The Mercedes-Benz 500SL R129 was in production from 1989 until 2001. A replacement for the R107 SL family, the R129 was styled in house by Bruno Sacco, it is a front engined, rear wheel drive sports car seating two adults and often two children.
The R129 SL family was developed as a replacement for the R107 SL, itself 18 years old by the time of its successor’s launch. The R129 was based on a shortened version of the W124 saloon’s platform, and featured multi-link rear suspension, seat integrated seat belts, and optional adaptive damping. It formed part of a wider range of SLs, including the 300SL and the 300SL-24. A minor facelift in 1993 saw the badging revised to SL500, while a further facelift in 1999 saw the replacement of the old 32v M119 V8 with the 24v M113.
213089 R129 SLs were built, of which 103531 were 500s. While not a cheap car new, it remained popular throughout its lifespan, and as a modern classic enjoys even greater attention today.
To drive, it feels unsurprisingly like a quick Mercedes with no roof. That is to say, you feel cosseted from the world around you, insulated, and while it might look sporting there’s no denying that the SL is more comfortable being a comfortable long distance GT. Yes, it’s got plenty of power and a musical V8 when you put your foot down, but it also has an electric hood, electric windows, leather trim and power steering. What words can’t quite capture, though, is the sense of having arrived when you so much as sit in an SL. More than anything this side of a Rolls Royce, it makes you feel as if you are at the very top of life’s rollercoaster, and that getting out of it will bring the inevitable drop. SLs have always said a lot about you. This car reinforces that belief.
Pre 1999 V8s can sound tappetty, it’s likely to be the cam oilers and these are still available. Poor hot starts on the later V8 can be traced to the crank sensors. Also check for worn dampers and suspension top mounts, as well as the ubiquitous worn bushes. Remember that this is a big and heavy car, and these items only have a finite shelf life. All can be replaced, but at a price – so be careful. The steering box needs checking for slop, as does the idler, and both front and rear springs can corrode and snap with age.
The good news is that with plenty out there, it’s easy enough to walk away from a suspect car and find another. We’d not advise any purchase without full specialist history, and we’d advise dark metallics with pale interiors as the best for future resale. A hardtop can be a poisoned chalice – it makes the car a genuine all year prospect, but there’s the difficulty of putting it on and removing it, and you have to find somewhere to store it when it’s off the car.
The closest rival to the 500SL would be the Jaguar XJS convertible, though as a 4.0 straight six and a 6.0 V12 there is no direct alternative. BMW’s 840Ci might appeal if you were willing to trade an open roof for pillarless windows, or possibly even a used Bentley Azure if you could bring yourself to forego the latest plate when these cars were new. Nowadays, examples of its R107 predecessor or R230 successor would make excellent alternatives. If you need more space, the W124 convertible offers a very similar feel – albeit with just 3.2 litres to play with.