How The Mercedes-Benz R129 SL Redefined Top Down Motoring
Posted by Harry on 15th Mar 2023
I bet if you were to ask the average punter what genre of car the R129 SL is, based on its looks, they’d shrug and say something like ‘a sports car?’. Because that’s what it is to the uninitiated, to those normie types who don’t have petrol flowing through their veins. They see the silhouette, the roof down… and they think ‘sports car’, which makes plenty of sense.
For a great many years, most desirable cars you’d see out on the road with an optional roof were typically sports cars (ignoring some gargantuan American examples here, but we’ll get onto that…) in the most traditional sense - small, light, fun, impractical and probably unreliable. You’d take it out for some fun on a summer’s weekend, perhaps shoot down to the pub with your little nippers in the back. One thing you wouldn’t dare do is drive the car further than 50 or 60 miles, let alone say 600 miles cross country.
1962 MG Midget. H&H Auctions
There’s another category of vehicle that fits the bill for a more serious jaunt like that; a term that has been bastardised and confused to the point of meaninglessness thanks to competing manufacturers, motorsport monikers, video games, dodgy Top Gear spin offs… you name it. The notorious ‘Grand Tourer’ of course. The abbreviated ‘GT’ has become synonymous with performance cars of all ilks, but what it traditionally meant and continues to mean for the initiated is essentially five things - luxurious, comfortable, beautiful, fast.. and expensive.
Series 1 Jaguar E-Type. RM Sotheby’s
Pre 1989, (or B-R129 as I like to say) automobiles were often easily classified and somewhat formulaic. A ‘fast’ car needed to be stripped back and light. A luxurious car needed to be comfortable and crammed with convenience. Benchmarks in safety needed to be Scandinavian.
Volvo Amazon - the first car with a three-point seatbelt as standard. The Telegraph
Technologies like power folding roofs were reserved for giant American freeway cruisers. There were some truly delightful early attempts at a fully automatic convertible roof system over in the States. My pick of the bunch is the Ford Fairlane Skyliner with its automatically retractable HARD TOP! In 1957 people! Behold this magnificent example of cutting edge 1950s engineering:
1959 Ford Fairlane 500 Galaxy Skyliner. Watch at Texas Motor Toys Youtube Channel
By the late 80s and early 90s, Mercedes-Benz were really starting to flex their engineering might. With almost unlimited resources at their disposal, the R129 SL finally debuted at the Geneva Motor Show in 1989, instantly dropping jaws. By that time the SL moniker had become somewhat ironic - Super-Leicht (sometimes Sports-Leicht) - that’s ‘super light’. It rang true for the magnificent 300 SL Gullwing with its revolutionary lightweight tubular frame, but in 1989 the R107 SL had been in production for almost 20 years - and by the standards of the day it was a bit of a porker. Unsurprising given it was the first SL with an optional V8.
Mercedes-Benz R107. Carscoops
If we’re being honest though, it didn’t matter what the letters ‘SL’ stood for, or what it was originally supposed to denote; similarly these days with the term ‘GT’, as demonstrated by just about every marque in the business. By the end of the R107s historic production run, ‘SL’ meant pretty much one thing to the sagacious auto enthusiast - Legend.
Mercedes-Benz SL Lineage. Carscoops
What made the R129 exceptional was its ability to deliver a top-down GT driving experience like no other car on the road, boasting technical innovations a decade ahead of the competition - a truly effortless button operated automatic folding roof, unparalleled refinement, oodles of power, inimitable cabin comfort and pliability, more safety features than a jumbo jet, impermeable German reliability, practicality and ample storage space.. all of the above and more, yet it looks like this:
You could fit two very small humans in the back, you could take them all the way to the other side of the country without them waking up, drop them at the grandparents, and then if you wanted to have some real fun you could find a nice quiet twisty bit of road (all the better for you lucky sods on self levelling suspension), drop the roof and floor it. Despite its size and weight, the R129 is actually a great handling car - a GT in the truest sense, inspiring confidence and reassurance.
I know what you’re thinking… this all sounds familiar. You know tonnes of cars that offer this sort of experience:
Bentley Continental GTC. Carscoops
Rolls Royce Dawn. Mr JWW
BMW 8 Series Convertible. Carwow
Jaguar F-Type. Paramount Performance
Aston Martin DB11 Volante. AutoGuide.com
Exactly, right? Modern GT convertibles reek of R129 influence. Maybe I’ve been a bit unfair here you say, cherry picking some overly modern or recent examples. So let’s go back a little further, how about this one:
1st Generation Bentley Azure. Wikipedia
Funny you should mention that… the first generation Bentley Azure has an electro-hydraulic roof which works very similarly to the R129 SL - it even shares many of the exact same hydraulic cylinders. Those pesky Germans beat the rest to it, and they did it in formidable style.
It’s not just the looks, nor the performance per se, it’s not even about the revolutionary one button retractable roof. It’s about all of those features and the rest in combination; it’s the package, the offering, the experience. The R129 SL is the blueprint for modern GT ‘do everything’ daily drivable convertibles. A true automotive trailblazer.
Happy motoring. Harry.