Buying a birthday gift for your wife is not always easy. There’s so much to choose from like jewelry, designer clothes or an expensive timepiece. Of course that decision becomes a lot easier when your wife tells you exactly she wants. One man, who happens to be a very good friend father, was lucky enough to know exactly what his wife wanted: not the usual diamond ring or Tiffany chocker, but something just as timeless – what she wanted was a brand new Anthracite Grey Mercedes Benz 380SL, which her husband promptly bought for her in San Francisco on June 29, 1983. I’ve always admired the classic beauty of that car and today i was finally able to drive it after all this years. As i was doing so around the Forbes Park / Dasmariñas / Fort Bonifacio area, I quickly understood why he bought the car: for that early ’80s day, this might have been the perfect gift for anyone.
The moniker SL stands for ‘Sport Leicht’, which translates into ‘Sports Lightweight’. It started in 1952 when the 300SL made an immediate impact at the Mille Miglia thousand-mile road race. It’s success continued at the Bern Grand Prix, Le Mans 24 hours, Nurburgring, and ended with the dangerous five-day Carrerra Panamericana race through Mexico. This was nearly the end of the SL series as Mercedes was going to focus on a different car for Grand Prix events. It was saved by Max Hoffman, the company’s US importer at the ime. He convinced Mercedes Benz that there was a market for a production version of the 300SL and in 1954 the W194 series 300SL coupe ‘Gullwing’ was born, one of the greatest Mercedes Benzes of all time. I was fallowed in 1955 by the 190SL, the original roadster, and in 1958 by the 300SL roadster. These two cars were sold until 1963, when the W113 series ‘Pagoda Roof’ SL class was introduced. It was given that name because of the elegant shape and thin upright pillars of the optional hardtop, and was sold until 1971. In the ’70s Mercedes engineers were faced with new safety and emmision standards of US lawmakers, and created a design that was more rugged and durable than previous generation of SL’s – Mercedes engineers dubbed it ‘pranzerwagen’, which translate to ‘armored car’due to the fact that although it retained the W113 series Pagoda roff, it was so much heavier and didn’t have the curves of the previous generation SL.
In 1972 the W107 series 350SL roadster was introduced with a 4.5 liter engine. In 1973 the badge was changed to 450SL and the dreaded 5 mph bumpers were added the year after. In 1981 because in increasing interest in fuel economy and Mercedes switching to all aluminum engines, the W107 series 380SL roadster was born. Two years later the engine and transmission where recalibrated for better performance and fuel economy and 11,198 units were produced. The W107 series was produced until 1989 and ended as the 560SL roadster.
One of those 11,198 units has changed very little since it was purchased 22 years ago in San Francisco. The car needed a wash-over paint like any other car that lived 22 years, and the headlights have been replaced wuth the European version – which can be a sticky point with Mercedes Benz purist.
Anyhow, this two seat roadster is a delight to the senses. Even with the much maligned 5 mph bumpers, this is still one sexy automobile – the seemingly endless hood the sleek pagoda style hardrop,short boot, and low stance all scream knockout. Combine those with the menacing front end (European headlights actually make it look meaner), a back end that is classic Mercedes Benz, and perfectly placed chrome trim and everything comes together magically. It looks just as good as convertible, but this car may not see that look in the near future because according to the owner removing the hardtop is not easy task.
It’s powered by a 3.8 liter V8 engine that puts out 155 bhp@ 4750 rpm and 196 lbs-ft torque@2750 rpm – not very impresive by today standard, but it was adequate for its time. It rides on independent front and rear suspension and coil springs, while stopping power is provided by non-ABS four wheel disk brakes.
Step into the car and you’ll be surprised that this car is over two decades old. The tan leather seats look like they just came off the animal, the rest of the balck and tan interior show little to no signs of sun damage and the zebrano wood- lined center console is as shiny as ever. The interior is very simple compared to today’s electronic buffets, but has everything you need for a cruise around town: climate control, stereo cassette, power windows, power passenger side mirror, and cruise control. The seats are very comfortable offering adequate lateral support to the back; I just had to adjust the distance and everything was perfect – unlike car seats today that can be adjusted 50 different ways and you still can’t get comfortable.
The first thing you see is the huge black steering wheel in front of you. Mounted to the left on the steering column are the cruise control and windsheild wiper control, to the left of the steering column are the brake release and lights switch, and to the right are the ignition and antenna switch. The elevated instrument cluster is seperated into three pods: the center is the speedometer to the right is the tachometer and a clock, and to the left are the fuel, temperature, oil and fuel economy guages, all very big and easy to read. Right under the instrument cluster is a row that houses large, cannot-be-missed warning lights. The zebrano- lined center console is home to the stereo cassette, which nostalgically reminds me of how I used to try and figure out how to use the stereo cassette in my uncle’s European version Mercedes, without much success. I tought the US version whould be much simpler but i was wrong; All i can say is I can’t tell how good the sounds are.
The very simple looking climate control is not that simple if you don’t know what all the buttons stand for – thankfully when i got into the car it was already on. The traditional Mercedes shifter ,power window switches,hazard lights switch and the passenger side mirror control all around off the uncluttered center console. Behind the driver is a bench you could probably use for a short trip – or along one with someone back there you don’t like too much, for that pour soul will have to endure the ride with small manual-powered triangular windows at either side.
As I get ready to drive the car for the first time, I get a sudden chill of nervousness knowing that the car had remained pristine for over two decades. I didn’t want to be the one to change that, so I proceeded with caution. The first thing I noticed when I put the car in drive and release the brake was how heavy and long the throw of the brake peddle was; I wasn’t even pressing on the gas and I had to give the brakes a good heave before the car came to a complete stop. When I did press the gas for the first time my take off wasn’t very smooth, the throttle was a little sticky and took a little while to get used to. I’m driving now and I have to say the 380SL roadster is a lot faster than I had thought; it’s not lightning fast, but it has ample power. That power is delivered very smoothly and is aided by the smooth-shifting 4-speed automatic transmission; the engine is astoundingly quite. It rides exceptionally well, and can rival some newer cars.What impressed me was how well the car went over the intersection markers on McKinley Road; I hardly felt anything, I’ve gotten a jarring with every other car I’ve driven through there – of course none of those cars were luxury cars – but you’d think after 22 years they’d be able to catch up. As I was cruising I peered over the instrument cluster and all I could see was that beautiful Anthracite grey hood in front of me.
After a while I was astounded by how well the airconditioning worked – I was freezing! It was apparently on full blast, so I played around with the climate control and finally got it to where I was comfortable. The visibility through the rear view mirror is good, considering how small the rear windshield is, and the brakes are quite strong; it just takes a pretty good heave to get them to kick in,but once you’re there you stop on a dime. I finally got to an area where I could check the handling, but didn’t know how hard the car had driven through the years so I was quite gentle with it. I was able to get a good understanding of its cornering ability, which I can say is quite good; it’s no drifter, but the steering is precise and for such a big car I was surprised at how little body roll there was. As I was driving the car through the corners I heard a noise that wasn’t there before, so I got a little worried – it’s good we had already gotten all the pictures we needed and we were about to head back to the owner’s house. Thankfully during the drive back the noise disappeared and never came back; it was probably nothing, just my overactive imagination working as I didn’t want to ruin such a priced possession.
The car does have some faults that I noticed, most of which comes naturally from 22 years on the road. The gas guage vibrates every so often, the steering wheel is off center, the car pulls slightly to the right, that sticky throttle, and there’s an almost indiscernible wobble to the ride – all of which can be fixed with one trip to the car shop. As for the brake pedal, all it take is some getting used to. The trunk is rather small, but that is just a victim of the design of this beautiful car. Lastly since this is a US version the speedometer Km/H reading is pretty small, but that just me being petty.
After 22 years it’s hard to believe how well this car has aged, to think it was the ugly duckling of the SL series when it was first introduced in 1972. But, like a fine wine, it just get better with age. If you look at today’s computer – engineered cars, how many or will any of them still look good in a decade or two. In years this is a pretty old car, but it’s only been driven 39,747 miles , so the cars is actually pretty young and the fact that it’s been very well taken care of is why it still run so well. The car no longer has the same meaning as it did 22 years ago; it was a high performance luxury machine then, today it’ll have a hard time keeping up with a Honda Civic. But today you can still take advantage of the other assets the has to offer; smooth engine, subline ride, quite and comfortable interior, and most of all the admiration of its timeless beauty by onlookers when you drive down the street. In essence this is the perfect car for cruising the streets in classic style.
The one thing that make this the perfect gift for your wife is that unlike jewelry, designer clothes or an expensive timepiece; it’s something that’s a lot more useful than a fashion accessory. So the next time you’re looking for a gift for your wife, maybe you’ll be lucky enough to find something just as timeless as the Mercedes Benz 380SL roadster, which like a fine Pinor Noir only gets better with age.