Home » You Can Buy The Last Great Mercedes-Benz SL For The Price Of A Hyundai Venue

You Can Buy The Last Great Mercedes-Benz SL For The Price Of A Hyundai Venue

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The current Mercedes-AMG SL is a confusing car. A four-cylinder at the bottom end of the range, a staggeringly expensive V8 up top, and the confusing mission of being comfy but also fighting the Porsche 911 have created a hefty all-wheel-drive machine philosophically at odds with itself. A litany of interior creaks and rattles doesn’t help either, and it’s all enough to make you wonder why anyone would pay mega money for an SL. While you can only coast on heritage for so long, it helps when that heritage is magnificent.

Believe it or not, there was once a time when the Mercedes-Benz SL was simply the greatest open-topped grand tourer in the known universe, and you don’t need double-barrelled names, a trust fund, or an Ivy League education to slide behind the wheel of one.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Yes, much has been written about the gullwing and the pagoda, but now it’s the R129 SL’s time to shine. Think of it as Bruno Sacco’s crown jewel, a cost-no-object speedform of sumptuous excellence. Short of the gullwing, no SL has ever blended objective excellence with subjective desire so perfectly, and Mercedes-Benz couldn’t replicate this sort of car today even if it tried. Oh, and a good used one costs less than a new Hyundai Venue. Tantalizing, isn’t it?

What Are We Looking At?

1992 Mercedes Benz 500sl Img 2551 18656 Scaled Copy

We’re looking at the first car with an entirely powered convertible top, including the latches. We’re looking at the first production car to build its upper seat belt anchors into the seats rather than the body. We’re looking at a car so sumptuous, it came with a motorized interior rear view mirror.

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The SL may have been one of the last Mercedes-Benz models to get aero-look styling, but the R129 was one of the first redesigns Bruno Sacco penned. As a result, it saw years of continuous design refinement before it was even given the green light for production. It’s one of the most beautiful Mercedes-Benz vehicles of all time, one of the most technically advanced, and the last SL launched to be built to a standard rather than a cost.

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While European R129 SLs got a handful of weaker sixes, the range in America started with the 24-valve, twin-cam, three-liter M104. With variable valve timing and a red line kissing 7,000, this 228-horsepower inline-six was remarkably stout for the turn of the 1990s. Sold in Europe as the 300SL-24 and in America as simply the 300SL, the entry-level R129 is a wonderful cruiser.

Mind you, while the M104 inline-six will certainly get you from A to B, the M119 V8 in the 500SL was a bruiser. We’re talking about a quad-cam, 32-valve five-liter V8 with variable valve timing, a sophisticated yet robust lump making a whopping 322 horsepower. Wide-open enrichment say what? Paired with a Mercedes four-speed automatic transmission, the end result was a car so fine, Car And Driver likened it to a modern Dusenberg SJ. From personal experience, it doesn’t handle half-bad either, blending assuring solidity with surprisingly good steering for something so heavy and wafty.

Oh, but it doesn’t stop there. Shortly after rolling out the six-cylinder and eight-cylinder models, Mercedes-Benz dropped the 600SL. With a naturally aspirated 5.8-liter M120 V12 under the hood, it blew everyone away with its manners, even when driving in a rather uncivilized manner, as Car And Driver found:

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So what is it like to drive? Special. Like a nuclear-powered hovercraft. Like the Concorde, or the bullet train. Phenom­enal. To talk numbers is to bourgeoisify the experience. Suffice to say that the Mercedes-Benz 600SL is quicker than a Ferrari 348tb, a BMW M5, and many other exotic sports and GT cars.

With an SL, it’s not the speed, but how well the speed is achieved that counts. Several editors here were shocked to hear the spectacular performance numbers, because the car is so smooth and quiet that it doesn’t feel like an ultra-high-perfor­mance car.

We’re talking about effortless, hand-of-God speed, the sort that will whisk you to 155 mph without causing so much as a drop of sweat to form on your brow. The 600SL proved that nothing exceeds like excess, and that if you’re well-to-do, you can truly have it all.

1998 Mercedes Benz Sl500 Img 6513 65428 Scaled Copy

Updates rolled in over the years, with Bosch CIS mechanical injection being replaced by LH electronic fuel injection in 1993, a model name shuffle moving “SL” to a prefix along with a new 3.2-liter inline-six appearing in 1994, and a light facelift with a five-speed automatic replacing the four-speed on V8 and V12 cars for 1995. So far, so good, but 1995 was arguably the apex. By 1996, the scaly hand of cost-cutting had reached Mercedes-Benz, and this glamorous roadster started to see features being taken away and materials being cheapened. This certainly hit home in 1999, when the perforated leather upholstery was replaced with poorer-wearing stuff, the mighty 32-valve M119 V8 was swapped for the simplified, three-valve M113, and the automatic lock on the rear left storage compartment was removed. Despite all this, even the last SLs still felt leagues better made than their R230 successor.

How Expensive Are We Talking?

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Thanks to plenty of supply and a silver-streaked image, these wonderful open-topped grand tourers are still cheap. A new Hyundai Venue SE with zero options stickers for $21,275 including freight, but you won’t need to pay nearly that much for a decent R129 SL. Take this 1992 500SL, for example; sporting just 41,000 miles on its odometer, it recently sold on Bring A Trailer for a modest $14,500. That’s not a lot of scratch for a proper grand tourer, and while it seems like it may have experienced some cosmetic reconditioning in the past, this 500SL looks like a promising example to rack up the miles in.

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Not a fan of the German rainbow? This Californian 1994 SL500 in the whimsical shade of Malachite Green sold on Cars & Bids last month for a mere $7,600. It could use a polish and some new tires, and the sheepskin seat covers aren’t fantastic, but as far as $7,600 cars go, this one looks brilliant. It won’t be competing in concours events anytime soon, but just imagine dropping the top of this 111,100-mile example and hitting the Pacific Coast Highway, not a care in the world for dust and the occasional stone chip. Marvellous.

1998 Mercedes Benz Sl 500 Img 6276 15058 Scaled

Oh, but perhaps you want a later car with AMG monoblock wheels and the panoramic window in the hardtop? No worries. This 1998 SL500 sold on Bring A Trailer a couple weeks ago for $16,750. With 85,000 miles on the odometer, it’s likely been exercised with relative frequency, and it’s had its soft top cylinders rebuilt so it’s ready to go.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong On An R129 SL?

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Let’s start with the big thing hampering these cars’ reputations — at one point in production, Mercedes started using biodegradable wiring insulation, and it biodegraded a little too well. This issue doesn’t affect the 1990 to 1992 500SL models with Bosch CIS, nor did it affect 1990 to 1992 300SL models or 1996 and newer cars. However, on 1993 to 1995 models that haven’t had the main engine wiring harness done, budget several grand for replacement. The engine harness itself is fairly expensive, ringing in at $955.99 from FCP Euro, but replacing it is an engine-out job.

R129 SL fabric top

The other major potential headache? Leaky convertible top hydraulic cylinders. New replacements are big money, but reputable specialists like topcylinders.com can rebuild a bad set of cylinders for around $700. The six-cylinder models also suffer from external head gasket leaks, but thankfully, the only major issue that isn’t avoidable by simply buying the right engine and year is the top cylinders.

Should I Buy An R129 Mercedes-Benz SL?

1998 Mercedes Benz Sl 500 Img 6341 15700 Scaled Copy

I won’t sugar-coat this: Between fuel costs and the necessary repairs to keep what was once a six-figure vehicle in fighting shape, the Hyundai Venue is the better buy as mere transportation. However, this isn’t just a great summer cruiser for enthusiasts, it could also be a great daily driver for enthusiasts, provided you buy the right example with the right engine from the right year. It’s not a sports car, but from the Cote d’Azur to Rodeo Drive, the R129 Mercedes-Benz SL is still the absolute business.

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(Photo credits: Bring A Trailer, Cars & Bids)

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Sergey Pan
Sergey Pan
5 days ago

My favourite 2 coupes from MB are c124 and c126 pillarless beauties

AMGx2
AMGx2
10 days ago

I personally think the R107 is a more beautiful car, only topped by the W113 Pagoda.

I almost got an R107 in 1999 I think, but it was sold 1 day before to someone else. Dark blue. Still regret that I didn’t go look at it 2 days earlier.

I ended up, decades later, with an SLK55 BUT .. The R107 (and definitely the W113) look so much more refined. I think the R129 has something, but because I grew up with them, in that era, I see them as a modern SL, but not modern enough (especially now).

But the 12 cylinder one … who doesn’t want a convertible with 12 cylinders guys.
You’ll feel like a president of a medium-sized country in one of them.

Last edited 10 days ago by AMGx2
Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
10 days ago

By 1996 … this glamorous roadster started to see features being taken away and materials being cheapened. … the automatic lock on the rear left storage compartment was removed.”

Arguably, the 1996-98 cars are the ones to get.

Mainly because the new 5 speed transmission made the V8 cars more responsive and brought better mileage.
And there was really no need to lock the left rear storage compartment anymore because that’s where the Bose Accoustimass module lived.

Joe L
Joe L
11 days ago

The early six-cylinder cars were also offered with a manual transmission in the US, if that’s your thing.

Huja Shaw
Huja Shaw
11 days ago

SLs with square(-ish) headlights are an abomination.

TheDrunkenWrench
TheDrunkenWrench
11 days ago

An SL600 would look pretty slick next to my 300SDL. If I could manage to manual swap it, even better.
Since plate renewal costs aren’t a thing anymore (In Ontario) and Hagerty insurance is cheap, I should definitely start hoarding old Benzes.

Richard O
Richard O
11 days ago

I really have a hankering for a V12 hobby car. I’m sure an SL600 would fit the bill nicely.

AMGx2
AMGx2
10 days ago
Reply to  Richard O

But would the bills fit in your wallet? 🙂

J Money
J Money
11 days ago

Dammit, Thomas. I know this one isn’t the vintage you’re talking about but now I want it. https://www.autotrader.com/cars-for-sale/vehicle/715584619

James Colangelo
James Colangelo
11 days ago

I have a 1998 SL500, green over tan interior. I rebuilt the top hydraulics myself – the most time-consuming part was getting them out, but it was super easy and the kit to rebuild them (it’s just a set of rubber O-rings) was $100.

It’s my favorite car ever. It’s fast. It’s beautiful and I think drastically undervalued. I can’t imagine ever selling it, I’ve never seen one with my color combo either. The interior is like a dark saddle tan, it’s so beautiful.

R129’s rule!

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
11 days ago

> Short of the gullwing, no SL has ever blended objective excellence with subjective desire so perfectly

Incorrect. The R107 did it better.

Rick Garcia
Rick Garcia
11 days ago

It’s still the best SL made. I love these cars. Proper styling, build and power.

Mechjaz
Mechjaz
11 days ago

Doesn’t that C&D quote get it backwards? If you wanted to express something as base or uncouth, you’d associate with the lower, proletariat working class. I assume this is not what they are implying, given that they do not deign to give those numbers and instead compare it favorably with world class GTs, which are clearly the domain of the bourgeoisie.

Curtis Loew
Curtis Loew
11 days ago

In this case buy neither.

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
11 days ago

There’s the Lexus SC430, which a cool luxury roadster thing and is also a Toyota so you don’t have to worry about any problems 🙂

Hillbilly Ocean
Hillbilly Ocean
11 days ago
Reply to  Dogisbadob

Ew.

Millermatic
Millermatic
11 days ago

And evidently it’s less than a nice Pontiac Fiero.

Sign me up.

Morgan van Humbeck
Morgan van Humbeck
11 days ago

An R129 is the nicest car I ever saw a homeless person use as their abode

I briefly considered homelessness. This person is clearly a genius

Bob
Bob
11 days ago

DAMN it.

Lardo
Lardo
11 days ago

the top used to be the big knock against these. sounds cheap now. came close to buying an AMG version several times. not know as a car guy, but jack nicholson drove his black (non
AMG) one for 20+ years in LA.

Mick Molte
Mick Molte
11 days ago

One of these and a 123 or 124 wagon would be a heck of a two car garage.

Protodite
Protodite
11 days ago

They are nice, and while it’s a pleasure to see one in person, I just don’t think they beat the looks of the R107, of which I am a staunch supporter. That said, I’ve never driven an R129, and I’m sure it’s both much faster and better handling than the R107, but I don’t think it can replace there resplendent atmosphere and experience from for the classic Benz. It’s not a sports car and won’t do what a Miata does, but having that luxurious cruising experience in the R107 is tough to beat

Morgan van Humbeck
Morgan van Humbeck
11 days ago
Reply to  Protodite

Agree

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
11 days ago
Reply to  Protodite

As an R107 owner, I can confirm. The R107 was miraculous.

Sacco was a hack and I don’t understand how Geiger could have taken him under his wing.

Protodite
Protodite
10 days ago

the R107 in my view is just a perfect design. It’s just so aesthetically nailed down. I did drive mine cross country when I moved back home from California. It was a pretty sweet road trip car, no way around it!

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
9 days ago
Reply to  Protodite

How fun! Top up or down?

Protodite
Protodite
9 days ago

Well I had to move the hardtop cross country too… and it was March… so hardtop on! But we had an extended stay with friends in Dallas so we stored the hardtop in his garage for a day and drive around the Dallas sunshine with the open top, which was great

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