Dancer Debbie McGee on a magical life with an 1988 Mercedes-Benz 300SL R107

Dancer Debbie McGee on a magical life with an 1988 Mercedes-Benz 300SL R107

Magical dancing queen Debbie McGee explains her love for theR107 Mercedes-Benz 300SL she’s used for the last 23 years.


Photography TONY BAKER

Debbie McGee on 23 years living with her much-loved Mercedes-Benz 300SL R107

‘I will drive my Mercedes SL for as long as I live’

Magical dancer Debbie McGee and her long-term Mercedes SL love affair

It’s always been my dream car,’ says Debbie McGee of her beloved Mercedes-Benz 300SL R107, bought for her by her late magician husband, Paul Daniels. ‘In 1988 when I was 30 I said to Paul, “Right you’ve got ten years to save up and buy me one.” Really it was a bit of a joke. Anyway, for two days before my 40th birthday he had been saying ‘You can’t go in the garage’. I was convinced he’d bought me a water pedalo, because I’d always wanted one, especially living by the Thames in Wargrave. The morning of my 40th was also Halloween and pouring with rain. Paul got an umbrella and took me out to the garage, I was still in my dressing gown. Now, being in showbiz, Paul had spotlit the car and put a bow around it that almost reached the roof – enormous. I could hardly believe it, ten years since I’d asked for an SL. I jumped up in the air and then ran inside and got dressed, not even stopping for a cup of tea. Remember this was early morning on one of those big birthdays.’

Dancer Debbie McGee on a magical life with an 1988 Mercedes-Benz 300SL R107

Dancer Debbie McGee on a magical life with an 1988 Mercedes-Benz 300SL R107

‘When I visit the Savoy, the doorman kindly leaves the SL in front’

Even now, 23 years later, Debbie still feels the excitement. ‘You have to remember this was a car I’d dreamt about but never thought I’d ever own. So off we both went and I just wanted to keep driving and didn’t want to go back. I can remember for days and days and days I used to look out of the window and keep looking at it. Isn’t this what you do when you get a new car that you really like? And the lines on the side are so beautiful.’

Dancer Debbie McGee on a magical life with an 1988 Mercedes-Benz 300SL R107

Until now Debbie has never considered how her reaction struck Paul. ‘I think he was surprised at how much I loved that car. He knew I was an enthusiastic person, especially about presents that I know a lot of thought has gone into. And this was a huge present.’ Even though the R107 was nine years out of production by that point this didn’t matter; her love of the R107 hadn’t waned. ‘Paul had bought it from Geraldine Scott in Ashby de la Zouch, the first owner. It had 4500 miles on the clock because she’d only been to the hairdressers and supermarket once a week – it was like a new car. That’s all I know about its history. We’ve tried tracing her but her house has been demolished. Actually Paul had been looking for a while. He put the word out he was looking for an SL and the late husband of a friend in the Midlands put him onto the car.’

Debbie wouldn’t describe herself as a petrolhead, though she’d owned various Japanese sports cars before the Mercedes. ‘I’ve always swapped my registration, 8 DEB, from each one. Paul loved cars so we’ve had all sorts, Ferraris, Bentleys and the like, although one of his favourites was a Mercedes Estate. So I can compare the SL with some other top cars.’

Debbie reflects on why her 31-year-old SL is still her dream car. ‘I feel like it’s a lady’s car, maybe some men will disagree. But it’s an elegant sports car, and that’s what I love about it. I generally like the look of sports cars and the Mercedes ticks every box for me. I love glamour and I could drive around Monte Carlo in it not looking out of place. It reminds me of old movies where the women drove elegant sports cars.’ Cue a reminiscence about American TV series Hart to Hart, in which Stephanie Hart drove an SL. ‘Yes that’s a great example of glamour and elegance.’ Other female celebrity R107 owners have included Madonna, Donna Summer and Cilla Black.

Debbie approves of the colour Paul chose. ‘It’s a sort of champagne gold metallic colour. Actually my kitchen units are the same colour, gloss not metallic, and they came after the car! I’d have liked the SL whatever the colour but I particularly like this one, it seems quite unusual. I don’t see others around exactly like this. Paul chose well.’ Later on Mercedes-Benz supplied the data card identifying the colour as Smoke Silver.

It’s rare to meet someone who, despite having the choice of many other cars, has an unswerving loyalty to one that’s technically obsolete. ‘I can’t tell you how much I love my car. I wouldn’t let Paul drive it. It was my car.’ Debbie’s also smitten by the interior trim. ‘The leather upholstery is gorgeous, it’s a sort of dark cream gold. It’s seen better days. I keep cleaning it with saddle soap and things like that. Last year I had it valeted and the guy did a marvellous job, I just need to keep that up.’

Debbie reveals more of her attachment to the SL. ‘I wash it by hand myself. I’m quite traditional and Saturdays are for cleaning the car. If I’m too busy then some chaps in the village will hand wash it, but that’s not often. In the winter it’s not washed very much, but in the summer all the time.’ Unlike many classic R107s, this one is still a daily driver and shows around 220,000 miles on the clock. ‘I used to drive it all the time, but now it’s got older I’m taking a bit more care of it. So, in the winter it’s in the garage and when the weather cheers up I get it out. That’s usually around the end of March. Until recently the SL has been with my mechanic because it had failed its MoT. He’s based near High Wycombe and used to work for Hughes of Beaconsfield, the Mercedes dealer. He’s looked after the car the whole time and nurtures it, telling me off if I don’t put it in the garage at night. He loves the car as much as I do. His name is Dave but I call him “Toe-rag”. He’s a large guy, a bit like Desperate Dan, he won’t mind me saying that. Anyway one day he annoyed me because he didn’t bring my car back when he said would. And when he finally did the next day I was really cross with him and said, “You’re such a toe-rag.” He was so shocked, because here am I, 5’1” calling this big guy a toe-rag, which is my swear word. Now whenever he rings me he says, “It’s Toe-rag.’”

Tentatively I mention that Mercedes also made a 500 version, wondering if Debbie had ever considered the larger sibling? ‘You know there is just something about the 300SL that’s lovely and this is the one I’ve fallen in love with, but as it was a present from Paul I wouldn’t have minded either way.’ On mentioning the 300SL is cheaper to maintain, ‘You’ve got me sussed already!’ Debbie surprised Paul with her 50th birthday wish. ‘I just wanted work done on the car because it was getting a little rusty in places. It was underneath the car, all those places you can’t see, but quite expensive to fix. These cars need upkeep. Toe-rag did the work and a jolly good job he did too.’

Dave takes up the story ‘That engine, it’s like brand new – there’s not a blemish on the camshaft, on account of the oil being changed on time. That straight-six is to my mind the better engine of all the options and it’s certainly quieter than a 280. ‘Like all these models, the bodywork has needed attention. About 11 years ago I fitted new wings, rear wheelarch panels plus some suspension mountings. The chrome bumpers had rotted through and were about £1500 to replace. Luckily the bulkhead hasn’t needed any work which can be a big expense – £3000. I source the parts and a friend does the bodywork which has included a respray apart from the hardtop. I had to put new reflectors in the headlamps because original lamps are no longer available. It recently failed the MoT because the front lower suspension arms were rotten. By mistake I bought a pair for the later model, the R129, at just over a hundred quid each. I was amazed to find that the correct ones cost £1440 each from Mercedes – scandalous. I thought of having them repaired but then there’s a chance of failure, a risk I can’t take. When I gave Debbie the news of those prices last week it wasn’t my finest hour. I have a heart and I do feel for my customers.’ However, by using the Mercedes-Benz Club network we eventually sourced one arm for £300, and Dave found another for £450. Magic!

Debbie’s family live near Chessington in Surrey, and every other weekend she and the SL are there, weather permitting. ‘My mother says that now she’s finding it harder to get into the SL. That won’t happen to me. I’m driving the Mercedes for as long as I live. I can’t tell you how much I love that car and I always have. Of course now, since Paul passed away six years ago, it has huge sentimental value. This was the car he bought me. I love cleaning it, the fifteen holes in each of the alloy wheels takes time but I love it. And that huge steering wheel, just sitting there holding it, just marvellous. I really feel in control of the car. I’m trying to keep the miles down but if I’m going into London, such as The Savoy, then I always take the Mercedes.

‘I’m in showbusiness, so I don’t mind being conspicuous. I’ve been driving there for years and the Savoy doorman kindly always leaves the SL in front so I don’t have to wait when I leave. When there’ve been weddings there, guests often gather around the car having their photos taken. If people spot me and I’m dressed glamorously it’s likely I’m attending a charity ball.’ But paparazzi photos are just as likely to show Debbie going about her everyday life as they are attending charity balls at swish venues. Debbie recalls taking her rabbit to the vet.

‘We had three rabbits which were used in our shows, as well as being our pets. Back in 2016, not long after Paul had died, one of them was ill. The paps took photos of me putting the rabbit’s cage back on the front passenger seat. They’d followed me from home then crouched behind a car waiting for me to come out of the vets. The next day there I am in the usual papers.’

A distinctive convertible and personalised plate meant Debbie was easy for the paparazzi to follow, and she wasn’t necessarily safe from them at home either. ‘That same summer I was washing the Mercedes and the paparazzi were hiding in the garden bushes. There’s a lovely photo of me holding a sponge.’

One newspaper photo showed Paul driving Debbie’s SL. ‘That’s probably because we’d been out for a drink, although I don’t drink much. If we’d taken my car to London and were returning late then if I was tired Paul would drive. Paul was a good driver and he drove faster than me, which normally didn’t bother me, but when he was driving my SL I was always on edge. I would say, “Don’t clip the kerb,” and things like that.’

Debbie’s never taken the SL abroad but it’s done its fair share of long journeys. ‘Paul came from Middlesbrough in West Yorkshire, and we took the SL up there several times in the summer to enjoy roof-down motoring. We had some lovely trips on summer days visiting friends or simply going for a drive in the country. But until recently, I’d left the hard top on. It was too heavy for me to lift off on my own. In the past Paul and one of his sons did the lifting and then we’d leave it in the garage. Finally, a few weeks ago, I asked Toe-rag and one of his pals to come and take it off. I bought them a drink.’

Debbie’s other showbiz projects included a ballet company, Ballet Imaginaire, designed to bring ballet to smaller venues and it toured the whole of the UK. Debbie’s SL was very much the company car. ‘I remember driving to Lincoln, the North East and on to Scotland in both 2001 and 2002. In September 2001 there was a strike by petrol delivery drivers and one of their protests involved blocking the M1 and I was stuck there in the SL.

Finally I got off the M1 and made it to the theatre, but our truck and scenery van were still stuck. I was so desperate I rang 10 Downing Street; the number was in the Yellow Pages. I told them about the blockade. Ten minutes later I got a call from the Home Office who said neither they nor the police knew of the problem. They sent the police and moved the lorries. The Daily Mail had a photo of my dancers warming up on the hard shoulder.’

That year, Louis Theroux shadowed Debbie and her company in one of his programmes, ‘When Louis Met…’ The SL is briefly in an opening shot in Lincoln. ‘I gave Louis a lift in the SL several times. I think he could tell I loved the car.

‘Parties, charity events, our wedding anniversaries, the SL has been a huge part of my life. Even today it’s a real eye-catcher. Whenever I pop into Wargrave people wave, and if they see me in a different car the question is always, ‘You haven’t sold it have you?’ So the SL is part of my village life.’

Legendary Mercedes reliability has been a hallmark of the SL, except once. ‘It was winter, we’d been away working for several months. The SL always starts first time and it did on this occasion but after driving just two miles, as I was coming into Henley it conked out at the T-junction of Wargrave Road and White Hill. Not the worst place to get stuck because I could walk home but it was freezing. I called the AA. Meanwhile people were asking ‘Are you all right, and lovely car.’ Paul arrived and kindly waited for the AA, allowing me to go home in his car.’ Maybe the kind passers-by recognised Debbie? ‘Not to begin with, and that’s the thing, it’s always the car first, me second.’

Debbie reflects on the merits of owning a classic car. ‘One of the things I’ve noticed about an old car is that if instead you are driving a new Ferrari people think you’re being flash, whereas with the old car they appreciate the quality of the car.’ I pick Debbie up on the use of the word ‘old’ suggesting ‘classic’ to which she retorts. ‘Yes, like me, I’m a classic.’

Has she ever considered changing it? ‘About twelve years ago Paul asked if I wanted to change it for a more modern Mercedes sports car. My neighbour has one and you press a button and the roof goes down. Actually my sister has a Mercedes convertible, but it’s not a patch on mine. So no, I wouldn’t ever change it.’

The sentimental value of Debbie’s SL means it will never be replaced by another. Debbie collects her rabbits in the SL

Debbie in her happy place, at the R107’s controls Debbie’s taken her SL all over the UK for work trips as well as pleasure Only once in 215,000 miles and 23 years has the SL left her stranded.The car’s mileage is high, but its interior remains immaculate.Debbie McGee’s SL was a birthday present in 1998.

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