What I have here is a nice, ultra-rare 1988* Mercedes 300SL roadster with a manual 5-spd transmission, and matching hardtop. She runs like a champ and has but 108,500 miles; ‘just broken in’ for this era Mercedes. She has a current PA state inspection and I believe could probably be driven anywhere. Her actual VIN # is WDB1070411A044396.
Despite obvious similarities to other ‘R107’ body-styled roadsters produced over the model’s 19-year run, she may well be one of the, if not THE, rarest of them all. If you like to drive stick-shifts, have a warm spot in your heart for this classic roadster, and like to be driving something special or (nearly) unique, this car may be the perfect ticket. You may already know that Mercedes never imported this body style into the US with a stick-shift. Mercedes US operations believed (probably rightly so) that Americans wanted only the V8 powered automatics and so never offered the models with the stick. Whenever you do see one it most certainly was brought over as a grey-market car by its owner or a specialty import firm.
Nevertheless a small number of these cars with sticks did make it over here, especially the earlier 280SL twin-cam variant that was in production from 1974 through 1985. Also available with a 5-spd stick, it is a spirited car that needs to be revved a bit higher than the 300SL but is also a very satisfying car to own and drive. Both of these sixes have marginally better fuel economy than the V8’s they were introduced to offset. According to my internet research, the only shortcoming of the 280 engine is that it needs periodic rebuilding (every 100-150k or so) and being a twin-cam makes it a difficult and costly affair to do right. In fact, on at least one Mercedes forum it is mentioned that even Master Mercedes mechanics would prefer never seeing another one of those cars again!
In contrast, the 3 liter inline six in this car is often praised (somewhat exaggeratedly I’m sure) as a ‘million-mile’ engine; an ‘unkillable drivetrain’ say others. The engine was very popular for many years and was a mainstay in the sedans (which oddly enough were offered with the same 5-spd stick in the US!!) offered in the mid-eighties and indeed has a well-earned reputation for reliability and long life, much more so than the 280. It’s a very torquey engine that also likes to rev but produces more ‘off-line’ power and so may be even more drivable than the 280.
HERE’S THE THING, the 300SL roadster from this vintage was only produced from 1985 through 1989 and in relatively low numbers compared to the overall production for this body style over its 19 years (13,742 out of about 238,000). So then only about 5.5% of all of these cars were the 300SL and no one seems to know how many of these were the 5-spd manuals. I’ve seen hints that it could be as low as a couple of thousand, worldwide. So being a 300SL makes it uncommon enough to begin with, but being a 5-spd 300SL makes it truly rare. This specific model then is not only among the rarest but the most reliable, most durable, most economical, least costly to repair, and among the most fun to drive, along with the 280sl, and 500sl if you like stick-shifting of course. They are highly prized in Europe where they are valued nearly as highly as some of the V8 stick-shift roadsters that were sold only in Germany or Australia.
Lastly, you’ll notice if you compare it any of the ‘regular’ cars sold here that this little beauty has the much nicer, much smaller bumpers front and rear. It makes the cars with regular US bumpers look positively grotesque by comparison (IMHO).
ABOUT THIS PARTICULAR CAR…there’s a longer story about how I bought this car for my wife as a graduation present (for getting her Master’s degree), but the reality of the actual car, as she experienced it from behind its “giant” steering wheel, by a person who had never actually sat in one, let alone driven one, fell far short of the image she had been nurturing in her mind for the two decades during which she considered it one of the most beautiful cars in the world. I’ve hung onto it for these last 4 years simply because it was a rarity. I do enjoy driving it top down on nice sunny days, and drive it regularly to keep all of its systems exercised, but I only put about 1,000 miles per year on it in a ‘busy’ year. It wouldn’t have been a car I would have chosen for myself and so it’s time now to get back my garage space back and move the car onto its next loving owner.
And while it runs perfectly well, as you can see from the pictures, it’s not a perfect car. Unless I mention it in the following details, you can assume that everything else on the car works as expected.
I believe the car to be original, which includes its paint, top and seats. Now then, the top will keep you dry if you get caught out in the rain, but it has some tears which are the result of age and, the previous owner slicing his way into the locked car with the keys in the ignition! Since the top only goes up in colder weather, I’ve not ever cared to fix it. The car is equipped with another rarity for the time period which is the dual-zone (‘his and her’s’) air conditioning system also not imported to the US in the ‘official’ models. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work, even though all the bits are there. That too fell into the category of things I wasn’t worried about fixing since I never used it. The heater works great though, and does regulate the two sides of the car independently. Had my wife embraced the car as hoped, I’d have fixed everything for her, but of course, then the car wouldn’t now be up for sale! Of course, none of these deficiencies detract from the car’s drivability or safety.
Being original the seats, which remain fully sprung and supportive (not at all collapsed), show that the leather surfaces are a bit ‘tired’, having been serving their purpose now for 26 years. They’re perfectly useable as is, but I would have had them resurfaced for the wife. BTW, I think the pictures make them look a tad or two better than they do in real life. The car also has the optional child rear seat which might be ok for occupants under the age of 5, but no one else unless you hate them. They too could use to be resurfaced.
The paint is very presentable and passes the ’10- foot’ test with ease. But move up closer and you’ll see that at a couple of times in its life the two-man crew trying to put the hardtop onto the car slipped and the lock pin won its argument with the deck paint. I wash and wax her several times a year and think that a professional buff job would take the finish to yet another level. They really painted cars well back then.
The tires have good tread, but if you wanted to take the car on a long-distance journey I’d suggest getting a new set. ‘Old’ tires worry me no matter how much tread they have left. The newest pair here are the rears which are about 5 years old and the fronts are older yet. The original dash, suffering from the usual cracks that afflict these cars, is hiding underneath one of those plastic covers made for the car. They fit well and it doesn’t rattle while driving. I replaced the visors because those too had gotten pretty worn. The replacements (which were darned expensive!) don’t have the little built-in mirrors for powdering your nose that the original car had.
BEST OF THE BREED
It’s worth closing out the description by mentioning that the very best of this series Mercedes roadster were produced from 1986-1989. These later car benefitted from an accumulation of improvements and tweaks over the years to correct things like overheating in the 70’s and rust, as well as suspension, engine and fuel injection drivability issues. This car has anti-lock brakes which were only introduced in 1985 (but it does not have any airbags!). In fact, Mercedes seriously improved their galvanizing process in 1985 which mostly explains why this car is rust free, along with a small repair I had professionally done when I first got it. It also has the modern rims with the tiny alignment holes built in. And of course, it has excellent 4-wheel disc brakes.
The real point here is that this car was built during the period when the ‘best’ of these variations R107’ body series, were built. All of these roadsters (and their coupe brothers) were the last of the ‘hand-built’ Mercedes. They were literally nicknamed ‘Der Panzerwaggen’ (‘tanks’) by the engineers who designed the cars owing to how over-engineered they were. Combined with the handcrafting assembly process, they represent the high-water mark for Mercedes vintage engineering and production. Truly, the last cars of an era.
You can find a wealth of information on the whole R107 series out on the web, including articles that go into a lot more detail about why the later year cars are the absolute best of this breed. You WILL NOT however find much information on the 300SL 5-spd. It simply wasn’t produced in the kinds of numbers that ever got it onto ‘the radar’, if you know what I mean. The 280sl 5-spd was produced in twice the numbers from 1974 through 1985 and examples of those cars actually aren’t that hard to find. In fact, a guy two towns over from me has one and I’ve seen it up on eBay a couple of times already. You’ll occasionally see some mention of the 300Sl 5-spd on a Mercedes forum or blog, (possibly even a comment from me!) from one of the handful of owners of these cars in the US. My own best guess is that there probably are fewer than 10 of this specific car in the US right now; maybe only 6.
Given that rarity one might think them difficult to maintain. The good news here is that the car is actually an amalgam of the 300 drivetrain found in many Mercedes sedans from the 80’s and the ‘normal’ R107 chassis, so there’s no problem getting service or parts for the car. It is the best of all worlds if you’re seeking an R107 roadster, and want to drive a stick!
*…oh yeah, about this asterisk. I eventually got Mercedes’ own classic website to send me a photocopy of the actual build sheet for this car. It rolled out of the shop February 2nd of 1986 according to that sheet, so it’s not actually a 1988 model. My guess is that some clerk in a registration office accidentally mis-read the European title papers at the time of ‘naturalizing’ the car over here and though the ‘6’ an ‘8’, and so the car has forever been titled as a 1988. But the build sheet says 1986, and I thought the next owner should certainly know that.
While cheaper than the previous 300SL we featured, $15,000 is still a bit pricey for this example, given flaws like the tattered convertible top and upholstery flaws inside. I wouldn’t be so concerned about the engine, as these 3.0 straight sixes are fairly hearty motors. The color combination on this example is just right, though. I’ve always been a fan of metallic blue on Mercedes-Benzes of this era, especially if it’s an SL with a navy top. One of these days, I’d love to try a 300SL on for size. I’ve always been a fan of the R107, but feel that the inline six would be a much better match for the chassis.