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Modern Classic Driven: 1992 Mercedes Benz 300SL-24
The 1970s and 1980s were a period where
automobile development reached a certain peak. It was when
manufacturers perfected the basic monocoque chassis based on the
technology at that point of time. It was a pinnacle of sorts as we
see manufacturers keeping the same model chassis for decades instead
of the current practice of a new platform every five to seven years
like most do today. We had cars like the Lancia Delta, born in 1979
and carrying on until 1995.
We had various generations of
Volkswagen Golf Mk1 and Mk2 going on sale for over ten years
concurrently in the 1980s and we had those Mercedes Benz cars like
the W124 E-Class, the W126 S-class, the R107 SL-class and the R129
SL-class that came after the R107. These cars were deemed by their
makers to be able to be in production for over a decade in terms of
chassis design and only with changes to engines and equipment (to
keep up with the times and electronic technology basically). It was a
period of some stability in terms of automotive technology and it
showed in the cars at the time.
Some weren't really good cars in the
sense that they had shoddy build quality like the early Lancia
Deltas. But this was due to the fact that the company manufacturing
them (Fiat) sucked in terms of material quality choices (bad steel
used) and temperamental Italian workers assembling the cars. Not
entirely their fault but in terms of design, the little Lancia
worked. Of course, Lancia was almost always in doldrums during that
So we come to something over-engineered
and well designed like the cars Mercedes Benz made in the 1970s and
1980s. These were engineering marvels that to this day has lasted in
terms of classic modern styling and durability. Built like vaults,
the W124 E-class, W126 S-class and the SL-class roadsters were
basically so well designed and utilised the correct materials that to
this day, many of these cars are still plying the roads globally. The
W124 was in production from 1984 to 1997, the W126 from 1979 to 1991,
the R107 SL 1972 to 1989 and the W129 from 1989 to 2002. All of these
luxury cars were produced for over a decade. Imagine, the same
essential chassis being on sale for that long a time with only minor
facelifts here and there.
The R129 was first designed way back
in 1984 and was based on the chassis of the W124 E-class. When
launched in 1989, it had a bucketload of innovative technology and
was actually ahead of its time in many aspects. It was one of the few
cars in the 1980s and early 1990s to have (optional) electronically
controlled damping. It also pioneered the automatic extending
roll-over bar that made convertibles even safer than before. It also
was one of the first few roadsters that was sold with both a
detachable hardtop that was fitted over the folded canvas soft top
meaning the owner had the option of beign fully protected from the
elements if he wanted to. As it was Mercedes Benz's halo car, it
could be bought with every conceivable luxury offered by Mercedes
Benz at the time.
Now while it lacked from traditional
styling of the outgoing R107 SL, the new R129 was well received and
like the R107, was a favourite amongst royalty, movie stars,
corporate moguls, the jet-setters and a whole lot of racing drivers
too. Instead of all upright and traditional, it had styling by Bruno
Sacco and featured a design that actually still looks darn good to
this day. It was low, sharp and wide. It had the proportions which
were quite close to perfect in terms of modern roadster styling – a
long bonnet, a low chiseled look to it and seamless styling. In some
aspects, I think the design of the R129 is future proof as it still
looks modern to this day.
So, a few months ago I drove a 1992
R129 Mercedes Benz 300SL-24 that belonged to a friend of mine. The
300SL-24 was one of the first Mercedes Benz cars of the 1980s that
had multi-valve cylinder heads and this explains the '24' badging. It
had a M104 3.0 liter 6 cylinder in line engine that had 24 valves
instead of the base 300SL sold alongside it. The extra valves ensured
it had 231hp instead of 190hp and 265Nm torque at a heady 4,600rpm
(the 2 valve per cylinder M103 made 5nm less but at 4,400rpm). The
power was transmitted to the rear wheels via a 4 speed automatic
gearbox. This spaced out 4 speeder basically ensured leisurely
acceleration for this 1,692kg roadster. 0-100kmh was in the region of
8.6 seconds and it would nudge 220kmh on a good day.
So I get to drive this SL-24 a good
twenty over years since it left the factory. How does the old girl
feel? Bombproof. You open the door, slide in to its leather seats and
close the door. And you close the door of a bank's vault door. It's
no joke. You may have heard the same line being written or blurted
out by millions of auto journalists about how solid Mercedes Benz
cars from this era are and you are not going to hear any different
from me. The car is like a rock, a vault, a battleship in terms of
construction. How the door closes, how the switchgear feels is all
solid and weighted. The high quality plastics in the dashboard look
like they'll last forever. In short, it's old, but but put any new
Japanese car beside it and it still shines in terms of build quality.
The way it drives is another thing to
admire. Nothing feels light. Everything has some heft in it. From the
throttle pedal to the brakes and the handbrake lever has weight that
you have to overcome. Once on the move, it feels like rolling
thunder, as it gathers speed. Plant your foot down, the longish nose
slightly rears up and you're off. And unsurprisingly, not a squeak
from the interior.
The in-line six purrs smoothly and is
pretty torquey even though initial road testers claim it to be a
little down on torque. I suppose it may only put most of its power
above 4,500rpm, but it is adequate most of the time. Anything under 9
seconds to 10kmh is adequate by today's standard. Of course, you get
that (almost) big engined feel with the 3.0liter engine. And a decent
enough soundtrack too. The gear change in the SL-24 are typically old
school automatic, this means it changes gears with a gentle thud
instead of quietly slurring in the background. And the acceleration
is quite leisurely with the gears spread far and wide in order to
cover acceleration and cruising at the same time.
The steering however, a recirculating
ball type steering system, whilst is great at filtering out the road
imperfections is also good at filtering out almost all feeling (but
good at keeping fatigue levels down if you do actually go on a very
long drive). Super numb and slightly slow compared to a rack and
pinion steering system but at least it is nicely weighted and
accurate once you actually tell your brain that when you do turn the
steering wheel, the wheels eventually turn too. No, it isn't that
bad. Maybe as bad as some electrically assisted power steering these
days. Actually, it could be as bad. Or worse, depending on how you
look at it.
But whatever it is, I managed to take
it through a series of bends in the dry and the SL-24 actually
surprisingly rewarded me when doing so. Great front-end grip after you've put faith into the car, ignoring the vague steering, and a very obedient rear. Outside line at about 100kmh,
tap the brakes into a right hander at about 85-90kmh, apply more
steering lock as the turn gets tighter whilst balancing the throttle
(yes, being rear drive it is throttle adjustable) putting in more
power to try loosen the tail and then back adjusting the throttle for
the immediate left hander before powering on right after the apex.
90-110kmh was then done after that in a just a few seconds.
The old girl basically handled a
reducing radius right hand corner and then a slightly wider left
hander with a poise that defies its age. The car was equipped with
its standard 225/55/16 sized tyres which did not protest at all.
231hp basically isn't really enough to trouble the chassis which was
made to handle the over 326hp that the 500SL made. Being typical
Mercedes, the same chassis could fit them all. Including the later in
lift (1992 onwards V12 600SL with over 400hp on tap).
So yes, the Mercedes Benz 300SL-24 was
and still is a brilliant car to drive. It was a technological
tour-de-force of its time and still looks good to this day. Good ones
can be bought in Malaysia for between RM55,000-RM70,000. If you are
looking for a reliable modern classic. I would recommend this.