SL is a much more serious sports car, with turbocharging part and parcel of the range. These engines add to the car’s epically comfortable and tranquil manner, and make the SL even more capable over long distances.
The R231 is simply in a different league to the relaxing R107, in many ways because it is almost a different type of car, a GT with real sports car ingredients.
The Mercedes-Benz SL has come a long way since the R107, but that is not to say there is not much to admire about old ways. It has become a collectable classic, after all, and with good reason. Sometimes a relaxed drive with an old school V8 purring away out front is all you really want. We can only wonder what the upcoming SL will deliver!
Mercedes-Benz 500SL (R107)
Engine: M117, 5,0-litre, V8, petrol
Power: 170kW @ 4 750rpm
Torque: 404Nm @ 3 000rpm
Transmission: 4-speed auto, RWD
Weight: 1 540kg
Top speed: 220 km/h
Fuel consumption: 15.6 L/100km
Years produced: 1980-1989
Mercedes-Benz SL500 (R231)
Engine: M278, 4.7-litre, V8 biturbo, petrol
Power: 320kW @ 5 250rpm
Torque: 700Nm @1 800 – 3 500rpm
Transmission: 7-speed auto, RWD
Weight: 1 785kg
Top speed: 250 km/h
Fuel consumption: 9.1 L/100km
Years produced: 2012-2020