Mercedes SL500 R129

Mercedes SL500 – Teutonic luxury that stands the test of time

“Nice car mate,” shouted the fluorescent vested workman outside the pub.

“Thanks, it certainly is,” I said, muttering it’s not mine as I walked past.

We laughed. He, because he probably thought I’d stolen it, for how else was a 22 year old able to get around in such luxury. Me, because he hadn’t noticed the German plates and therefore had not realised I was the passenger.

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It was 1991 and summer had befallen the UK, all two days of it and just happened to have coincided with a road trip from London to Southport and back again to attend a wedding.

The car was a brand new Mercedes SL500, silver and utterly gorgeous. Black leather interior, roof down, music blaring, marvellous.

What could have been better? Well the chance to drive the thing for one, but to no avail, my girlfriend had promised her father and he had made sure she knew that no-one else would have been insured. Being German, of course she followed the rules. Looking back, how could I blame her? Or him? Would you let a youth, an English youth at that, and one you barely knew, drive your $200,000 plus machine you had just bought across another country with your daughter in tow? No, I wouldn’t either. It’s amazing he let me in it in the first place or even let his daughter take it.

He was a large man and so fitted the car well, for SL’s were designed for rich men like him. He also fitted a soft tail Harley, something he asked me to procure for him, as it was cheaper for some reason in the UK. But his trust did not extend to his silver arrow obviously.

We drove the length of England and back, a round trip of some 700 kms. A paltry distance to most Australians but the time it took was not. The norm with any trip in the UK, then and now no doubt, was that with every wonderful motorway minute at speeds above 80, 90, 100 mph, you more often than not spent ten in a long, snarling traffic jam, caused most probably by some caravan wielding maniac or a hoon who couldn’t understand braking distances.

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Sounds atrocious doesn’t it. Not a bit of it. I climbed out after hours in that roomy, slippy passenger seat feeling as fresh as when I first entered it. At one point we encountered another SL in maybe the third jam of the day and, like Torvil and Dean, we mesmerised our fellow road users with the dance of our soft tops opening with electronic synchronisation.

The piece de resistance came along one, amazingly lonely straight when my willing driver drove her svelte foot into the carpet and we watched 150 mph come up in barely more than 20 seconds. I was entranced.

Twenty two years later, what can we expect. Those wonderfully straight lines and huge proportions still look as good. However, the rich men, like my ex-girlfriend’s father, have moved on to newer models and well before any problems arose. So we should be treading carefully as there is probably a gap of some ten to fifteen years since the smart money left. Cars like these are never cheap to maintain and so a fully loaded log book is a must, otherwise buyers are staring down the barrel, a gold plated barrel. Or are they?

Mercedes over engineered these cars to some incredible degree. This was pre-Chrysler days remember, and before that period of poor workmanship and crappy parts that almost lost the marque its bullet-proof reputation.

The grill slats, for instance, were made from spare titanium jet fighter engine blades. Incredibly aerodynamic and lighter than plastic, yet stronger than steel. The soft top had rain gutters to channel water to the rear rather than letting it drip down the sides. The hard top was made of aluminium and so weighed a mere 33 kilos. It had two, yes two, reverse gears. The first could propel you to over 75 km/h, which is fast enough but the second took you to 135. Simply select the “W” for winter mode and off you go, backwards.

The car was at the cutting edge of electronic wizardry. ABS, traction control, automatic roll over bar and automatically adjusting seat belts. It had fully independent suspension, front and rear, and though this sounds the norm today, you would have been hard pressed to find any of these things 22 years ago. It even has airbags, which were simply unheard of back then.

Under the bonnet you get a fuel injected, double overhead cam, 32 valve, 5 litre V8 that produced 320 bhp or 240 kW, and 450 Nm of torque. When new, it could drive all day at the limiter, 155 mph (250 km/h). It hit 100 km/h in around 6 seconds and 160 in under 15. Not bad for a car that weighs a fat man short of 2 tonnes.


But you do need to check a few things before you run to the bank, sell your soul or rob your children’s college fund. It’s not cheap at the pump. Expect 15 litres per 100 kms if you are lucky.

Only use a specialist for maintenance. They will be more expensive than your local guy, but the trade off will be worth it.

Make sure the oil pressure gauge reads ‘3’ most of the time. It can drop to 2 or little less when it’s hot and idling, but otherwise it needs to be ‘3’. If it is low when on the move, give it back and continue searching.

The spark controller for the ECU system can be expensive to replace, so ensure you service the ignition and replace the 4 coils and distributors reasonably regularly. It will work out cheaper.

Oil starvation can cause problems to the camshafts, and seeing as we are talking about a car that has done up to 100,000 kms or more, expect to change hoses and pipes as they will crack once disturbed. If this hasn’t been done before, walk away, you’ve met a lazy owner.

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The transmission fluid needs to be changed every 60-70,000 kms. Don’t listen to Merc dealers, as they were told this wasn’t necessary, but according to long standing owners, this has proven to be a top tip to keep it in fine fettle. The oil should not look burnt or brown, if it does you are back to the lazy owner again. I’ve read that transmission systems can go at 160kms, but you may not have to replace it, it may just be a problem with the speed detector gear. It is a little plastic part that is not too expensive. If there is any hint of a slip between gears whilst driving take it as a warning though. Also go for a drive with the roof down and listen for any noises coming from the rear.

Any warning lights on the facia, as you would expect, suggests problems. Check the roof works, and make sure the fabric is in good condition. It should take less than 20 seconds to extend or retract and should fit snuggly in its compartment. Check there is a hard top, and if there isn’t, don’t bother. They all came with one, whatever anyone says, and they will be more than $12-14,000 to replace. By the way, the hard top will only unlatch with the ignition on.

The roll bar must work, you will find it handy in a serious crash, and if it is stuck in the raised position the roof won’t work.

The steering can feel a little wooly and this can be worn steering dampers, but these are not too expensive to replace. Make sure there is no warping on the discs and replace the rotors when you service the brakes, never turn them.

Rust is a lesser problem in Australia, but check the boot panels near the battery box, the leading edges of the front wings and the jacking points. The last one is often over looked as they are covered with a plastic protector and owners may not be aware there is a problem.

imagesOther than this lot, these cars were built to last, and if you find a fastidious owner, chances are you have a well-maintained car to look at.

And finally, the price.

As mentioned these were in excess of $200,000 when new. But today, you can get a great car for around $25k with less than 100,000 kms on the odometer, and between $15-20,000 for higher mileage. Budget around $2-3k per year in maintenance and you have a car that will make you look like a rich man, a fat German rich man if you are so inclined.

Where can I find one:

Shannons are auctioning an 1992 Mercedes SL500 with 213,000 and a reserve of $15-20,000


Monday 21 Oct 2013 at 7pm

For $5k more you can find an example with half the kms

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Porsche 944 Lux


I’ve never driven a Porsche before. I always thought it would be air-cooled with an engine hanging out the back. Instead, it was water-cooled and Porsche’s second attempt to appease the US market and plonk its engine up the front. At least this car had one designed by Porsche, a 2.5 litre four cylinder jobby that produced 163 bhp (120kW) when new, and not the suped-up Audi contraption that came in the 924.

But let’s go back a few months and explain how this all came about. I’d just sold my Saab 900 Turbo and Kelvin (we’ll call him Kelvin for the purposes of this article, plus it is his name) was a little miffed that he’d buggered around for so long he missed his chance to purchase it. Kelvin has a penchant for beards and older, dare I say it, retro looking cars so when he asked me what I thought about the 944, I gave him my honest opinion. I liked them, always had done, in fact if it was not for my need of a back seat I would have purchased one over the Saab back in the late 90’s.

He then asked what I thought of one particular specimen, a standard Porsche 944 Lux, 8v, iron callipers with alarmingly low mileage. I say alarming as after 30 odd years its kilometre count meant it would surely have been clocked. If not, what a waste, the car had missed its prime and that for me is just sacrilege.

But sacrilege it was, luckily for Kelvin, and he duly handed over a mere $12,500. It should have been $14k but as any good buyer does he noticed that the clutch was riding high so negotiated the price of a new one and brought the sale price down.

As you can see, that is a fairly lean sum for a car in such condition. Not a flake of rust anywhere, thanks largely to the galvanised body, almost perfect wheels and only slightly threadbare front seats, which is totally understandable after three decades. The back seats have probably never been sat in, unless the previous owners had a cat.

IMG_4152But what is it like to drive? First up, the wheel is incredibly low it brushes my thighs, and I fumble around trying to find some way to adjust it. Surely they thought of that, didn’t they? No point asking Kelvin though, he knows next to nothing. The rim is thin and hard, very late 70’s but I quite like it. The seats are comfortable enough and everything is within reach, as you’d expect from Stuttgart. The pedals are nicely spaced and the gear lever is at the perfect rake and distance and my hand settles around it almost telepathically. Then I turn the key. Nothing. I look at Kelvin, he looks at me, much like a cow looking through a hedge.

Then I remember that ‘no starts’ have been a bit of a problem for the 944, something to do with the speed sensors. A bit of lead wiggling at the rear of the engine and I hope this helps. It doesn’t. If this is the issue, then it’s best to get a mechanic to locate the fault or go through each sensor yourself until you find the culprit.

However, it turns out Kelvin had just installed a new immobiliser and, like a pair of divs, we just hadn’t pressed the button. Problem solved, I fire up the engine. It ignites without a shudder and settles into a comfortable burble, very un-air-cool like, but with a timbre deep enough to let you know that this thing, in its prime, was no slouch. The clutch is certainly high but I feel no hint of slip as I pull away up a reasonably steep hill. I decide to head away from town and up on to the North Head. At least by going up the hill, I can get the revs up if not the speedometer.

IMG_4150It turned out to be a mistake of course because every 100-200m is a sleeping policeman and I can sense Kelvin wincing over every one. I manage to whip the thing around a tight roundabout to test the car’s legendary grip levels, but that’s about as close as I can get to hooning. It’s a shame because for a 32 year old vehicle it feels tight, if a little under powered, but this is the base level model remember, with no turbo and only 8 valves per cylinder.

So what should you be doing if you had bought it?

Change the coolant and the oil regularly and check for any grey sludge. If it’s present you could be staring at an engine change because water is getting in there somehow. If you are lucky, it may just be a leaking oil cooler gasket, which is a much cheaper fix as long as you replace the two filters and add 10 litres of new oil.

Because this is the 8 valve engine, it was not fitted with the same chain tensioner unit found between the twin cams of the 16v version. This apparently failed often and would destroy the top end of the 16v engine if not maintained regularly. However, every 100,000 kms the camshaft belts must be changed to avoid a similar fate. Do all this and service it regularly and it’s likely the engine will last many more years to come.

The Lux also scores on its heavier, uglier cast brake callipers. The 16 valvers got alloy ones which looked better and sported the Porsche letters, but they tended to corrode and react with the steel on the back of the brake pads. As you can imagine, having to change the full braking system, discs and all, on any Porsche will not be cheap.IMG_4145

We decided to organise a longer drive in the near future and if Kelvin is brave enough, perhaps a few laps of a track. We discussed ways of protecting the paintwork from dreaded bird shit, and a car cover seemed the easiest option. I hope he enjoys his new, yet old, car and I look forward to listening to his travelling tales. If the reaction we had when we stopped briefly to take some shots is anything to go by, he will certainly attract a crowd.

Suggested service centres on the Northern beaches:

Buchanan Automotive, Balgowlah

Buchanan Automotive is a father and son independent Porsche workshop located in Balgowlah on Sydney’s northern beaches. Together they represent over 40 years of Porsche knowledge and experience.

PR Technology, Brookvale

PRTechnology is a Porsche specialist workshop based in Brookvale. Established in 1993 by current partners Paul Jacobsohn & Richard den Brinker, it has grown to be recognised as one of the largest and most respected Porsche workshops in Australia.