Mercedes-Benz SL R129
Champagne motoring — not for laying down. Ben Selby checks out the next Mercedes-Benz SL to climb the value ladder and learns how to avoid the snakes. By Ben Selby.
It could be argued that the Mercedes-Benz SL has carved out its own niche in the sports car world, offering more sporting performance than most roadsters derived from saloons and certainly more refinement and luxury than most other sports cars.
That’s why many of them remain among the most coveted of all classic European sports cars. However icons like the gorgeous near-hand-built W113 Pagoda SL and its successor, the long-lived R107 SL, are fast moving out of easy reach. This is where the successor to the R107, the R129, comes into play especially for those who like to drive their cars.
The R129 SL was miles ahead of the R107 in terms of technology and design. Some see that as a double-edged sword but owner Roy Hobson applauds the advances. “It was a totally different car to the 107. Designer Bruno Sacco was determined to make it more aerodynamic. The front and rear bumpers were more aerodynamic, it sported an angled windscreen, and he got the drag coefficient down to 0.31. This was 30 years ago,” says Roy.
Fellow owner Lionel Allam sets out a good argument for seriously appraising the R129’s unique appeal: “All of the SL-series are iconic however the R129 probably more so as it was a major leap ahead from the R107. The M119 V8 in the SL500 boasted quad cams and the R129 featured safety features such as a pop-up roll bar and all new hydraulic convertible top. For me it is really the last of the line of true Mercedes-Benz models both in build quality and looks.” “The R129 was full of innovations. An electric soft-top, rollover bar, electronic two-way adjustable steering column, 10-way position electric seats — the list goes on,” says Roy.
Launched in 1989 the R129 SL stayed in production until 2001. During that time it became the accessory to have for any movie star or high-powered company executive. Driving an SL320, V8 SL500, or even the V12 SL600 was the seal of success.
Buying the best
Today values for R129s have bottomed out. According to Lionel, you can buy a half-decent R129 SL for a fraction of what they cost new.
“AnSL500 R129in average condition should sell for between $10K and $12K. The SL320 in the same condition would be a little less, but the V12 SL600 is upwards of $20K. A mint SL500 with low kilometres is between $12K and $16K, whereas cars in poor condition are around $5K or $6K,” he says.
While that brings them into the range of more buyers, the electronic sophistication that catapulted the SLs into the modern era no doubt causes those same buyers to wonder how much more they would be up for if something went wrong.
SL owner Tony Rothschild says that makes condition and history all important, and that puts a premium on New Zealand–new prices.
“A lot depends on mileage and condition, with at least a 30 per cent premium expected if the car is New Zealand new or a V8 or V12. Very rough ones with high mileage are usually from $15K whereas a mint car, especially of the 1996 facelift onwards with less than 100,000km, are from $30K,” he says.
The R129 is a lot of car for the money but that doesn’t mean you need to put a lot of money into one. Roy has owned his car for 17 years and reckons a well-sorted R129 SL used as a weekend toy should be no more expensive to run than a regular car.
“These are 30 years old now, so not many would use it as a daily driver. During the time I have had mine, I have replaced the spark plugs once, and given it regular oil changes and servicing. The M119 V8 is very solid and reliable as it was used in the Sauber Mercedes C9 Group C cars which raced at Le Mans,” he says.
They were made with a wide range of engines so it’s worth checking out overviews of the pluses and minuses of each.
“Maintaining an R129 depends on use but should focus on maintaining excellent battery condition, ensuring door seals are good, and periodically exercising the soft-top hydraulics,” says Tony. “There is no substantial expense to maintaining these items. The only costs otherwise relate to insurance and periodic oil changes.”
A bill of less than $100
“If it has been well maintained — there is nothing really that goes wrong with them — I would say maintenance costs of $1K a year. Brake pads will probably last you about 20,000km and brake discs about 30,000,” says Roy.
While solid and reliable classics, as the R129 seems to be, there are specific niggles the would-be owner must look out for.
“Leaking hydraulic fluid being number one,” says Lionel. “Personally I would not buy a low-mileage car as they need to be driven. Cars that don’t get used a lot end up with the hydraulic seals drying out, causing a very expensive repair job. Check the roll-bar functions and also that the windows go up and down as they are controlled by the roof computer.”
Roy and Tony agree about the hydraulics in the electric folding roof, but Roy offered an unexpected upside. “Check the electro-hydraulic roof. The rams can leak but you can buy this stuff from America from about $70,” he says.
“Check the operation of the soft-top hydraulics. Also look for rust around wheel arches where mud may have collected. Check the function of ABS and the roll-bar deployment. Ensure oil changes have been performed and corrosion inhibitors used in coolant,” explains Tony.
The Mercedes R129 SL is starting to appreciate so now is the time to buy one but our experts agree that should still be for the fun of driving them. “R129s will only go up in value, but don’t buy one to just store away. They need to be driven periodically,” says Lionel.
So, there you have it, enjoy the drive, keep it serviced and good health, and this soon-to-be classic gentleman’s express should make you a few bob in years to come.
Check the electro-hydraulic roof. The rams can leak but you can buy this stuff from America from about $70