1980s / 1990s / 2000s / German / Mercedes-Benz

25 years ago: Mercedes launches the R129 SL

Mercedes-Benz is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the R129 SL roadster.  Presented to the public at the 1989 edition of the Geneva Motor Show, the R129 was designed to replace the R107 model that debuted across Europe in 1971.

Mercedes began developing the R129 in 1984.  Starting with a shortened W124 platform, the design team gave the R129 a highly-aerodynamic wedge-shaped body and an angular design inspired by other members of the automaker’s lineup including the aforementioned W124 and the W201 190.  Like its predecessor, the R129 had a long hood and a short decklid, giving it the proportions associated with Mercedes roadsters for decades.

Drawing a lesson from the lackluster career of the R107 SLC, Mercedes opted not to build a coupe version of the R129 but instead offer the roadster with a removable hard top that could easily be installed with the traditional soft top folded down.  The hard top came standard in most markets around the world.

Mercedes put a strong emphasis on safety when developing the R129.  All models were fitted with a sensor-controlled automatic roll bar that deployed in 0.3 seconds if it detected a rollover was imminent.  The seat frames were crafted out of several types of magnesium alloys to help protect the occupants in the event of a crash, and the seat belt mechanism was entirely integrated into the seat.

The R129 generated a unanimously positive reaction from both the public and the press, and it came second after the equally-advanced Citroën XM in the 1990 European Car of the Year competition.  Initial public demand was so high that early buyers had to wait several years before their car was delivered.

When sales kicked off, the R129 lineup in Europe consisted of the 300SL, the 300SL-24 and the 500SL.  In the United States, the 300SL used the 24-valve straight-six from the 300SL-24 but most models were ordered with the 5.0-liter V8 mill.

SLs have never been cheap and the R129 was no different.  In 1990, a 300SL cost $72,500 while a 500SL retailed for $83,500.  To put those numbers into perspective, that same year a 190E cost $31,600, a 560SEL stickered for $73,800 and a Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet – the most expensive member of the lineup that year – listed at $85,060.

A 394-horsepower 6.0-liter V12 engine was added to the lineup in early 1993, and Mercedes’ decades-old naming system was revamped in June of that year.  The 300SL became the SL 300, the 500SL was known as the SL 500 and the months-old V12-powered 600SL flagship was rechristened the 600SL.

Mercedes continued to update the R129 with new tech, minor visual modifications and faster, more efficient engines over the course of the 1990s.  In 1995, the SL earned the honor of being the first regular-production Mercedes to be equipped with Electronic Stability Program (ESP), a function that helped keep the roadster in a straight line and on four wheels in even the most challenging driving conditions.

AMG offered several tuning packages for the R129.  Dubbed SL 73 AMG, the most extreme model was powered by a heavily-modified 7.3-liter version of the SL 600’s V12 that was tuned to produce 525 horsepower.  Less than a 100 examples of the SL 73 AMG were built, but the engine lived on under the hood of the Pagani Zonda supercar.

R129 production ended in July of 2001 after 204,940 cars were built.  79,827 models were powered by the M119 V8 engine, making the 500SL / SL 500 the most common version. The rarest non-AMG, regular-production model is the V6-powered, entry-level SL 280 – a mere 1,704 examples were ordered from 1997 until the end of production.

9 thoughts on “25 years ago: Mercedes launches the R129 SL

  1. Thanks for the great article & pictures! I grew up always wanting one of these, and have loved driving one over the past 3 years. In my opinion they’re the best of Mercedes-Benz of yesteryear.

  2. Pingback: 25 years ago: BMW introduces the 8-Series | Ran When Parked

  3. I finally bought an SL500 2 years ago – think it is, next to the 60s pagodas and original 300SL, one of the best looking designs (a tie with the Pagoda). Bruno Sacco admitted it was his favorite.

    They are cheap right now – you have to be careful to find one not abused – but tremendous bargains. And I love that M119 engine – many consider it to be the best V8 ever made by Daimler. It was the last production-based block to win at LeMans 25 years ago (Sauber-Mercedes).

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