1991 Mercedes-Benz 300SL 5-Speed: Putting the “Sports” back in “Sports Leicht”

The original Mercedes-Benz SL-series cars were true sports cars: hard-edged, performance-oriented, and they took some skill to drive. In fact, the designation “SL” originally stood for “Sports Leicht” or in English, “Sports Light” referencing the sporting nature of the car and its lightweight construction. Subsequent models, starting with the 190SL and carrying through the R113 “Pagoda” models and on to the iconic Beverly Hills Housewife R107 convertibles, steadily became less sporting and less light. Quality remained top-notch in true Mercedes fashion and only improved as the years progressed, but “Sport” was a concept that seemed to get lost in translation, especially on U.S. shores where buyers could not even buy a manual transmission-equipped Mercedes SL after the last of the R113 Pagodas rolled off the boat from Sindelfingen. Until, that is, the R129 300SL came along. The new 300SL could be had with a stick shift – like this car on eBay – but very few made it over here.


By the end of its 18 year run in 1989, the R107 had become Mercedes’ longest-running model range in the company’s 103-year history. Even today it stands second only to the venerable military-grade G-wagen offroaders. This success came despite the 107’s distinct lack of hard-edged sportiness and perhaps because of it, given its appeal to the fairer sex and those more interested in image than outright performance. That isn’t to say that a 107 couldn’t scoot right along because it could – especially when equipped with the huge 5.6 liter M117 V8. In Europe, buyers could get stick shifts in their 107s as well, but even so the cars remained heavy and somewhat ponderous – perfect for the boulevard, less so for the backroads.

Still fairly heavy for a two-seater, the R129 SLs brought 20+ years of Mercedes experience in handling and chassis dynamics to the table, not to mention getting the most out of their motors. Available engines in the States were the M104 24-valve 3.0 inline-6 in the 300SL (subsequently replaced by the 3.2 liter version) and the 48-valve M119 5.0 V8 – the same 322 bhp motor that would eventually find its way into the W124 500E developed jointly with Porsche. While the 228 bhp six-cylinder didn’t have the sheer grunt of the eight, paired with the manual transmission it was certainly no slouch thanks to being a little lighter and favorable gearing. With further improvements like multilink rear suspension and chassis stiffening, R129s added handling back to the SL formula – a welcome return. They also made good sounds. All of them.

The R129s cockpit is a much happier place to be than the R107s, which has a distinctly old-fashioned 1970s-era almost truck-like feel to it. The R129 lets you adjust your seat and your steering wheel to your heart’s content, letting you find just that perfect driving (or riding) position. This car sadly lacks the heated seats which my posterior has so come to love, but I could look the other way in light of the glorious gearshift protruding from the burl wood console. I am also a fan of gauges, and this car does not disappoint there, either. The array of needles in front of the driver will tell you just about everything you could want to know. And being a pre-OBD II car, the “Check Engine” light does not hail then end of civilization as you know it. Not that it’s a particularly good thing, however…..

Many consider the r129 as the last of the over-engineered Mercedes SLs, and it shows in the details. This particular car has aged better than many, which have been neglected due to the need for periodic infusions of not insignificant sums of cash. For example the hydraulic pistons for the automatic roof will fail, it’s just a matter of when. Likewise, convertible tops age, and these motors are known for eating head gaskets from time to time. None of these are insurmountable, but none are inexpensive, either. Still, the 5-speed R129 SL is the last of the manual transmission SLs ever brought to the U.S., so isn’t it worth spending a little bit of money in the interest of history and rarity? Sure, you could go and get a manual SLK, but on the used market that would just be settling, wouldn’t it? I’d take this one, perhaps seek-out the trick later panoramic hardtop (for the winter, of course), and add a Euro-style jump seat for the little ones, and drive the bejeezus out of it.

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3 responses to “1991 Mercedes-Benz 300SL 5-Speed: Putting the “Sports” back in “Sports Leicht”

  • Aaron Buckley

    Hi Reed,

    Nice reading about a car I just bought in Vancouver, Canada – 1991 Mercedes-Benz 300SL 5-Speed.

    I’m curious, do you or anybody reading this post know how many of this model/year were made? If it’s under 1,500 I’ll get a break on insurance.

    Thank you,

    Excited new owner!
    Aaron

    • Reed Hitchcock

      Best advice I can give you here is to contact the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center out in Irvine, CA. Let them know what you need (and you may want to say why) and I’m pretty sure they can give that to you. Their number is (949) 598-4850.

  • tom

    No power, sick performance any advice Its a beauty I purchashed on looks alone now Im a little sorry.There must be something to improve the power performance. Thanks

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