Mercedes Enthusiast – 500SL Rebuild Feature
This post was originally published in Mercedes Enthusiast Magazine.
When Bruce Greetham bought a tired and rusty 500SL five years ago, the plan was a quick tidy up. But as the project progressed, he became determined to make it one of the very best looking and driving R107s, David Sutherland discovered.
To collect his 500SL, Bruce Greetham had to travel from the Midlands to Wales, but what he didn’t know at the time was that the purchase of this somewhat down at heel Mercedes would take him in an entirely different direction to the one intended. Originally it was simply to be an evenings and weekend restoration project, but given his day job as a director at class Mercedes specialist The SL Shop near Redditch in Worcestshire (+44 (0) 1386 791072, www.theslshop.com), four years later Bruce found himself in charge of not just one of the best R107s in the country, but also a car that earns its keep as a demonstrator and promotional aid for his employer. It has appeared at classic events and shows, and even stared in its own video. The rebuild was completed a year ago, it is already hard to imagine The SL Shop without this stunning 1987 500SL somewhere in its collection of workshops.
“I had always wanted a 500SL, and this one ‘found’ me through a contact in Carmarthen in Wales,” says. Bruce, who had previously restored a 124-series E220 Coupe and a 126 560SEC, and who is currently doing the same to a Fintail.
“The owner had spent thousands on it over 15 years, but he had come to the end of his time with it,” he tells me. “It was the colour combination I wanted, Nautic Blue with mushroom leather upholstery, or Pebble 275, to be strictly accurate, and it had every single option on it that you could possible order at the time.”
As a 500SL, it was the top model available in the UK R107 range that had been facelifted in autumn 1985 (the 560SL was only for the US, Australia and Japan), its M117, five-litre V8 producing 242bhp and 289lb ft of torque, compared to the 2215bhp/238lb ft of the 420SL and the 185bhp/188lb ft of the three-litre straight-six 300SL. Like these two, the 500SL transmits its power through a four-speed automatic gearbox. Factory extra fitted to this car are air conditioning, leather trim, a rear seat, cruise control, vanity mirrors with lights, and headlamp washers.
But if the colour and spec were right, not much else was, Bruce recalls. “When it came here it was MOT’d and driveable, but further inspection revealed that many panels were rusty, including the bulkhead, the floor, the side sills, the jacking points and the boot floor. It was at that point that I realised this car was going to take me on a concours journey.”
The Mercedes had been patched up by various workshops over the years, which added to the restoration task, as all those so-called repairs had to be undone before the rebuild could begin. In summary, that included new front wings, rear wheelarch repair panels, a bootlid, a boot floor, a floorpan and sill. All replacement panels were genuine Mercedes-Benz, Bruce fully aware that genuine parts are a better and easier fit than pattern items, this reducing the labour time required.
The engine, with 160,000 miles to its credit, and still in reasonable condition, was stripped and rebuilt, as was the gearbox, the rear axle, wheel bearings, the suspension and brakes and a host of other components. Besides the actual welding and spannering, a significant amount of time was spent researching information for the rebuild.
At first the 500SL was an ‘on-off’ project, fitted in between other, more pressing day-to-day work at The SL Shop. But as time progressed, Bruce found himself becoming increasingly obsessional about it. “Some say that I suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and this led me to ensure every nut and bolt on the car was revived to factory standard,” he reveals.
By Christmas 2014, by now more than three years since it had arrived at The SL Shop, the 500SL had ben rebodied, and most of the mechanical work completed, leaving a mass of detailing and setting up work that really makes a classic stand out from the rest. Replating small chrome trim items, powder coating others, and ensuring the new carpets fitted correctly, for example.
In May 2015 the 500SL was finished, and MOT’d. Well, “95 per cent finished”, as Bruce describes it, because when does a classic car project ever actually end? D44 BPJ’s first proper outing was when Bruce took it on a three-day driving tour that The SL Shop ran for customers, starting Stratford in Warwickshire and ending at Brooklands in Surrey. “It needed a run to make a ‘snag’ list, and I now think the car is as good as I’m going to get it,” he reckons.
So what does the man who rescued this SL make of it? “I drive three SLs every week to work and back, and in my judgement, this is how an R107 should drive, look and feel,” he tells us confidently. “I have met my own personal expectations with it, and it has been very rewarding.”
Bruce now has a very special SL that he looks at in two different ways. It’s his own car, bought because, despite working with them every day, he wanted to have the “SL experience”, in particular to take an R107 on tour in Europe, which at the time of writing he was planning. “But it couldn’t have been done without the help of The SL Shop team, and it has also become a very good marketing tool for the business – its impact has made us want to create that same car for our customers, and indeed we have had requests from two to do just that.”
Since the restoration was begun, R107 values have risen significantly, and this has meant that similar rebuilds carried out on a strictly commercial basis, as opposed to being ‘Saturday morning’ projects, will soon become economically viable if the trenfd continues. But what would it take to reproduce this car? Bruce reckons the work can easily exceed £50,000, not including the price of the if bought, and values the very best cars not previously being much higher than that was why The SL Shop, although having rebuilt countless R107s previously, had hitherto not undertaken a full scale, nut and bolt restoration. On the basis of this one, let’s hope it does many more.
DRIVING THE 500SL
That, despite its status as company revenue generator, this 500SL is still very much Bruce’s baby is evident as he hands me the keys. “Apart from me, you’re the first person to drive it,” he says gravely. His comment heightens my anticipation, because I remember seeing the car shortly after it first arrived at The SL Shop and wondering what it would be like when finally finished.
Getting into an R107 is a bit of a ritual. To retain any dignity, you must feed you left leg through the narrow gap between the large steering wheel and the top of the seat, and once seated contort your other leg into the footwell.
Once in, work the stiff fore/aft adjustment level at the front of the seat, and the spring-loaded height adjuster at the side. The steering wheel doesn’t adjust, at first seeming too close to the dashboard, but it’s not really. Finally, pull the heavy door closed and ensure your right foot can work the pedals without making contact with the steering column, or anything attached to it.
Thereafter everything fits nicely. By now most R107s have weak seat springs, in the worst cases leaving the seats hopefully unsupportive. But in this car they are as they should be, quite springy but at the same time holding you in place well. After a short while you don’t notice the slight bounciness.
Anyone appreciative of classic cars must love the R107’s interior. The seat leather looks gorgeous and is the same to the touch, and carpeting is stitch perfect. Three found instrument dials with orange on black markings display the information clearly, while the centre of the five fascia mounted air vents is given over to the optional side temperature gauge. The centre console, capped with lovely mid brown wood, contains little compared to that in a modern Mercedes, simply a radio/cassette (the classic Becker Mexico, in this case), air-conditioning controls, headlamp leveller, window lifts and seat heaters,
The one thing that perhaps looks off in the R107 is the handbrake, mounted between seats. Left-hand drive R107s have Mercedes’ normal foot engaged, hand released brake, but presumably either cost considerations or a lack of space in the footwell rules this out for right-hookers.
The V8 fires up promptly, with none of the fluffing and stuttering that can be experienced on these two-valve M117 units. Slip the transmission selector into Drive, and the 500SL wafts forward quietly, the lovely sunny day we are enjoying here in Warwickshire seeming to make the engine sound even smoother and more relaxed than normal.
We had, of course, lowered the canvas hood. It stows cleverly, although being manual, the operation takes some effort, however the R107 is a car at its best driven al fresco, as the cabin feels a little cramped with the hood erected or the hardtop in place.
Among R107 users, there is an ongoing debate about which makes for the better car: six cylinders or eight? The former, the 300SL as from the 1985 facelift, offers tidier handling thanks to the lesser front end weight and considerably better fuel economy, but the latter has the ample low down torque that a six cannot muster.
My position on this is one of indecision, my preference usually for the one I am driving at the time. And today I’m a V8 advocate, especially when it’s as fresh and expertly rebuilt as this one; in particular I love the way it is all but inaudible most of the time, but has a very slightly urgent note to it at higher revs. It is interesting to note that while it was a shame that the 560SL was never sold in the UK or mainland Europe, by the time it reached customers its extensive emissions tuning had left the engine with less power and torque than the 500SL.
Having pointed out the chassis virtues of the 300SL, Bruce’s 500SL is doing everything I need it to in the handling and ride departments. The suspension is absorbent and well controlled, and the brakes reassuring.
This car is a pure treat. I never got to drive an R107 500SL when they were still being made, but this is how they must have felt. No wonder Bruce has had to fend off more than a few customers who want to buy it from him.
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