Recently my family and I went up to Minnesota and visited my Great Uncle Bill. It was my first time at Uncle Bill’s house, a beautiful log cabin that he built with his own hands. Uncle Bill is a bonafide car guy, who still owns the Ford Model T that he bought when he was in the 8th grade. He also has another Model T, a Model A, and the silver Mercedes 560 SL you see here. After showing me around the garage, he asked if I wanted to take a drive in the Mercedes. Me being me, wanting to drive anything and everything, I jumped at the opportunity. Nice day, beautiful car, and some solid quality time with my uncle Bill, the situation was pretty ideal.
As the top-spec convertible model, the 560 SL was “the” Mercedes to have in the 1980s. Keep in mind, this car is from the era before the onset of AMG madness. The SL back then was very much a luxury car, not a closet supercar as it is today.
I really enjoy driving older cars because it gives me a sense of where modern cars have come from. This 560 SL is actually the second oldest Mercedes I have experienced, after my friend, John’s, 1964 Finback diesel. The lineage between the two cars is very apparent, as well as the link between them and brand new Mercedes products I’ve experienced.
For me, the consistent underlying aspect of every Mercedes I’ve driven is a solid, low-weighted feel from the chassis. It’s like each of them has a big lead brick strapped to their underside. This low, solid feeling made the 560 SL extremely sure footed on the road, and even at higher speeds, the thing was unshakable.
The ride quality was also immaculate. The SL seems to float along, with its hefty mass and well-damped suspension absorbing bumps well. One major difference between older cars and modern cars is that modern cars have so many different settings, all electronically adjustable. A modern Mercedes can go from a soft luxury car to a hard sports car at the push of a button. Back in the 1980s the car had one setup that had to work for everything.
Because you have one suspension setup to work with, the car’s character changes with how you drive it. The 560 feels a little loose at first, keeping a nice relaxed feel, but push a little further and the steering and the chassis will tighten up (Similar to my friend, Nick’s BMW E21 Alpina). There is a decent dead spot in the steering before the car starts to respond, a big contrast to the sharp-driving Mercs of today. You get a good connection to the road through the wheel though, and you just have to manhandle the steering a bit when you want the car to change direction with any sort of vigor.
As far as the engine goes, the big 5.6L V8 seems to have useable performance everywhere in the rev range. Its wide torque-band gives it a feeling of effortless performance. The SL will be able to pass or merge without ever feeling like it has even lifted a finger. 227hp and 287ft/lbs of torque may not seem like that much by today’s standards, but it is the way it is delivered that makes it effective.
The transmission is very well suited to the nature of the car. Even when I floored the throttle, I didn’t get some crass downshift that brought the revs up near redline. Instead it brought the revs to around 4000rpm and let the motor pull its way to redline. All the while speed was building up nicely, and I got a nice, but smooth, push back into my seat. The car behaves in a potent, yet composed manner at all times, and for a top-tier luxury car of its day, that’s important.
While this Merc definitely has some decent performance when called upon, it really loves just cruising. We held a steady 65mph down a gently winding country road, and the car could not have been happier. Being a convertible, there is also the wind-in-your-hair effect that just makes the whole experience that much better. It is a wonderful car for anyone who values composure and class.
Adding to the wonderful driving experience is the appearance of the car, which definitely looks 80s, but is still extremely handsome. I think the current 2013 Mercedes SL looks terrible, like it was designed right at first, and then one of the designers roundhouse kicked the clay model in the face. The 560 SL, on the other hand, is well proportioned with a nice clean shape to it. It has dignified styling, and these days, it now has a somewhat vintage appeal added on.
The best part of the 560 SL, right now, has to be that it is relatively affordable. $10-15k will get you a really good one, and fixer-uppers can be found for well under $10k. What you get for you money is a proper Mercedes, one that was the top of the range at time in history when flashy cars were everything. If you wanted to cruise Miami Beach in the 1980s, the 560 SL was just the car to do it in.
I really had a great time taking this nice cruise with my Uncle Bill in his car. The 560 SL still has all of the charm that it came with back in its day. I can definitely see why Uncle Bill enjoys driving it, and I recommend that anyone looking for a cool car under $15k check out a 560 SL. It won’t be for everyone, but if it is your cup of tea, then I don’t think anything else will do quite as well for the money.
PS: A very special thanks to my Uncle Bill for letting my drive his car. I was great to take a ride and having some quality time together.
For 2016, Uncle Bill has invited me back to drive his 1916 Ford Model T, a car that will be a century old at that time. I saw it in his garage, and it is absolutely beautiful, with a brass radiator and other brass pieces around the car. I’m greatly looking forward to it.