Driving the Evo Triangle in a Mercedes-Benz R129 SL500
The Evo Triangle is one of the UK’s most talked about roads, a Mecca for petrolheads and automotive photographers alike. I’d set out at 5.30am from Malvern, and by 9am my late model SL500 was idling away just outside Cerrigydrudion while I tried to establish if this was indeed the right place. Having passed through Cerrigydrudion and hooked a left, I’d pulled over to check my location and enjoy a superb sunrise. The maps confirmed we’d made it, as did the arrow straight road ahead flanked by two national speed limit signs… Welcome to the Evo Triangle in an SL500.
Finding the Evo Triangle is a pretty simple affair. From Cerrigydrudion follow the B4501 past Lyn Brenig reservoir. When you get to the junction at the top, turn left. Follow the road until it winds back to the A5. Take the left turn through Cerrigydrudion and you’re back on the B4501 to complete the triangle. Repeat those steps until you get bored, crash or the fuel light comes on.
Early morning and late November is a good time to catch the Evo Triangle while it’s devoid of hatchback hooligans and have a go Harry’s. That is, of course, unless the real have a go Harry just happens to be there. Harry Metcalfe was the driving force behind Evo magazine and amongst his enviable personal fleet of classics is a rather clean R107 SL and an SL600 R129, both of which are cared for by the SLSHOP.
A check of the mirrors reveals no cars (and no Harry) so I strap in, gun the throttle, enjoy that muted whooooooooomf coming from that long bonnet and hang on for the ride. The car is an R129 SL500 complete with 5.0 litre V8 engine and just over 300bhp. Being a 2001 car, this really is a late model. Production of the R129 ran from 1988 to 2002, with the replacement R230 arriving in 2001/2. This beautiful example is black on black, and crucially for a day when it’s barely above freezing, has heated seats!
An R129 SL500 is not geared for standing starts – literally. Plant your right foot into the carpet as soon as the light goes green and the tyres will light up quick sharp, but the traction control will halt proceedings because it doesn’t condone your immature behaviour. ‘No‘ says the car, ‘I’m better than that. Don’t be lazy, tease me‘. The SL500 loves to be teased. To maximise enjoyment, do it slowly. I approach a slow moving quarry lorry that needs to be vanquished with an overtake on the straight. The road is clear for a mile ahead. Fight the urge to mash the pedal to the floor and instead ease it in gently, feel the revs build. She comes on strong, the noise increases as the revs climb and the car comes into it’s own. The naturally aspirated 5.0 litre V8 is a joy, and tantalisingly fun the further you push the needle around the rev meter. The key to getting the best out of this car is learning how the engine and gearbox can work together, timing your right foot and being subtle with the juice. Don’t be a hatchback hooligan, do it properly. With the lorry sufficiently vanquished, I settle back down to cruising speed.
The B4501 is a wondrous assortment of straight bits, swoopy bits, slightly camberous bits and bits surrounded by beautiful tall trees. Visibility is excellent, giving a chance to find the upper limits of what the SL500 is capable of… but there’s no need, because I’m too busy admiring the view.
What began as a fairly good sunrise turned into a corker of a day. Having endured a week of rain, with more on the forecast, it’s as though the weather gods knew this trip was in the diary and scheduled some sunshine as a sign of approval. With the roof stowed away and the heated seats on, the SL500 roars past Lyn Brenig reservoir with the driver as happy as the proverbial Larry.
At the top of the B4501 you’re sitting at approximately 30,000 feet above sea level. Visibility along the length of the undulating, wide open straights is incredible, so it’s possible to achieve superb speeds as you climb and then descend again. It’s along this stretch that I could push the car past 140mph to see if it really is limited to 155… But why bother? I stop for a photo and use the SL500 as a tripod… There’s a bird of prey on the hunt and at this height I’m able to watch the whole thing.
I complete the triangle and stop for breakfast, pondering the day so far.
The thing about the Evo Triangle is for all of the hype on forums and in facebook groups, for all of the car meet chat and pub banter about lap times and top speed and apexes and all that jazz, the most important thing to remember is that these roads cut through some of the most incredible scenery the British Isles have to offer.
I’d spent a morning driving laps around some of the best roads in the country, (a road that earned it’s name because a magazine founded on driving quickly certified it good enough to perform road tests on) in a car quite capable of touching 150mph, and I didn’t bother…
But the point is, had I wanted to, the SL500 would oblige.
It’s here that we reach the crux of what an SL500 is all about. It’s not a Mazda MX5. It’s not a Subaru Impreza. It’s not going to inspire you to clip that apex a little closer, leave that corner a little faster. The SL500 sees all that tomfoolery, shrugs it’s shoulders and looks the other way, tutting and saying ‘pathetic’. It skulks off proudly because it’s above all that. It’s better than that. It’s more than that.
The fact of the matter is that any modern car with a 2.0 turbo charged engine and any choice of gearbox is going to be faster in real-world terms than a 20 year old 5.0 litre behemoth saddled with a 4 speed auto box. (all cars build after 1998 did have 5 speed auto boxes). Times have changed, they simply don’t make cars like the R129 SL500 anymore – but isn’t that the point?
All modern cars are unfathomably complicated, they all do over 120mph, they’re all built to the same standards, they all have roughly the same kit, they all drive the same, they all perform the same, they all even look the same… buying a modern car has been reduced to how much you want to pay per month relative to how comfortable the drivers seat is.
The R129 SL500 may be a dinosaur but at least it’s a dinosaur that has purpose. In a world where everything we do has to be justified to the inch, there’s no place for a 300 bhp 5.0 litre 150mph bruiser with a 4 speed gearbox and no roof. It’s the sheer over-the-top-but-act-like-it’s-nothing-ness of the R129 SL500 that makes it so appealing. It’s the last of the big V8 Mercedes-Benz cars that didn’t make a scene. It’s a hugely capable, properly made car that packs epic performance without the back-chatting exhaust pipes, spoilers, ducts, 22 inch wheels and back breaking suspension that so many ‘performance’ cars have utilised as standard ever since. During my time with the car I covered close to 500 miles in a single day of driving in nothing but absolute comfort and peace – this is a completely usable and versatile classic car.
Of the few criticisms that could be levelled at the R129 is the lack of creativity in the packaging, but as we sit here, 20 years later, looking at modern cars where every inch has been over designed, with overcomplicated headlights and confusingly angular tail lights, windows that don’t line up, swage lines that don’t make sense… isn’t it refreshing to look at the basic shape of the R129 in a form-over-function sort of way?
It’s a breath of fresh air in an automotive environment where someone really needs to open a window.
So, should you buy one? Well, a 2018 Mercedes-Benz SLK 200 BlueEFFICIENCY has a sticker price of near as damnit £30,000 before options. It’s a Mercedes-Benz with no roof, but that’s where the similarities end. You’ll take it to car shows and no one will care. You’ll take it to Goodwood and no one will care. After three years and 15,000 miles it’ll be worth about £18,000 and suddenly the 20mpg fuel saving over an SL500 seems a bit pointless.
On the other hand…
That sort of money gets you into a superb late model SL500, a V8 behemoth from a bygone era with it’s addictive acceleration, gorgeous soundtrack and epically understated looks.
I’d take the R129 in a heartbeat. I suggest you do too.
Tempted by the car? Take a look at R129’s currently being offered by The SL Shop.
Fancy trying the Evo Triangle in an R107 SL or Pagoda? Hire one here.
Want to read more about the R129 market and values? Click here.
Words and photos by Joe Briley