Mercedes-Benz (R107) SL at 50

Mercedes-Benz R107

2021 marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most successful and important generations of Mercedes-Benz SL, the R107. Here are 11 things to know about this iconic car.

Words: Wilhelm Lutjeharms

Pictures: Mercedes-Benz Archive

As more spy pictures surface featuring the all-new SL, it is hard to believe that this model range can trace its history back to the 300 SL "Gullwing" from 1954. However, 2021 represents the 50th anniversary of the R107, arguably one of the most important SL generations. 

Launched to the press in 1971

Mercedes-Benz SL

The date was 14 April 1971, and the new 350 SL sports model (107 series) is presented to the international press in Hockenheim, Germany, replacing the 280 SL, also referred to as the "Pagoda". It is the first SL model equipped with an eight-cylinder engine. With its horizontally arranged headlamps, large direction indicators and ribbed tail lights, it shaped the style of the next-generation of Mercedes-Benz passenger cars. The integral safety concept with numerous innovative details, including optionally available three-point inertia reel seat belts attached directly to the seat for the first time, set new standards in vehicle safety.

It was not based on its predecessor

The new SL had almost nothing in common, in terms of engineering and parts, with the outgoing model. However, Mercedes used some elements of their other cars, such as in the suspension system, while the V8 engine could be found on the saloons, coupés and convertibles of the 280 SE 3.5 type. 

Two roof options from the start

Mercedes-Benz R107

From the very start, the 350 SL was available with a retractable hood as well as a removable hard top. Once the former had been lowered or the latter had been fitted, it offered a coupé-like driving experience and design, giving the car a true dual personality. 

Safety standards were high on the agenda

Mercedes-Benz SL

As has always been the case, safety was high on the agenda for Mercedes-Benz and one of the most significant changes made was the move of the fuel tank. Instead of having it at the back, it was moved to a position above the rear axle. Another feature that was safety related is the ribbed design of the taillights, which according to Mercedes-Benz “was almost completely soil-repellent”. 

The coupé version is unveiled – code name C107

Only a few months later, on 7 October 1971, the Mercedes-Benz 350 SLC makes its debut at the Paris Motor Show. The technology and styling of the four-seater coupé is based on the 350 SL. Series production begins a few months later in February 1972.

Three models on offer for the first time

Mercedes-Benz SL

The SL range was extended in 1974. Take into account the oil crises of 1973, and it is understandable that the SLC coupé and SLs were now offered with the more efficient 2.8-litre engines. In fact, there were now three different engines in the range to choose from (280 SL, 350 SL and 450 SL), which was a first for the SL range. 

Longest SL production run in history

The R107 range can be divided into two timeframes, when it was launched in 1971 until 1985 and from 1985 until production ceased in 1989. This 19-year cycle makes it the longest run of an SL generation in the model’s 67-year life. 

The range received technical updates in 1980

Updated versions of the roadster and coupe were shown at the Geneva Motor Show in Switzerland in 1980. These updates included the interior layout and steering wheel. Secondly, the 3-speed automatic transmission was replaced with a 4-speed version, while the light-alloy engines of the luxurious S-Class were now used in the SL, albeit slightly tweaked. 

Mercedes-Benz SL

The 350 SL was replaced, after a nine-year production run, with the 380 SL, while the 450 SL was replaced by the 500 SL using the 5.0-litre V8 engine from the 450 SLC 5.0. The six-cylinder motor in the 280 SLC was left unchanged. External improvements were minimal compared to the model that was being replaced. All three models now featured an aluminium bonnet, while the 500 SL offered an aluminium boot lid with a black plastic boot spoiler. 

Facelifted model brings significant updates

Mercedes-Benz SL

September in 1985 debuted the final factory improvements of the R107 range. The exterior was minimally updated, while the front suspension received an upgrade and so did the engine range. A new 3.0-litre, six-cylinder engine, introduced earlier in the W124 range, replaced the 2.8-litre engine. Next up was a 4.2-litre V8 engine, while the 5.0-litre V8 engine received electronic ignition as well as Bosch KE-Jetronic with electronic-mechanical injection control.

The largest engine ever fitted to the R107

Mercedes-Benz SL

However, the big news was the introduction of a 5.6-litre engine offering 203 kW. It was based on the 5.0-litre engine but had a longer stroke. This model was only exported to the USA, Australia and Japan, but, and here is the catch, in a detuned state with a catalytic converter and only 171 kW owing to those countries’ emissions regulations. One or two of these cars have found their way to South Africa though. 

They were manufactured in South Africa

Interestingly, both the SL and SLC models were also assembled here in South Africa by UCDD (United Car and Diesel Distributors), before Mercedes-Benz took complete control of the production facility. 

As expected, a large number of R107 SLs were manufactured at the Sindelfingen plant, with a total of 237 287 coming off the production line. 

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