Of the hundreds of cars out there, several are more than mere transportation, but not many transcend that level to become a dream car, a classic, a standout motor on the automotive landscape. The Mercedes-Benz SL has. SL stands for sport leicht (German for light), which makes sense, given that the SL started life as a race car. From the early 50s to the present day, there have only been five generations, but then the SL has always stood somewhat apart from the march of time.
1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing Imagine a car developed in competition, shaped in a wind tunnel, made with exotic materials (in this case magnesium, lighter than aluminum) and deploying direct gasoline injection in its 3.0-liter engine. Sounds pretty state of the art, doesnt it? This was going on in 1954, when the famed 300 SL Gullwing came into the world. An exclusive, expensive machine then -- costing $6,820 -- it has become one of the most desired models for collectors. The SL phenomenon started here.
1957 Mercedes-Benz 190 SL We have an American to thank for at least a part of the SL success story. Maximilian Maxie Hoffman had been the official importer of the Mercedes-Benz in the States since 1952. He heard about the 300 SL Gullwings victories in various European races and eventually talked the company into making a “civilian” version, ordering 1,000 units. He also pushed the idea of a smaller, cheaper model -- what was to become the 190 SL. Being a soft top, the 1.9-liter 190 SL was particularly attractive to the young, wealthy (in those days, $3,998 was still a hefty chunk of change) and carefree. Its popularity also led M-B to remodel the 300 SL as a roadster. (Mercedes-Benz)
1963 Mercedes-Benz 230 SL The two earlier models were succeeded by this car. An all-new -- relatively avant-garde -- design with a low waist, its distinctive lines earned it the nickname “Pagoda Roof.” With a starting price of $7,367, it was in production until 1971, as either a fixed-head version or an open top with a removable hard roof and a canvas cover. During its lifespan (48,912 “Pagoda” models were built), engine size increased, as illustrated by the 250 and 280 versions. More than 30 years on, clean examples still fetch good prices. (Mercedes-Benz)
1972 Mercedes-Benz 350 SL Over the course of production (until 1989), this model was available with a slew of straight six or higher-capacity V-8 engines. The SL became bigger, heavier and less sporty. But still looked gorgeous. It was based on a sedan platform (the R107, the chassis with the longest run of any Mercedes vehicle). Over 250,000 R107-derived SLs were made, with about 60% going to the United States, starting at $12,986. (Mercedes-Benz)
1990 Mercedes-Benz 500 SL This fourth generation was when the SL kind of lost its way. It was soft, even heavier and the looks (admittedly, this is completely subjective) didnt really produce that wow factor expected from an SL, especially when it cost $83,500. A hidden rollover bar would pop up in the event of an accident, or at the push of a button, and the car had a fully automatic roof operation. The entry-level model for American buyers had a 3.0-liter straight six, but AMG (then a tuning house specializing in M-B cars and not yet part of the company) did get the inspired idea to shove a 7.3-liter V12 into the engine bay. (Mercedes-Benz)
2003 Mercedes-Benz SL 500 Although it had a retractable hard top, thereby adding weight, this generation saw the SL back on the road to driving fun, yet still with a sumptuous, elegant interior. The body was as stiff as a coupe (none of that flexing that usually plagues open-top cars) and the cabin was as quiet as, well, a Mercedes. It also bristled with the companys top technologies of the time, such as brake-by-wire and active body control. Considering it cost only about $2,500 more than the previous iteration ($85,990), it wasnt exactly a bargain, but did represent value for money in a way.