When you think of power-operated features on cars, what springs to mind? Seats and door locks, sure, but perhaps also motorized steering columns, electronic latches, and motorized console lids. However, I reckon the R129 Mercedes-Benz SL has them all beat, for it introduced a power-operated feature rarely seen in the motor kingdom. Can you guess what it is?
The R129 Mercedes-Benz SL was nothing short of a masterpiece. It was one of the first cars Bruno Sacco penned under Mercedes’ then-new aero-look styling direction, yet due to being a low-volume product, was one of the last to be released. This means Sacco had years to refine the design and man, does it ever show. Despite being a heavy, solid grand touring cabriolet, the SL for the ‘90s was achingly pretty, a svelte minimalist interpretation of the classic roadster form. Plus, like any high-end Mercedes-Benz, it was a technological tour de force.
The R129 SL was the first car to have its upper seat belt reels integrated into the seats themselves, mounted to giant magnesium frames and power-adjustable in time with the headrests. It had a hydraulically-actuated automatic roll bar that would deploy if sensors detected a rollover to be imminent, deploying in three tenths of a second. Its electro-hydraulic fully-automated soft top was a revelation, not requiring owners to fiddle with any pesky latches but simply erecting refuge from the weather in around 20 seconds or so. However, none of those even come close to the R129’s most excessive feature.
As in many cars, the power mirror selection switch in the R129 SL has three positions — left, right, and middle. In most cars, moving the joystick around with the switch in the middle position doesn’t do anything, but most cars aren’t R129 SLs. See, this car was developed when Mercedes-Benz really did build some of the best cars in the world, and the engineers in Stuttgart must’ve thought adjusting your own mirror manually wasn’t just vulgar, but also not safety-optimized.
Yes, the interior rear view mirror in early R129 SL models is motorized, power-adjustable at the touch of a finger. Not only was this feature awfully convenient and superbly luxurious, it also meant that the driver’s upper body could stay planted to the seat during the adjustment process, ensuring a perfectly-adjusted rearview mirror suiting the driver’s position that could be tied to the seat memory. Is this obsessive? Absolutely, but that’s part of what made the R129 SL great. Besides, given the power under the hood, that rearview mirror would be the only way owners would see most cars.
In America, the base model was the 300SL featuring an astounding three-liter M104 twin-cam inline-six. Available in Europe on 300SL-24 models, this 24-valve marvel came with variable valve timing, a 10:1 compression ratio, and stout peak output of 217 horsepower. Even better? You could get it with a five-speed dog-leg manual gearbox in America, although examples so equipped are rarer than rocking horse droppings.
However, the SL you really want is the 500SL, the chest-thumping V8 model with a belter of an engine. The M119 quad-cam V8 may have originally launched with somewhat antiquated Bosch KE-Jetronic, but it also made 322 horsepower. In 1989, that was 26 more horsepower than a Ferrari 348, 31 more horsepower than a V12-powered Jaguar XJS, and 82 more horsepower than a standard Chevrolet Corvette. The 500SL is still a quick car today, with a Motorweek-clocked zero-to-60 time of 5.9 seconds and a triple-digit trap speed in the quarter.
Sadly, the quad-cam V8 and the powered interior rear-view mirror both fell victim to cost-cutting later in the 1990s, but not before spreading to the W140 S-Class. If luxury is nothing more than craftsmanship and excess, the powered interior rearview mirror in the R129 Mercedes-Benz SL might just be the zenith of 1990s luxury. Hell, it might just be the pinnacle of Mercedes-Benz itself.
(Photo credits: Mercedes-Benz)
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