In the early 80s an SL Market Letter subscriber called John looking for a 5.0 liter SLC. These ‘flagship’ SLCs were the first of MB’s hugely successful alloy V8s. The search was successful, though it was necessary to import the car from Germany as the 5.0 was never offered by US dealers.
Fast forward 30 years, the phone rings: “John, can you find a home for my 5.0 SLC?” Yup, it was the same subscriber, now residing in Albuquerque, NM, with the same car Olson found during the grey market days. John decided it was time he revisited his own 5.0 SLC memories, and bought it.
Instead of just lining up a transporter to bring the car back to Minneapolis, Olson suggested that I fly out to New Mexico, pick the car up and drive it back. “It will give you some good experience behind the wheel one of the rarest post-war Mercedes models” he said.
It didn’t take much convincing, I’m always up for a road trip and I figured I’d follow some of old Route 66 on my way back. About 13 years ago I traveled all of Route 66 from Chicago to L.A. in my Volkswagen Westfalia, a wonderful trip full of Americana and roadside culture. I was ready to revisit some of those sites in a real German car that could do more than 50 mph!
Mercedes-Benz made just 2,796 5 liter SLCs for the European market between September of 1977 and 1981. The first 1,636 examples were 450SLC 5.0 models most of which were fitted with three speed automatic transmissions. Towards the end of 450SLC 5.0 production the three speed automatic was replaced with a four speed unit which was then carried over into the 500SLC when it began production in March of 1980. Both versions of 5 liter models were conservatively rated at 240HP. They were also fitted with a lighter weight aluminum hood and trunk lid, and subtle front & rear spoilers. The spoilers lowered the car’s drag coefficient by 10% making them more slippery through the air than a standard SLC sans spoiler.
These 5 liter SLCs with their 240HP were attractive to U.S. Mercedes enthusiasts who began importing them via the ‘grey market’… like our subject car. As all good Mercedes racing fans know by now, the 5 liter SLCs were FIA homologated by Mercedes for the international rally circuit in the late 1970s. They’re solid, fun cars that are great high speed cruisers, cars you can enjoy today while they make the climb as serious collectibles.
As I left the owner’s home navigating suburban Albuquerque side streets the SLC felt much like other SLCs I had driven, although a bit more firm due to the lower sport springs. Once I picked up Interstate 40 East out of Albuquerque it quickly became clear that this car was a far cry from the U.S. market 450SLCs I’d driven previously. The exhaust system provided a wonderful tone at about 75 miles per hour and when I pressed the accelerator at 75mph, 90mph came up in a hurry.
I turned on the air conditioning, which blew ice cold on its low setting, made a couple of seat adjustments to get comfortable and settled in behind the bus sized steering wheel I’ve come to love in these cars. As it began to rain the water ran up the hood over the lines of the car, like I was in a wind tunnel.
The styling of the SLC has elicited many different reactions over the years. There were unique design challenges to overcome when Mercedes-Benz engineers decided to add almost 14 inches to the standard R107 SL wheelbase. In a 1972 Road Test “Road & Track” magazine said “the slatted, fixed rear sections of the quarter windows look odd.”
40+ years on, I would argue the side window louvers are as important to SLCs as the unique wheel arches/eyebrows on 300 SL Gullwings.
What is generally agreed upon is that the best looking SLCs are the European cars that retain their European bumpers and lights as this particular example does. Walking out to the car after a stop inside a gas station all I could think was ‘It just looks so European, Europe’s ultimate response to the American muscle car.’ Its stance and shape is quite simply, powerful… something I had never really accepted in any SLC before.
This car has later AMG wheels from the mid 90s which I didn’t love initially, but they grew on me. They’re 17” wheels with low profile tires adding to the already firm ride. The 450SLC 5.0s and 500SLCs were born just when Ronal and BBS wheel modifications became fashionable finishing touches to individualize a car.
Throughout the entire trip, this SLC felt modern, not like a 35 year old car. The engine was as smooth as anything I’ve ever driven at speed, just gobbling up pavement. Without cruise control (never available on FIA cars) I maintained my speed by ear so I wouldn’t have to constantly watch the speedometer. I knew what 80mph sounded like, I kept it there all day.
I never take gas mileage into account much when considering a collector car. I figure you get what you want and if it gets bad gas mileage that’s just the price of admission. I started to notice the SLC burned about a ¼ of a tank of fuel per hour at 80mph, approx. 14.5 mpg. By mid-afternoon I started thinking about fuel consumption in terms of gallons per hour as opposed to miles per gallon, like an airplane. Not bad for a 140+ mph muscle car, just the price of admission. I wouldn’t have flown to New Mexico to drive a Prius back… in this case, being behind the wheel of the 450SLC 5.0 was the destination.
After about 12 hours on day one, with a lot of stops and photo opportunities along sections of old Route 66 I pulled into my parent’s driveway in Hutchinson, KS, my half way point. I parked next to my father’s SL320 and got out of the car. I wasn’t even sore, really. I stretched out a little, but I was perfectly comfortable after all that time.
After a short visit with my folks, I went to bed and got up the next morning to do it all over again arriving in Minneapolis at about 9:00pm on day two. The car never skipped a beat, it was mechanically flawless and completely comfortable the entire time, and I’m quick to realize, it’s rarely that way with old cars.
Those two days planted a deep desire in me to actually own one of these 5 liter SLCs. They are the lowest production Mercedes-Benz of the 1970s. Geared for high speed, the 450SLC 5.0 has great grand touring performance and is a wonderful open road car… ideal for my drive from Minneapolis to Elkhart Lake a couple of times a year for the vintage races. If well cared for it will most certainly have a financial upside in the future as well, what more could you ask for in a ‘Young Classic’ from Mercedes-Benz?