Cars We Love: 1972-1980 Mercedes-Benz 350 SL/450 SL

Lead_Frank Schwichtenberg

The Mercedes-Benz 450 SL was a thoroughbred. As defined by Messrs. Merriam and Webster, a thoroughbred is “bred from the best blood through a long line,” a perfect description of the blue blood lineage of the 450 SL, a legacy that includes the thundering performance of the 300 SLR, the functional beauty of the 300 SL Gullwing Coupe, and the style and grace of the 230-250-280 SL series. With a distinctive flair, stimulating performance, and superior comfort, the 450 SL added significantly to the Mercedes-Benz SL heritage – a thoroughbred that was, as the Mercedes ads used to say, “Engineered Like No Other Car in the World”.

350 SL heralds new company-wide design

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The 350 SL/450 SL was all-new from the ground up, with a new engine, a new chassis, and new styling that began the “modern” look for all Mercedes-Benz automobiles that lasted well into the 1980s. Initially called the 350 SL for 1972 although it had the 4.5 liter V8, the name was changed to the 450 SL for 1973 and later years, to accurately reflect the engine displacement. Breaking from the gate at a rapid pace, the new thoroughbred SL notched its highest production numbers in 1973 – 8,654 vehicles – getting a big jump toward a total production run of 64,167 cars.

Those are pretty impressive numbers for a car that was not a mainstream family vehicle. The 350/450 SL was a two-seat open sports car carrying on the Mercedes Sports Light (SL) tradition. There was a great deal of discussion within Mercedes-Benz whether the new SL should be a traditional folding-top open car, or have a Targa-style removable roof panel. Many car companies stopped making convertibles in the ‘70s, thinking that impending safety regulations would be impossible to meet with a traditional folding-top car. Mercedes challenged their engineers, who resolved the safety issue by designing the ‘A’ pillars (those on either side of the windshield) with 50% more strength and bonding the windshield glass to the windshield frame. The 450 SL passed all applicable safety requirements without a Targa-type top structure.

New SL aimed at the upscale sports car market

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The 350/450 SL was aimed at the worldwide upscale sports or personal car market, populated by such cars as the Citroën SM, BMW 3.0CS and the V12 Jaguar XKE. Mercedes-Benz had the advantage for customers seeking a sporty, two-seat, open car, as the only competition with an open car was the XKE V12 convertible. Other open, two-seat sports cars were lesser cars, such as the MGB, Triumph, Fiat 124, and various Alfa Romeo models, that couldn’t match the features, performance, or panache of the SL.  At a price of about $14,000 in the U.S., the 450 SL was not inexpensive, but it gave buyers a unique vehicle that had little direct competition around the world.

Thanks to the required structural safety features, the weight of the 450 SL ballooned to over 3,500 pounds in production trim, acquiring the nickname of “der Panzerwagen” (“Armored car”) among Mercedes-Benz engineers. Despite the weight, the 190 net horsepower, 4.5 liter, fuel injected, single overhead cam V8 engine coupled to a three-speed automatic transmission gave the 450 SL performance comparable to the competition. The fully independent front and rear suspensions, along with four-wheel disc brakes, provided exemplary handling and stopping power.  In typical Mercedes-Benz fashion, the 450 SL was one of the most comfortable two-seat convertibles ever made, with superb seats, perfect driving position, and outstanding ergonomics.

The 450 SL becomes a movie and TV star

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The 450 SL found fans among corporate executives, show business celebrities, professional athletes, and rock stars. It also achieved silver-screen stardom of its own, being featured in Woody Allen’s 1977 movie “Annie Hall” and piloted by Richard Gere in “American Gigolo.” The 450 SL also became popular on the TV screen, driven by Stephanie Powers and Robert Wagner on “Hart to Hart;” appearing as the vehicle for Wonder Woman’s alter ego, Diana Prince; and the choice of transportation for Bobby Ewing on “Dallas.”

Like the very best movie and TV stars, the 450 SL enjoyed a long run, remaining in production until 1989, giving it the longest production span in SL history.  Although the engine displacement varied over the years – it remained the 450 SL until 1980, became the 380 SL between 1981 and 1985, and finally, the 560 SL from 1986 to 1989 – the body design remained virtually unchanged, undergoing only minor updates throughout its long life.

450SL heritage: Mercedes-Benz 300 SLs dominate 1955 Mille Miglia

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In the 1920s, the Italian Grand Prix was moved from Brescia to Monza. To soothe their hurt feelings, the good citizens of Brescia were determined to create a new race, bigger and better than any Grand Prix. The result was the toughest endurance race in the world – the Mille Miglia. The race covered a thousand miles over public roads, flying through twisty mountain passes and narrow village streets on a route from Brescia to Rome and back to Brescia. The roads would, of course, be closed to normal traffic during the race and the cars would be started at timed intervals. The car with the quickest round-trip elapsed time would be the winner.

The Mille Miglia was contested 24 times between 1927 and 1957, but the Mille Miglia of 1955 was the most memorable of all.  Mercedes entered four 300 SLRs, specially prepared racing versions of the 300 SL, and two sock 300 SLs. In 300 SLR number 722 was a pair of Brits – driver Stirling Moss and navigator Dennis Jenkinson – who put forth a stunningly superhuman effort that is still discussed today in hushed, reverential voices. Moss and Jenkinson were flagged off at 7:22 a.m. and returned to Brescia to cross the finish line at 5:29 p.m., completing the 992 mile trip in 10 hours and 7 minutes. The pair averaged over 98 mph, to take the win – an astounding accomplishment! It was a great day for the Mercedes-Benz SLs, with another 300 SLR finishing second, and stock 300 SLs finishing fifth and seventh overall, taking first and second in the GT class. Motor Trend magazine rightly calls Moss and Jenkinson’s feat, “The most epic drive. Ever.”

Mercedes-Benz 450 SL values

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The fine folks at Hagerty rate the average value of a 1973 450 SL at $24,000, ranging between an SL in top, number one concours condition at $46,000 and one in number four fair condition at $9,500. The value has remained relatively constant since June 2015, but began to taper off in January 2017. Says Hagerty of the 450SL, “When paired with their renowned reputation, they are easy to locate today and make for very comfortable top-down cruisers.”

The 450 SL and its later siblings aged well. According to Classic Cars Today, annual sales of the SLs during their second decade were almost twice as high as sales during their first decade. As a free fringe benefit, owning a 450 SL allows you to imagine yourself as a movie or TV celebrity while running your everyday errands around town.

What’s it like to drive a 300 SLR in the Mille Miglia?

Sir Stirling Moss himself will tell us in this video, which features actual film footage of the event interspersed with Sir Stirling today, driving the 300 SLR 722 that he drove sixty-two years ago. A big “Thank you” to Ted Gushue and Petrolicious for giving us permission to use their great video. For other exceptional videos, please visit the Petrolicious website.

SOURCES:

Hagerty – https://www.hagerty.com/apps/valuationtools/1973-mercedes~benz-450sl

Motor Authority –   http://www.motorauthority.com/news/1062747_1973-1980-mercedes-450sl-not-quite-classics

Collector Car Market Review – http://www.collectorcarmarket.com/collector-car-profiles/Mercedes-Benz-SL_1971-89/1971-89_Mercedes-Benz_SL.html

Edmunds – https://www.edmunds.com/mercedes-benz/sl-class/history/

eMercedes-Benz – http://www.emercedesbenz.com/autos/mercedes-benz/sl-class/mercedes-benz-history-the-mercedes-benz-sl-class-107-series-1971-to-1989/

Unique Cars and Parts – https://www.uniquecarsandparts.com.au/mercedes_450SL_technical_specifications

Hemmings – https://www.hemmings.com/magazine/hsx/2013/07/Top-25-Roadsters/3727531.html

https://www.hemmings.com/blog/2015/05/22/a-world-champion-with-unrealized-potential-the-1955-mercedes-benz-300-slr/

Motor Trend – http://www.motortrend.com/news/1955-mille-miglia-the-most-epic-drive-ever/

Classic Cars Today – http://www.classiccarstodayonline.com/2012/08/22/the-classic-1972-1989-mercedes-sl-spanned-18-model-years-without-one-body-panel-change/

Petrolicious – https://petrolicious.com/

Kelley Blue Book – https://www.uniquecarsandparts.com.au/mercedes_450SL_technical_specifications

Photos by: Frank Schwichtenberg, Zefke, Heierlon, Niels de Wit

Video by: Petrolicious

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