How capable is the Mercedes 560SL? We borrowed a top spec example from a marque specialist and mapped a 3,000-mile tour of northern Europe to find out.
Ever since this magazine’s creation in 2001, we have championed the use of older Mercedes. What’s more, we have – as have many other motoring titles – hailed the R107 SL as one of the most accessible and capable three-pointed stars from yesteryear. You don’t need an owner’s manual to figure out the controls, and its drive is a vice free as can be expected from a card developed over 40 years ago. “A great cruiser”, we have stated time and again, with rose tinted spectacles burrowed firmly in one’s pocket. But just how great is the 1971 to 1989 built roadster? Is this Benz really all it’s cracked up to be, or has time simply softened hearts and minds, and gifted this machine the status of icon by default?
We needed to challenge the 107. And I don’t mean drive an example hard for an afternoon. I’m talking over 3,000 miles, eight countries, tarmac, ice, snow, rain, cities, towns, countryside, autobahns – you get the idea. But where to source a car, and a company mad enough to let us do it? Enter the SL Shop in Warwickshire, and a 1987 56OSL from its Mercedes-Benz Rent fleet. But make no mistake, the company was putting its reputation and the sweet nectar it offers to dreaming bees on the line. Would we all live to regret it?
The great beyond
Europe is big, and it certainly feels it as snapper Craig Pusey and I emerge from the Channel crossing at Calais, programme the sat nav and see 760 miles to Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark – our first and rather ambitious rest stop. In the interests of maintaining a sense of control and the spirit of a ‘road trip’, we’ve opted against using the crossing from Puttgarden in Germany to Rodbyhavn in Denmark, and will instead pass over the Danish border by road, before swinging east at the seaport of Kolding and continuing to Copenhagen. It adds about 70 miles but seems worth it, especially as we’ll drive over Denmark’s Great Belt Bridge, which links Nyborg and Halsskov. In theory, day two should see us cross the famous Oresund Bridge into Malmo in Sweden before we turn north, aiming for Oslo in Norway and beyond – a 1,300-mile drive in one direction.
So, what exactly are we driving? This Mercedes 560SL was imported from the US by SL Shop four years ago (the 560 was only offered in North America, Japan and Australia when new) and received a thorough going over by the marque specialist, along with a new interior as the original was sun damaged. We have the USA’s strict emissions legislation to thank for the 560’s existence, as when fitted with a catalytic converter the performance of the 500 model was strangled and customers were left wanting. Keen to claw back grunt and create a new flagship SL in the process, Mercedes’ answer was to fit an enlarged version of the 500SL’s M117 V8, with capacity up from 4,973cc to 5,547cc, but running the same Bosch KE-Jetronic fuel injection. This allowed the 560SL to produce 227bhp and 275lb ft torque – or roughly the same as a derestricted 500SL, give or take. Production of the 560SL ran from September 1985 to August 1989 and 49,347 examples were made, the car here finished in Petrol Blue metallic over Java leather. As you might imagine, an automatic was the only transmission offered, with four speeds to get you going.
On this ca, the US spec bumpers, twin headlights, third brake light on the boot lid, and cats have been removed. SL Shop also saw fit to add a sport exhaust system, simultaneously increasing the V8’s output to around 250bhp and adding more bark to its bite.
Whatever the weather
The rain – it just won’t stop! We left a drizzly UK hours ago, and it appears the heavy clouds are chasing us. The SLs wipers have an intriguing sweep pattern, splaying in the middle of the windscreen before almost clapping at each end of it, and we need everything they’ve got as sodden Belgian byways become treacherous German autobahns and there isn’t a single cat’s eye in sight – we take for granted how good the lane markers are in the UK, particularly in low light situations.
Thankfully, the Mercedes 560SL is inspiring great confidence when there should be little. I got a whiff of the car’s renowned grand touring credentials on the way to Folkestone to make the Channel crossing, but on the carriageway the 107 is really coming good. There’s some slack in that old recirculating ball steering arrangement, meaning you have to be aware of any camber changes in the road’s surface and adjust your steering angle accordingly, but the SL is otherwise rock stable.
As part of our preparation for driving in Scandinavia during winter, we’ve had cold weather tyres fitted, which as well as offering better traction in snow and ice have the added benefit of clearing more water than summer rubber. Puddles are forming everywhere, but we aquaplane not once.
Fully aware that we’re only half way to Copenhagen after half a day on the road, I lean harder on the floor mounted throttle pedal as a derestricted section of autobahn opens up before us. The SL’s nose lifts the rear squats, and revs rise as we sail towards 100mph, the V8 delving deep into its torque revs and bellowing in the wind. Air flutters around the hardtop’s side window seals at greater volume, but somehow, even in such terrible conditions, the 560 retains its composure at speeds far in excess of what’s legal on UK motorways. I feel sorry for owners not able to experience their 107s at such velocities. They really are missing out. It feels fantastic!
Somewhere beyond the monochromatic clouds the sun is setting, so I reach for the headlamp switch. To clicks clockwise and we have dipped beams, or something approaching them. The Mercedes-Benz R107 560SL may have impressed us thus far, but its headlamps emit little more than a dull yellow glow that dissipates to nothing within 30 metres of the nose. The front fog lights boost visibility a touch, but I’m still seeing less of the environment than I would like, particularly in eye-widening conditions such as these.
The cabin too is illuminated with a turn of that switch, but the effect is a million miles from the ambient lighting of say, a current S-Class. It’s almost as if the car wishes you to drive with the absolute minimum of cabin distractions; the instruments and centre console glow warmly as if illuminated by a log fire. It’s an immensely comforting sight, but also strange for someone used to driving much younger machinery, in which practically every aspect of the interior is visible all the time. Tonight, it seems, we will be driving by candlelight…
Crossing the border
We reach the Danish border by 5pm and just as I’m looking forward to ticking a new country off my ‘Must visit’ list, a man in military uniform waves us into a large border security tent swarming with other Politi types. Passports handed over, I’m wracking my brain trying to think if we did something wrong in the last few dozen miles, which might explain our selection from the passing crowd of cars. I’m sure our SL’s GB number plates have something to do with it, although I do catch a glint of menace in the border official’s eye when I explain what we are doing and why we are doing it. But suddenly the stern look melts into a smile and we are waved through for final checking – firearms and illegal immigrants mainly, we are told. Quite where we’d find room for those in an R107SL laden with luggage and Craig’s photography gear, heaven only knows.
Another smile from a border officer and we are spearing down the motorway slip road with renewed urge to hit Copenhagen in good time. Once again, the 5.5-litre V8 is let off its leash, and once again I’m impressed by its commitment to acceleration and vocal sparkle in the mid-range – it really does turn deliciously hard-edged beyond 3,000rpm. For such an old automatic, the four-speeder is also well capable of dishing out the readies, the kickdown doubly impressive with the 560’s unrestricted performance. What a great package this is.
The R107 makes the preceding Pagoda look small, but we feel the size of ants as we pass over the massive Great Belt Bridge, which tonight is illuminated green. That colour is associated with many things including harmony (we certainly feel that with the car right now), energy (yep – we’ve still got some of that), and money (oh, the 560SL is eating plenty of it!). At a push, and at our current ‘spirited’ pace, I reckon we can eek out 320 to 340 miles from the 85-litre fuel tank. But for fear of ending the trip in the most embarrassing way, we aim for 300 miles per fill, which is somewhat more than I was expecting and further emphasises just how good this hard-topped roadster is at undertaking big journeys. That said, it’s costing upwards of £80 each time we visit a fuelling station, and that’s on top of Craig’s insatiable craving for sweets and lattes.
We reach the outskirts of Copenhagen by 8pm and the relief is palpable. The city is home to some 580,000 people and prides itself on a high tolerance for cyclists. Indeed, cycle lanes are everywhere – as integral to the landscape as roads – and it’s sad to find the sight of bicycles left unlocked and leaning on the walls of homes and flats unusual. How times have changed in Britain. The place gives off a relaxed vibe, which suits us just fine after such an epic first day. Arty photographs in the bag, and gaining a few inquisitive looks from passers-by in the process, we drive to the hotel, ready for another slog in the morning.
On the button start from the 560SL
“Please start, please start, please start…yes!” It’s freezing outside, literally at 0C, and I feared the 560SL would not wake from its slumber. I should have known better, although it might be a different story once we hit the -20C-somethings of southern Norway.
Due to the adverse weather, which seemed most extreme whenever we were passing through Germany’s many snaking roadwork arrangements, yesterday was more intense than we would have liked. So, you can imagine our delight when we see the forecast is better for today. In truth, we battled with a fogging window throughout yesterday’s drive, but clearer skies on the second day now make this a non-issue. For such a big old motor, the V8 gets up to temperature remarkably quickly, and soon we are receiving that encouraging hint of warmth through the SL’s cross-haired vents. Sat nav programmed, today’s drive to meet friends of Mercedes Enthusiast in Gol, Norway is a mere 480 miles, or nine hours’ worth, so we’d better get cracking.
Have you ever seen the Oresund Bridge connecting Denmark to Sweden? It’s a 9.9-mile engineering masterpiece spanning part of the Baltic Sea. You have to pay a princely sum to cross it (Euro 50 or about £44), but the views are spectacular. It’s difficult to take my eyes off our surroundings until wind whips across the bridge’s highest point and shunts the SL a yard to the left, forcing me to apply considerable steering lock and combat the invisible force.
We battle on and soon break into new territory, the Oresund Bridge so vast it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where it ends. Attention turns to the weather once more and there’s a bet on – when will we see our first snowfall? Gothenburg? Oslo? Surely before then? The answer is revealed a few hours later, as we climb towards the Norwegian border. First there are a few snowflakes, which kiss the SL’s diminutive windscreen before blowing away in the slipstream. But then the snowfall increases, and soon the roadside is covered in fluffy white powder. I ease back the V8 just a little, to acclimatise to the changing conditions and make sure we’ve got all the grip we need. Once again though, the final incarnation of the R107, the Mercedes 560SL plants itself firmly and bellows as we career ever northwards.
Following a whole day’s drive yesterday, plus several more hours piloting this morning, conversation between Craig and I had mellowed. But now we’re tweeting like birds and excited to travel deeper into the winter wonderland. The underpasses of Oslo echo with the heavy breathing of the eight-cylinder 560, and as we make our escape from the city’s western edge, we turn a corner and snow is suddenly three feet deep on the side of the road, almost as if someone has activated a giant snow machine moments before our passing by.
However, the feeling of excitement gives way to some trepidation as the SL squirms over slushy snow creeping into our lane. We’re limited to 50mph in these parts, and that feels fast enough. With a variety of surface treatments in play, in a bid to remove ice and danger from the road network, our SL looks very different from how I collected it – grey muck is streaking up the bonnet, over the hardtop, and meeting road grime kicked up from the rear wheels, covering much (but not all of) the ribbed tail lights and chrome model badge. To many we are driving a dirty enigma with GB plates, but to me, right now, it’s the most beautiful SL in the world!
The tripmeter says we’ve done another 300 miles since our last fuel stop, so it’s one bigger fill before we reach our destination: Gol, 120 miles north west of Oslo. That drive used to be much further and take well in excess of three hours, but the local government has chiselled a new roll route through the mountains and this realisation spurs us – and seemingly the car – on with greater urge. But all the while we’re mindful of Norwegian speed cameras, painted grey and unapologetically thin in profile, ready to catch the exuberant.
A setting sun paints our target a beautiful shade of gold and somehow, against the effects of time and age itself, the 560SL carries across the finish line. Great waves of relief and disbelief come flooding to the fore as we park in front of our final rest stop, the V8 idling just as its always done before falling silent as its spindly ignition key is twisted and removed. A crunch of snow under foot and a blast of crisp air up the nostrils tell us we are indeed in a whole new place, far away from southern England. That night we drink to our ‘survival’ and the SL’s unmitigated brilliance.
Slip and slide
Of course, we must make the return journey. But not before we strap a set of skis to the 560 SL’s roof (why not?) and play in the surrounding mountains. The locals laugh at our cold weather tyres because they are devoid of small metal studs, but in their defence, our chosen rubber offers just enough grip to be reliable and entertaining without being frightening. Scrabbling lighter and higher up the mountainside, I don’t think I’ve ever had such fun in a car on public roads, let alone in an R107SL, the V8’s torque and responsive gearbox great attributes as the going gets tough, the rear-wheel drive set up as sweet as you’d like through hairpins and wide-open curves. The recirculating ball steering has its merits too, unflustered by changes in surface and saving my hands from any great shocks. You’d have thought this Mercedes-Benz wad made for this place, given the way it deals with the landscape.
On the morning of our return to the UK, we are greeted by a stunning moonset, a perfect backdrop for our beloved – and now freshly cleaned – Mercedes-Benz. Heading home is much like the journey out, only this time we have half the energy and give in to the idea of an additional rest stop near Osnabruck in western Germany. The SL is as bright as ever, though. It starts first time, every time, hasn’t consumed a drop of oil, and simply requires a whopping, great lunch every 300 miles or so. It even fits nicely on the Eurotunnel train from Calais.
In the past I’ve found it extremely difficult to decide between straight-six power or a V8 for the R107. Now though, I’m convinced a torquey eight-cylinder linked to a four-speed automatic is the way to go, especially if it’s a derestricted 560 model like this one. Mercedes-Benz got its 107 roadster so right first time the car was barely altered during the next 18 years.
Over 3,300 miles, our 31-year-old example faltered not once. It was quiet, comfortable, fast and entertainingly exactly when it needed to be. I’d love an even stronger heating system, and I suppose the seats could do with more support, but otherwise the SL impressed in ways I feared to imagine possible. It was utterly magnificent, genuinely eye-opening. And now I want one. Badly.