photo credit Tier10 Marketing via Flickr
I grew up assuming I was the only gay car nut. Other buffs I knew were certifiable man cave inhabitants, who enjoyed a cold beer and a fine female specimen. My working knowledge of a car’s engine only went as far as the hood release, but my encyclopedic memorization of models, colors, and options was vast. And I loved sophisticated style and clever details.
To further alienate myself, I obsessed over the exotic austerity of current and historic Mercedes-Benz models, an interest fueled by stories of my father’s adolescence in a Fintail 220S model. And, hanging around South Tampa meant there were plenty of freshly purchased models to gaze at from the seat of my parent’s Volvo.
The Mercedes class I idolized was, I realized later, the most iconic two-seater in German automaking history. The SL, abbreviated “sport leicht”, was introduced in 1954, never ceasing in its diverse and worldly appeal. This year the model is 58 years old, making it one of the longest-running nameplates in all automotive history. 2012 also brings the excitement of a new SL iteration, replacing the nearly decade-old current model. It promises continued tradition, building on bountiful laurels, decorated history, and a loyal following of both those with the means, and those humbly without.
Part of the SL magic is each model’s longevity and singularity. The R107 SL was produced from 1972 to 1989, the following R129 from 1990 to 2002, and the most recent R230 from 2003 to 2012. Each grew mature year after year but never old, and never senile or overshadowed by younger models. That was, in part, due to a lack of consistent and direct competition. At nearly $100 thou, who is really comparing features and prices? At different times and prices, the SL would compete with the Porsche 911, BMW 6-series, Jaguar XK, various Aston Martin models, and for V-12 models, the Bentley Continental GTC. Still, it has never lost its edge.
In the 1980s, the 380SL was a teen’s dream. A veritable object of desire for the Ferris Beulers of the world. And picture-perfect in Beverly Hills Cop. In the 90s, the SL500 evoked the femme fatale, playing the vixen Debbie’s widowmaker in Addams Family Values and the getaway car for the mom-daughter con team in Heartbreakers. And in the 2000s, the SL was in every rap and hip-hop video and any film set in Miami. Never has a single model car been so healthily featured on screen and in plot.
The freshest SL550 comes amid understandably high expectations. Technology must wow, style must stir, and price of entry must remain exclusive. The R231 must also reclaim honors for quality, following questionable reliability, underwhelming interior construction, and the occasional technological blunder over the past 10 years. In a global economy still bruised by massive losses, even those with their eyes on these kinds of vehicles care about getting their money’s worth.
Since splitting from Chrysler, the Stuttgart marque has made measurable strides in improving quality and reestablishing trump cards of past models – like rock solid construction, sumptuous materials, and a laundry list of space-age technology options. And, the Mercedes magic is slowly returning. Idol-worthy models (SL), along with accessible models that embody many of the same elements (C), are making it a hard lineup to topple.