“Hey, und dummkopf! Watch out for the CD-changer in my trunk, eh? Idiot.” – No car resembles 90's pop-culture with such status as the R129 series of Mercedes—Benz SL, even if you don't realise it. A symbol of prosperity, the car became synonymous with the rich and famous – Princess Diana famously traded her royally appointed Jaguar for one, Chris Wallace (Notorious BIG) wrote songs about his, the Simpsons referred to them, Harrison Ford owned one, Clint Eastwood loved his and Mark Morrison made his famous in the film clip to his '96 smash-hit Return of the Mack - so how does a 20 year old halo-car loved by the rich and famous fare for those of us who aren't so flush with money or power?
In a word, brilliantly. These cars were $200,000 to buy brand new in 1992 (The equivalent of two inner-city Sydney apartments at the time!), and this buys you a whole lot more than just a flashy auto that can chew up the Autobahn at 240km/h for hours on end. This 5 litre V8 powered top-of-the-range (For Australia - the 6 litre V12 powered SL600 wasn't offered here) Mercedes was built to last, much like fine furniture or a marble staircase. It's an over engineered car, the drive train is under-stressed, the doors are big, heavy and bulky, the controls (and electrics behind them) are all very well laid out and you can feel the tactile response as the over-sized electrical contacts brush against each other. There are airbags for the driver and passenger, a roll-bar that pops up only when the cars electrics detect that the car is about to roll, a 9 speaker stereo system (With, yes, a CD changer in the trunk, cutting edge in 1992!) and electric seats, mirrors as well as dual zone climate control.
The car was supplied with both a hard-top and a retractable soft-top – The car can be converted from roof off to roof on in a matter of seconds with the push of a button, however it can also be converted from a roadster into a coupe in a few minutes! A moon roof was an option, as in, a hard top roof that is see through. Such features would not be seen in “lesser” cars for another 20 years.
Longevity, reliability and a very comfortable interior are by no means the only features, however – The most surprising feature of the car is exactly how it delivers its power. You're driving a Mercedes made for touring, The top model as well - it's not going to be slow. Sinking the boot into the SL500 doesn't reward you with the sink-into-the-seat exhilaration of say, an R32 Skyline GT-R or C5 Corvette – Rather, it's a gentle waft. The car is definitely not a slouch, it will do 0 – 100 in around 6 seconds (A full second faster than the SS Commodore of the time), however there is no great excitement in the way the car delivers its power, just the fascination as the needle on the speedometer sweeps past 150km/h as elegantly as a swan sliding across a lake, or as the ballet dancers slide across the floor while you watch Swan Lake from the front-centre seats at the Opera house.
So you've decided on an R129 - a GT car, cutting edge for its time, with timeless looks and the tick of approval from people who generally employ someone else to look at their bank account for them - This brings in servicing costs. Even though you can buy an SL500 for less than $20,000 these days, they are in essence still a $200,000 car to service. Some parts (such as the hydraulic motor that powers the roof) are not as reliable as they should be for a car that is so over-engineered, which can lead to large unexpected bills in excess of $5000 – a bit of a sting to the hip pocket for those of us who don't earn such figures in a day. A general service however, surprisingly cheap, as apart from the oil capacity of the sump demanding more oil than a regular car, the parts are readily available, and the general over-engineered nature of the car means that component failure are not all that common.
The R129 is quite possibly the easiest $200,000 car that someone who doesn't earn $200,000 a year to maintain, run and own – Just make sure you stock up on Luftblasen CD's.