1973-1980 Mercedes 450SL: Not-Quite Classics

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1973 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL

1973 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL

The Mercedes SL was and is the first and only choice for a buyer of a certain kind of car: one that married the dichotomy of sporty yet rock-solid quality, with a sort of quiet ostentation. The R107 was the longest lived, being sold from 1971 to 1989

Starting life as the 350SL, the R107replaced the trim little 280SL in 1971. It reached the United States sporting a three-speed transmission and a 4.5-liter V-8. It was longer, heavier and thirstier that the car it replaced, so much so that the engineers on the project nickname the car "der Panzerwagen." The added size was partially due to upcoming safety regulations; the new SL's crashworthiness was exemplary for the time, a fact that contributed to the cars long shelf life.

The 450SL arrived here in 1973, along with U.S.-spec bumpers that joined the twin sealed-beam headlamps in marring the good looks of the European version of the car. Like the previous SL, it had a standard removable hardtop that could, with the aid of another person or an optional garage-mounted winch, be removed and stowed in a special rack. A canvas top was stowed under a hard tonneau cover and could be erected fairly easily, locking and unlocking with the same tool used to secure the hardtop.

The interior had air conditioning, power windows, burl-wood accents and the indestructible MB-Tex interior. Few options were available, one of which was a backseat, if you can call it that. Fitted into the space previously used as a moderately sized carpeted place to toss your Vuitton weekend bags were seats matched to the interior color and seat belts for two. Space limitations made them only useful for transporting small children or people you had a large grudge against..

In movies and on television the 450SL was shorthand for people who had arrived. Tony Roberts chauffeured a kvetching Woody Allen around Beverly Hills in one in Annie Hall and Richard Gere memorably cruised Malibu to Blondie's "Call Me" in American Gigolo. On television the gift of one was the clue that led Lt. Columbo to finger Trish Van Devere as a murderer while Stephanie Powers and Robert Wagner of Hart to Hart sleuthed in one.

At one point on television in the late '70s they became almost ridiculous in their ubiquity; Wonder Woman's alter ego Diana Prince drove a powder blue one. How she managed a then $32,000 dollar ride (about $110k in today's money) on government pay was never addressed.

The tank-like reputation translates to the driving experience. At low speeds steering and throttle seems ponderous, and at first the seats seem rock-hard. But at speed the car is light on its feet and well controlled and the firm seats are wonderful on long trips. The styling is handsome; the car still looks perfectly at home parked in the hero spot at the most expensive restaurant in town.

Service issues include air conditioners that are expensive to repair and can be prone to failure, cracked vinyl dashboards and crumbling sun visors that are a pricey cosmetic fix--and more importantly, a recall for a subframe replacement. A call to a Mercedes dealer with the VIN number should tell you whether this important repair happened. Gas mileage is fairly atrocious at around 12-15 mpg, but that's the price of style. On any R107 SL it's a good idea to check the timing chain even if the owner insists it's new to avoid a catastrophic repair bill.

Later versions were sold in America as the 380SL (1981-1985) with an aluminum 3.8-liter V-8 and a failure-prone single-row timing chain. The final R107 was the 560SL with a fast but thirsty 5.6-liter engine. Both of these had a far more reliable automatic climate control, with the 560 being the most luxurious.

Examples of these are out there, some with shockingly low miles. This can be attributed to the fact of many of them having lived a pampered life cruising Palm Beach or Beverly Hills or having lived life as summer rides in the Hamptons or on the Cape. While there always are compromises in driving an old car, for the price of a Hyundai you can get a very good example of Mercedes when it was truly "engineered like no other car in the world." 


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