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History of Mercedes and the SL500
© 2006 KenRockwell.com

1997 Mercedes SL500
Laguna Beach, California, May, 2004

1997 Mercedes SL500 with brown soft top

HISTORY

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1885

Karl Friedrich Benz (25 November 1844 - 4 April 1929) invents the world's first car. Like most guys he tinkers with it endlessly and never actually takes it for a useful ride. Early one morning his wife makes history by loading up the kids in the contraption and driving clear to the next town! That never dawned on Karl. The world's first car had three wheels, a rear differential, a 1 cylinder, 0.4l engine making 1hp at 700 RPM with a top speed of 10 MPH. This first car also was a two seat roadster, just like the SL500 120 years later in 2005.

1886

26 January 1886 Karl Benz is issued the patent for his car. The motorcycle and motorboat had been invented earlier. Of course the world's first car was topless. Hard tops didn't come along until decades later. For the next 50 years the cars went from one to two to four cylinders and supercharging was added at least as far back as the 1920s. All these cars were convertibles and convertibles only.

1893

Benz invents the world's first four-wheeled car, the Victoria. He also gets a patent on his brilliant idea which made two-front-wheel steering possible.

1894

The world's first production car is the Benz Velo.

1895

Benz invents the world's first truck.

1899-1900

Street racer Emil Jellinek (1853-1918) wins a race against street racers either Wilhelm Maybach or Gottlieb Daimler (I forget). Gottlieb Daimler (17 March 1834 - 6 March 1900) also helped make the gasoline engine practical and invented the carburetor. Emil's prize was getting to name the next car made by Daimler. In this case it was named after Emil's daughter, Mercedes. What you may not know is that most of these creative pioneers, like most creative people who imagine things no one has imagined before, were crazy in the eyes of ordinary people. Thus Emil's daughter Mercedes actually had 26 middle names, one for each letter of the alphabet.

In those days and for the next four decades automobiles were the purvey of playboys, even more so than owning a helicopter is today. These playboys often wore disguises and used assumed names while out street racing to avoid recognition. This is because they were usually very well known in business and it would not have helped their professional images to have been caught throwing up rooster tails racing around town.

Loads of swell convertibles came out in the next 26 years, I'm just not covering them all.

1909

"Blitzen Benz" race car with a 21.5 litre, 4 cylinder, 200 HP engine sets all sorts of world speed records, faster than any car, boat, train or even aircraft. These records stand until the 1920s. It had close to 700 foot-pounds of torque, more more than any other car made even today.

1911

Invents the first multivalve engine.

1921

Invents the first supercharged engine.

1926

The 6.2l six cylinder supercharged Kompressor Mercedes 630 comes out with 140 hp at 3,000 RPM. As all great cars, the 630 only came as a convertible.

The companies founded by Benz and Daimler merge to form Mercedes-Benz. The company exists until 1999, when it changes its name after buying Chrysler. Prior to this the two competed against each other. Ferdinand Porsche is the chief engineer, coming over from Daimler. Even through the 1990s Gottleib Daimler's signature is on a permanent white sticker on the windshield of every Mercedes. Only around 2000 did Daimler's signature come off to be replaced by "Mercedes" on the sticker.

1928

The SSK 27 debuts with a 7.1l supercharged six with 225 hp at 3,000 RPM and a top speed of about 120MPH. Of course it's a two seat convertible.

1929

The first 8 cylinder 460 Nürburg has a 4.6l inline engine making 80 hp at 3,200 RPM. It's a dull sedan with a top speed of 60 MPH, whoo hoo. It set a record of driving 12,500 miles at the Nürburgring racetrack over 13 days.

1930

Introduction of the 770 Grosser with a 7.6l 8 cylinder engine. It was made through 1938 and weighed over 6,000 pounds.

1931

Invents independent suspension.

1934

The 500K (W34), a blown 5.0l straight-8 convertible made 160 hp at 3,400 RPM. Mercedes made 760 of them. It was a brand new style introduced in 1934 at Berlin Motor Show and weighed about 4,500 pounds.

1936

The Mercedes 540K is introduced. It's a two seat convertible with a 5.4l straight-8 engine and a Kompressor (blower) with 180 hp at 3,400 RPM and takes the 4,000 pound car to over 100MPH. Only 319 were made and it, like the 1990s SLs, cost the same as a house. Mercedes also invents the world's first Diesel car.

1937

Mercedes' blown V-8 W125 Silver Arrow race car makes 600 HP and goes 200 MPH, depending on gearing.

1939

A 1939 Grosser Mercedes 770K was Hitler's parade car. It used to be on display at a casino in Las Vegas and today I think it's at a museum in Danville, CA. It had 2" thick bomb proof windows and armor plating. By comparison, Al Capone's 1930 V-16 Cadillac at the same casino museum only had 1/2" thick bullet proof windows. I'm unsure if the two ever raced against each other. The 770K was made from 1938 - 1940 and weighed 8,000 pounds with a blown 7.6l straight 8. Of course bonehead Hitler's ideas for annexing Europe ultimately halted car production at Mercedes for the next decade. Nice going, goofball, and it beats me why anyone would armor a convertible.

1950s: 1954 - 1962 300SL and 190SL (W198 and W121)

Mercedes invents the crumple zone in 1951. All cars today use this, which means that in a crash the trunk and hood squish first and the passenger compartment gets crushed last, if at all. Mercedes also invents fuel injection in 1954, also used in all modern cars.

The SL name started as the 300SL (W198) in 1954. It was based on the 300SL race car which had gull wing doors to satisfy the race requirements to have functional doors. Since it had a tubular frame the doors had to open up, instead of out. It had a straight six. Beats me why people trace modern SL history back to this car, since it was a hard top and the SLs have far more in common with other earlier cars.

A guy in NY thought the 300SL was such a great car that he convinced Mercedes to make a production convertible version for him to sell. The 300SL was made until 1963. They were not popular and only built about 1,800 of them. Its 3.0l straight six made 215hp at 5,800 RPM. It was the world's first production car with fuel injection. I see claims of up to 150MPH top speeds for the production version, but I doubt this with only 215 hp and questionable drag coefficient for the convertible. It weighed about 2,800 pounds.

The less expensive 190SL (W121) was introduced in 1955. It had a 1.9 liter 4 cylinder with 105 hp at 5,700 RPM and went a little over 100MPH. It weighed about 2,500 pounds. It also was built until 1963, and 26,000 were made.

1960s: 1963 - 1970 230SL, 250SL, 280SL (W113)

The all new 230SL (W113 nicknamed "Pagoda") was introduced in 1963 to replace the 190SL. It's 2.3l six cylinder made 150 hp at 5,500 RPM with a top speed of 125 MPH. It was the first to have a removable hard top, a concept continued through the 2002 SL series.

The similar 250SL came along in 1967, and the 280SL in 1968.

1971 Mercedes SL280

1971 Mercedes SL280

49,000 were made through 1972. Most had about 150 HP and weighed 2,900 pounds.

Also around 1971 there was a convertible version of the 280SE 4-seater with a 3.5l 8-cylinder with 200 hp at 5,800 RPM and a top speed of 130 MPH.

1970s and 1980s: 1972 - 1986 280SL, 380SL, 450SL, 560SL (R107)

Mercedes patents the air bag in 1971.

Introduced in 1971, Mercedes made the new R107 SL for 20 years. The R107 was designed to meet many future years of crash safety regulations, was built like a tank and weighed a ton, actually, 1 - 3/4 tons. It was the strongest convertible ever made, before the even stronger R129 SL of the 1990s.An icon, you can see it on the cover art of the 1984 film "Beverly Hills Cop." (I don't recall seeing the car in the film.)

Beverly Hills Cop Mercedes SL450

Mercedes made 237,000 of the R107 through 1989. I once drove a 1982 280SL. It was OK, but not a fast car as the V8s are.The 450SL had an advanced aluminum SOHC fuel injected V8 and a primitive 3 speed automatic. It had 4 wheel disc brakes.

The last one was the 560SL. I almost bought one until I got to go for a real test drive and realized it handled just like my mom's 1967 station wagon: big, torquey V8 engine, huge steering wheel and floppy suspension.

Mercedes' 2006 full line brochure includes a two-page spread of a 1985 560 SL. These true SLs are more significant than many of the 2006 models.

1990 - 2002 SL500, 500SL, 300SL, 320SL, 600SL, SL600 (R129) (click)

2003 - 2006 SL500, SL55, SL600, SL65 (R230) The current 2003 - 2006 SL500 has the same lower-output, three-valve engine as the 1999 - 2002 model and otherwise is a completely different car. The latest SL500 has most body panels made of aluminum and a metal folding roof which collapses into and takes up some room in the trunk. Thank goodness the 2006 S-Klasse sedan again uses the original quad-can, four-valve engine design for even more power and torque; hopefully these will make it into the SL500 soon.

There's a well- written comparison of this latest SL500 to the Porsche 911, a Lexus and the Jaguar XKR convertibles here.

The experts write that the newest SL500 is a great car and I agree. They also have issue, as I do, with the low quality materials used, unlike the real Mercedes of years past. The newest SL feels more like a Dodge in terms of materials, appearance, fit and finish. Not that's that's bad, since new Dodges also tend to have better reliability than Mercedes these past few years, at least if you believe word-of-mouth and Consumer Reports April 2004 and April 2005 editions. More later at "The End of Mercedes."

Consumer Reports' April 2005 issue has some interesting things to say on the latest SL. Interestingly it rates among the very highest of vehicles for satisfaction. (See page 10, April 2005.) More new SL owners said they'd definitely buy another one than the owners of almost any other vehicle. Turn to page 18 and you'll see the new SL is also one of the absolutely least reliable cars made. It's specifically called out in the table of least reliable cars. Again on page 81 the 2003 SL is specifically called out as a used car to avoid. To go on, the trunk lid, which feels like a bank vault on the 1990 - 2002 SL500, is wobbly, worthless and weak on the 2003 - present SL500. On the other hand, there's a lot of aluminum in the latest SL500: the roof, hood, trunk lid, both doors and all four quarter-panels, which is pretty much the whole exterior.

The trunk on the newest SL disappears because the metal top collapses into it. The latest SL500 has no soft top and the hard top is no longer removable as it was for the past few decades. With the newest SL you're forced to take your hard top everywhere with you in your trunk instead of being able to leave it in your garage.

The gauges have been destyled making them less legible and more showy. There are fewer gauges in the 2003 - on SL500 since cost reductions have marginalized these functions into part of a completely incomprehensible menu system. I have never been able to figure out the menu system on the current Mercedes, and I've read the manuals and have an engineering degree. Good luck not crashing just looking up something like outside temperature which previous cars show all the time. The gauges on a VW Rabbit Cabrio Convertible are far better than those on the 2003 - 2006 SL.

Everyone should order the "Keyless Go" option. With this option you no longer have to pull out your key! With Keyless Go the car knows your key is with you, so all you have to do to unlock the door is pull the handle, and all you have to do to start or stop the engine is to press the button on the shifter. Your keys stay safely in your pocket or purse. Brilliant, and something I suggested to Mercedes in 1993!

If the boss hands me the keys to a White/Java 2006 SL500 as a company car you won't see me complaining, otherwise I'm sticking with my 1997.

SL55 AMG, SL600, SL65 AMG

The very best news is that with the new SL body style Mercedes is offering several insanely more fun versions other than the base SL500. There are three other engine versions of the SL500 today, all of which are unreal.

Only in the most recent three model years has this crazy stuff been out. For decades my SL500 and the conventionally aspirated SL600 V-12 made about the same power which I've already got. If anything the power actually dropped in 1999 with the current three-valve engine which is still used in today's SL500.

These new crazy versions seem to be selling well out here, or at least the badge kits. More good news is as you may know Mercedes bought AMG some years ago and today the AMG cars are completely serviceable at any dealer with lots of parts out there and designed not to blow up. I've driven the AMGs on the racetrack and it's wild knowing you can drive these everyday without a hiccup.

SL55 AMG

The SL55 adds a blown V-8 for 516 ft-lbs at 2,750 - 4,000 and 493 HP @ 6,100 RPM. It lists at $125,000 and is rated at 4.5s 0 - 60.

The blown V8 SL55 is from a totally different universe. I couldn't wipe the smile off my face for a week after I drove one.

Hammer on it in traffic and it's beyond anything: faster than a motorcycle and worlds more torque. Other 300+ HP cars have been limited by the rubber below 90 MPH so I had thought all the latest factory super AMG cars were solely to impress the neighbors unless you get above 120 MPH and the traction control can finally turn off. The 350HP AMG SLK32 I drove had the traction control trying to keep the wheels from spinning at every legal speed.

The SL55's traction control did its best when hammering it on a sharp left turn from a side street; it unleashed all it could when it could which was almost scary. Heaven forbid you're on a straight since it keeps the 285mm wide tires from spinning and takes off more quickly than I thought possible. My 1997 SL500 only has 225/55R16s which are at the verge of liquefying throughout all of 1st gear. I was more intrigued with the power of the SL55 AMG, however for the first few minutes before it warmed up I noticed that it was a nice, tight small feeling car unlike my 1997 SL.

The new SL seats were perfect (my SL500 has fat-man seats) and even the bun warmers worked great and warmed up your back and most importantly sides, as opposed to mine which mostly heat up your bottom which needs no heating. Anyway, I was very impressed.

Most of these cars seen today are the base SL500 and probably many of the fancier ones I see are re-badged. Beware counterfeit SL55s which are just SL500s with the trunk badge and wheels changed. I had a BMW dealer try to sell me one of the fakes.

The real SL55 is insane!

SL600

The 1993 - 2002 SL600s are conventionally aspirated 48-valve V12s. As of 2003 the SL600s add twin turbos to the 12 cylinder, 36 valve engine for 590 ft-lbs of torque from 1,800 - 3,500 RPM and 493 HP at 5,000.

It lists at $127,000 and weighs a little more than the SL55. It's also rated at 4.5s 0-60.

SL55 versus SL600

The SL600 (twin-turbo V12) and SL55 (blown V8) have identical power ratings and almost identical price. God bless Mercedes for giving us the choice! The SL600 has more torque, but with more weight and a turbo instead of a blower.

Thus the difference isn't seen on spec sheets or in race numbers.

The difference is that the SL600 tends towards comfort while the SL55 is more brutal and racy. If you want a sports car for nimbleness and deliberate driving get the SL55. If you want something comfier get the SL600.

The color and trim options differ between the two. The SL600 comes in the more reasonable colors while the SL55 comes in the Darth Vader colors favored by high school kids. I want White and Java (tan), and the AMG for 2006 comes in White for the first time but not yet Java for the inside. That leaves the SL600 for my color choice.

SL65 AMG

The SL65 AMG has the same turbo V12 configuration of the SL600, however it has more displacement and 738 ft-lbs from 2,000 - 4,000 RPM and 604 hp @ 5,500 RPM. Even the SL55 is unlike anything I've ever driven. I'd be afraid of the SL65 if it weren't for ESP keeping the wheels on the ground.

The SL65 AMG lists at $180,000. It's kind of a silly car and the most expensive in the line, so you'll see people buy them for no purpose other than arbitrage (buying to resell them at an immediate profit due to their perceived scarcity.)

2007 S-Klasse Sedan Engines Hooray: the original 4-valve design returns!

THE END OF MERCEDES

return to specifics of the 1997 model

Compare to other fun cars

An anecdote of Mercedes's inventiveness in the previous century:Taking a wee break from the golf course, a famous american golfer was on tour in Scotland where he wasn't well known. He drove a borrowed 1978 Mercedes 450SL into a gas station. An attendant greets him with typical Scottish hospitality, unaware who the golf pro is:"Top o' the mornin to ya."As the golfer gets out of the car two tees fall out of his pocket."So what are those things, laddie?" asks the attendant."They're called tees," replies the golfer."And what would ya be usin 'em for, now?" inquires the Scotsman."Well, they're for resting my balls on when I drive," replies the golf pro.

"Aw, Jaysus, Mary an' Joseph!" exclaims the attendant. "Those fellas at Mercedes think of everything!"

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