Stuttgart's luxury roadster ruled sunny, coastal roads for over a decade
The 1989-2001 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class marked the 30th anniversary of its debut this month, celebrating the car that served as the German marque's halo model in the 1990s. Revealed at the Geneva motor show in March 1989 and codenamed R129, the SL-Class picked up the baton from its R107 predecessor that enjoyed an even longer tenure on the assembly line.
The SL-Class that debuted in 1989 represented the state of the art for the Stuttgart automaker at the time, but the car went into design lock quite some time before it went on sale -- in 1984 to be exact -- which explains some of the design details.
"The development of the R129 was picked up by Mercedes-Benz in the mid-1970s," Mercedes-Benz notes. "There were once again considerations for a coupe derived from an open sports car, such as the 107 model series, but which were not realized. At the start of the 1980s, however, work considerably picked up speed. The model, which was measured in the wind tunnel in November 1981, already has the clear design trademark from the era of Bruno Sacco. On 17 October 1984 the roadster received approval for its shape, and on 10 December 1985 Mercedes-Benz determined that production of the R129 model series was to begin in August 1988."
The R129 SL-Class debuted with a 3.0-liter inline-six engine, badged 300 SL, and a 5.0-liter V8 badged 500 SL. But it quickly added power, rolling out a 394-hp V12 engine in the summer of 1992 badged as the 600 SL. The next year Mercedes-Benz introduced a new naming scheme along with updated engines, including a 2.8-liter inline-six badged SL 280 and a 3.2-liter inline-six badged SL 320. AMG, an outside tuning house at the time, offered an SL 60 AMG with 381 on tap, but it was just one of more than a dozen limited run versions of the R129. Other tuners like Brabus and Lorinser also took a crack at the already-powerful R129.
The 1989 SL-Class introduced advanced features such as an Adaptive Damping System (ADS), which permitted damping adjustments in just fractions of a second depending on driving conditions, in addition to innovative safety features such as an automatic roll bar that could deploy in 0.3 seconds, thus preserving the classic look of the roadster without a Targa top.
"The sports car was met with an enthusiastic response and the customers exploited the production capacity available in the Bremen plant right from the start," Mercedes notes. "In the first two-and-a-half production years or so, no fewer than 52,204 vehicles of the R129 model series rolled off the production line by December 1991. A total of 25,709 of these sports cars were produced in 1991 alone. More than a third of them (34.7 percent) were exported to North America; Germany was the second most important market with 30.4 percent."
The SL-Class received its mid-cycle refresh in 1995, but the changes on the outside were subtle: new side cladding, revised headlights and taillights along with other details. A new five-speed automatic was introduced in the V8 and V12 versions.
Mercedes-Benz gave the R129 another facelift in 1998, adding new V6 engines in the form of a 204-hp SL 280, and a new SL 500 with 306 hp on tap. Small items such as mirrors and door handles were revised with this update, which also saw the debut of a new steering wheel design to keep up with the times.
Relatively late in its production cycle the R129 also received new AMG versions, including the SL 55 AMG in 1999 with a 5.5-liter V8 underhood. The range-topping AMG model was the SL 73 AMG -- not offered in the States -- powered by a monstrous V12 churning out 525 hp. These were nothing short of supercar figures at the time, made all the more impressive by the fact that the underlying SL-Class had been in production for a decade by that point.
"Over a twelve-year production period, a total of 204,940 vehicles were produced," Mercedes-Benz notes. "The most successful model was, with almost 80,000 units, the 500 SL/SL 500 with a four-valve engine. The variety of the roadster was underscored by the stylish customization options afforded by the designo programme as well as the countless special models."
Values for well-kept examples are inching up along with other Mercedes models from this time period, while parts support remains excellent. The R129-generation SL-Class is now both a desirable youngtimer classic as well as a capable daily or weekend driver for many owners, 30 years after its debut.