Yellow Line

Len Frank on the 1989 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL

I just finished driving the new Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, the 24-valve six with automatic transmission. It’s what most people who can buy will buy.

Actually I went to Portugal last May (’89) to drive the whole SL line, but on those early rides-and-drives it’s really hard, what with jet lag, over feeding, impressing ones’ fellow journalists, and even doing a little actual work, to get an accurate impression in the miles and time left over.

Like most of the others in Portugal, I fought to drive the 500SL, the V-8, so that I could come back and answer those burning questions: wottleitdo? isitrillygreat? needanyhelp? someonetocarryourbags?

The answers in quick order: 158mph indicated—3 mph more than Mercedes claims. Pete Lyons was driving and he says it’s the fastest he has ever driven—not bad for a car with grocery-getter capabilities. And yes it’s really great and no I don’t need any help, and on this trip I didn’t have any bags but that’s another story.

I also felt that the 500 SL, lacking the huge tires of the Porsche 928 S4 (or even better, Corvette), tended to overwhelm its chassis—even true of some lowered, stiffened, shaved-tire specials that we drove on the track at Estoril. Fast but not especially pleasant. I also talked to Dr. Wolfgang Peter who heads Mercedes passenger car engineering. He said that it was going to become increasingly difficult for Mercedes to build cars using the same materials and equipment as everyone else and charge twice as much for them—the Three-Pointed Star is only worth so much. So they must build more intelligent cars, better cars.

The 300 SL that I drove Over There was a 6-speed manual and I didn’t like it at all, and that’s OK because no one will buy one.The 300SL that I drove over here was, again, their automatic.It’s a 5-speed in case you haven’t been paying attention.

The first thing on the SL that everyone plays with is the top, and that’s fitting because the top is certainly one of the great adult toys. The top is the kind of thing I would have expected Datsun to have planned for in the ‘seventies after doing an analysis of what Americans want by looking at a late ‘fifties Ford retractable—except that on the SL it works the way it’s supposed to. And, since you ask, simply pushing one switch (shaped like a top—cute), lowers the windows, retracts the solenoid bolts that hold the header bar to the top of the windshield frame, unclips and lifts the rear section of the top from the tonneau cover, lifts the tonneau, folds the top down neatly into the well, drops the tonneau back over it and latches it, then raises the windows. When the cycle is complete, a red light in the switch goes out. For an encore, one simply puts the top back up by pushing the switch in the other direction. Applause.

The next thing that draws the attention of the hoi polloi is The Look. I got more attention, more gawks and yawps and thumbs up while driving the SL than in anything since the Citroen 2CV, and that includes a Ferrari Mondial cabrio, various Porsches, a Bitter, other Benzes and Bimmers, Jags, stuff like that. The SL looks low and heavy. It IS low and heavy, so that’s fair.

Serious colors, serious leathers—there’s very little frivolous about a seventy-plus grand entry price.

Once you get past the toys though, most people, experts included, miss the essential intelligence underneath the SL glitz. This is one of the best balanced, most pleasurable-to-drive cars in the world. Maybe THE most. It certainly doesn’t generate the extra-ordinary numbers, straight-line or skid pad, that people auto-matically search for in magazines but so seldom look for on the road.

All of the controls FEEL right—everything from the steering inputs to the door locks. Every control is where it belongs, is shaped the way it should be shaped. No matter how hard I pushed the car, or what I pushed on the car, there was never any doubt about what it was doing. The automatic can be shifted manually—it’s actually fun. The five/four downshift is a sensual delight. The seat controls, seat belt arrangement, adjustable center armrest, ignition key for Godsakes, are all marvelous, wonderful, perfect, perfect, perfect. Too good for Rodeo Drive.

1989 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL R129 (courtesy Mercedes-Benz Media)
Mercedes-Benz 300 SL (R 129, 1989 bis 2001), erste Generation (1989 bis 1995). Mercedes-Benz 300 SL (R 129, 1989 to 2001), first generation (1989 to 1995)

OK. This didn’t start out to be a hymn of praise for the 300 SL. What I did want to talk about was how much more difficult it is to build a nice car, a pleasant car, a car that is competent, usable, balanced, considered, thoughtful, intelligent, than one that attains Ludicrous Speed or is King of the Two Hundred Foot Skidpad.

Least you get the wrong idea, I like to go faster than the next guy. In the last few years I have raced Escort and Firehawk in Volvo Turbos, a VW GTI, a Mustang, solo one time trials in all manner of cars, and finally managed to average just over 200 kph for one full hour (on my way to the Frankfurt airport in an Alfa 164) last fall. I also drive about 50 new cars each year a total approaching 60,000 miles, some of it in driving-for-fun, too much of it in heavy traffic, much more of it in the “touring” mode.

And too many of those touring miles are spent listening to the wind tear at some new “aero” shape, feeling the steering column vibrate in sympathy with the lumpy engine, wondering what happened to that engine’s power band, where the gear might be that should be between second and third. And who the hell signed off on the seat padding?

Why are some switches mildly painful (to fingers and sensibility) to operate? Why are most passive seatbelts a pain? Why do I have to hunt for the rear defroster switch—why isn’t it next to the front defroster switch, but with a different feel? And why, after all of these years, do we have wipers that don’t wipe, washers that don’t wash, brake effort/feel that isn’t linear, high-tech digital readouts that can’t be read in no-tech sunlight?

We used to have cars that overheated going up hills and suffered brake fade going down.”Handling” was a word in books, along with “ergonomics”, “safety”, “efficiency”.

We have moved beyond that to a position of acceptable mediocrity.

Every car has disc brakes (at least in front), ABS is a common-place, almost as common (and misunderstood) as four-valve cylinders, front-wheel drive, MacPherson struts. Fuel economy has been confused with low operating cost, skidpad numbers with handling, straight-line performance or stereo wattage with driving pleasure. It seems important, in most cars, to have “features” even if those features confer no benefit.

The 300SL doesn’t have any of those problems. In fact, other than that it’s going to be a nightmare for body shops in any major crash repair (I’m not talking here about crashworthiness but the inherent complexity of the car and the relatively low level of technology in body repair shops—not solely Mercedes’ problem), I could find nothing at all to carp about.

The SL is a model for other car designers, most of whom, I’m afraid, are going to be hard at work on their own toy tops and miss completely the essential mature car underneath.

1989 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL R129 (courtesy Mercedes-Benz Media)
Mercedes-Benz SL (R 129, 1989 bis 2001), erste Generation (1989-1995). Automatischer Überrollbügel als Teil des umfassenden Sicherheitskonzepts. Mercedes-Benz SL (R 129 series, 1989 to 2001), first generation (1989-1995). Automatic roll-over bar as part of a comprehensive safety concept.

Now what I’d like, Dr. Peter, is a 300SL with a permanent hard- top—should stiffen and lighten the car considerably, increase usable interior space at the same time. Maybe a manual sunroof would be OK, delete the wood on the console, and paint it some frivolous, fun color—probably grey.


Top image: 1989 Merces-Benz 300 SL R129 (courtesy Mercedes-Benz Media)

Len Frank
Len Frank

The late Len Frank was the legendary co-host of “The Car Show”—the first and longest-running automotive broadcast program on the airwaves. Len was also a highly regarded journalist, having served in editorial roles with Motor TrendSports Car GraphicPopular Mechanics, and a number of other publications. LA Car is proud to once again host “Look Down the Road – The Writings of Len Frank” within its pages. Special thanks to another long-time automotive journalist, Matt Stone, who has been serving as the curator of Len Frank’s archives since his passing in 1996. Now, you’ll be able to view them all in one location under the simple search term “Len Frank”, or just click this link: Look Down The Road. – Roy Nakano

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