Since I was a little boy, I have lusted after the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class. There is a romance to these vehicles that is hard to describe. The early generations of these cars have what I can best define as elegant swag.
The growl of the I6 and V8 engines is unmistakable—as are the sleek lines of the design. The allure of these cars crosses generations, and is nearly priceless—with auction prices for some models now in excess of $1 million.
I am adamant in my plan to own one of these beauties sometime in my life. The SL-Class has had a near 60-year run, being in production since 1954 when the 300SL was introduced. I am a fan of the older models, built between 1954 and 1989. There is something powerfully grotesque about the later versions—IMHO.
They call the SL’s “grand tourer convertibles,” with removable hardtops and soft tops. There are four generations of the vehicle that I covet. To me, the most distinctive in the line was the 300SL with gull-wing doors (available from 1955-57). Along with the gullwing, the 190SL (1955-63), the 230-280SL (1963-71), and the 280 through 560SL’s (1972-89) are my favorites.
The 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300SL was the fastest production car of its day. The fuel-injected production model was based on the company's 1952 racecar, the Mercedes-Benz 300SL (W194) and was sold until 1963. Less than 3,300 coupes and roadsters were built. Today, the cars can be bought at auction for over $1 million.
Alongside the 300SL was the smaller and more affordable Mercedes-Benz 190SL. Over 25,000 190’s were produced from 1955 to 1963. While the car resembled the 300SL in styling, it did not perform at the same “grand” level of the 300. The cars were originally priced at around $4,000, with finely restored vehicles now fetching above $50,000 at auction.
The 230, 250, 280SL
In 1963, the Mercedes-Benz 230SL was introduced, replacing both the 300SL and 190SL. Nearly 50,000 Mercedes-Benz 230SL (1963-67), 250SL (1966-68), and 280SL (1967-71) models were produced—with fewer than 20,000 imported to the United States. This generation replaced the 190’s 4-cylinder engine with a 6-cylinder version that has a distinctive engine “growl” that I can hear from blocks away. The model numbers indicated the engine size—the 230SL had a 2.3 liter engine, etc. These models were typically configured as a "Coupe/Roadster" with a soft-top and an optional removable hardtop. A 2+2 was introduced with the 250 SL "California Coupe," which had a fold-down rear bench seat instead of the soft-top.
1972 brought the next generation of SL’s. Produced between 1972 and 1989, the design was a sleeker, modern vehicle. The cars lacked much of the unique styling of the previous vehicles, and seemed designed for a more mass audience. Compared to the small numbers of SL’s produced between 1954-71 (approximately 54,000) this generation sold widely—with over 300,000 produced between 1972-89. There were eight engine variants—both I6 and V8 versions were produced in a 2-seat convertible/roadster with standard soft top and hardtop and optional folding seats for the rear bench (the traditional SL) and a somewhat exotic The SLC—a longer, 2 door hardtop coupe with normal rear seats.
The next generations—from 1989-2002, 2002-2011, and the most recent introduced this year, all lack the fantasy, romance—and swag of the earlier years. At least in my car fantasy.