1980 Mercedes 280 SLC

(Photo by Alec Moore)

This is what I bought after I returned from Hong Kong in September 2000. What I wanted was a stylish, quality car with reasonable practicality (i.e. not a 2-seater). It had to be comfortable and nice to drive. Reliability and residual value/classic appeal were also important, and fuel consumption had to be borne in mind.

First Impressions

I first fell in love with the Mercedes SL range back in Hong Kong, where I was looking to export a low-mileage car back to England. That didn't work out, but the desire for one remained.

The '107' model range was born in the early 70s and continued in production for nearly twenty years, until the current model (itself a long-production model, with over 10 years under its belt) was introduced. It replaced the classic 'Pagoda' of the 1960s and continued the tradition of being a dynamically respectable sports car while retaining the luxury traditional to high-end Mercedes cars. It also kept the twin roofs: the soft-top could be folded down for the winter and a hard-top bolted on top. This is still true of the current model.

The SLC non-convertible variant is less desirable and, nowadays, significantly cheaper. But it remains unusual for a Mercedes coupé because it was based on a sports model rather than being a tarted-up saloon. The C (coupé) 107 is a foot longer than the standard R (roadster) 107 chassis, making the back seat much more viable.

What no-one can deny is that the extra length gives the car a long, low, sleek look which is very appealing, where the R107 can look a bit stumpy. And in keeping with Mercedes tradition, this is a car with no B-pillars between the front and rear windows; the 'pillarless coupé' look is still quite startling and attractive.


While not the height of practicality, it's not bad. Although the back seat is quite small, it's comfortably padded and two adults can fit in, although they'd get cramped on long journeys (don't even think about it in the roadster version). There's also a large boot and of course the front seats are extremely comfortable. Old-fashioned luxury is still luxurious - wood and leather (half-leather in my case), loads of legroom, a big easy tiller of a steering wheel, and a good logical layout of controls.

The options list included air-con, cruise, central locking, electric windows, a large electric sunroof, and alloy wheels - sadly mine doesn't have the first two, but the rest are fitted. I also had a CD player installed, which gave reasonable sound, though the car is not exactly designed for audio perfection.

Noise is something of an issue. Mercedes did make an attempt to make it relatively hushed inside, and the soundproofing includes a sheet of cladding under the bonnet (though not on the quieter V8, which only just fits under there). But in contrast to many modern cars there is a fair amount of wind noise at speed - it appears to come mostly from the mirrors, creating eddies which bluster against the windows.


A number of engines have been used in the 107, from a disappointingly gutless 155hp version sold at one point in the US, up to a 245hp 5.0-litre V8. Mine is the smallest but not the weakest, a not inconsiderable 185hp 2.8-litre straight six.

SLCs for sale in the UK seem to be almost exclusively 280 sixes and 450 V8s - I've very rarely seen other models for sale, and the 450 is much more common than the 280. However, I chose the 2.8 for a couple of reasons: better fuel economy, and because I like straight sixes. The 110-series engine is extremely reliable, as anyone with a 250,000-mile 280E will tell you, and being a six it's naturally very smooth. Performance is definitely down compared to other Euro SLC models such as the 450SLC, though - in peak power terms, there's not a lot in it, but the torque of the six doesn't bear comparison with the 300ft-lb of the big V8. The 280 partially compensates for this by having an extra gear and being slightly lighter, and gearing is shorter to improve acceleration.

It's also a big and heavy car, don't forget. Ironically, the designation 'SL' (from the 1950s gull-wing 300SL) is supposed to mean 'Sports Leicht', but this car weighs nearly as much as the contemporary S-class, at over a ton and a half. This was a direct result of US safety regulations in the early 70's, which relied on heavy reinforcing and earned this car the nickname 'Der Panzerwagen' - the armoured car.

That's still nearly 200hp, though, so even the 2.8 is fairly rapid. From a standstill it will accelerate briskly through the gears. Once cruising, it is reluctant to kick down from top gear, which means you occasionally feel the need to manually shift down to 3rd gear - though once over about 65mph there is no need. Motorway accelaration is excellent, the only limitation being the short gearing which can make the car noisy at very high speeds. Top speed is limited not by power but by the short gearing, to just over 120mph at 6500rpm. V8s are much taller geared, and can do 130mph (or even 140mph, if you can find a 450SLC 5.0).

Overall: adequate, even quite quick, and easy because of the auto gearbox; but occasionally you need to shift down to get the most out of the smaller, revvier engine.


Some people say that the handling of the SLC is slightly better than the shorter SL. I wouldn't know because on the road I've only driven SLCs, but it's not bad.

On the downside, there is the weight and the steering. The weight gives it that nice big-car feel, which means a comfortable ride, but naturally you can't throw it around like a Lotus. The power steering is a little too light, and also is of an odd type, known as recirculating-ball (instead of the more common rack-and-pinion). I imagine at least part of the reason for this choice was that it gives a remarkably good turning circle - great for parking - but the downside is significant slack in the system and limited feedback to the driver. I imagine it was tighter when new, but even then this was not an appropriate steering setup for a sports car; it simply feels too vague in a straight line. However, in its defence, it does feel quite accurate once weighted up in a corner.

But it's not all bad - far from it. The brakes are very powerful, and with reasonable feel. Grip is also good, though you mustn't forget that power-slides are possible, especially at low speeds or in the wet. The weight is held very low - rather like a Jaguar XJ or XJ-S in that regard - and the drive is where it should be, to the rear wheels, so it feels much like a classic sports car should: you can feel the center of balance, you can trim it in the corner with the throttle, and you can have fun.


Although quite old now, this is a proper car, with a number of features which are still not fitted to every new car: power steering, electric windows, central locking and so on. But no 20-year-old car is going to be brilliant by today's standards: it's going to be tired in various areas by now, and a number of minor systems can fail. Mine had a list of faults which you should try to avoid: a non-functioning window, and the vacuum system didn't lock the doors or seats. And even when new the design was not like modern cars: it's heavy, pretty thirsty, and you need to check the oil, water and tyres regularly. And there are odd things you wouldn't think of, like the electric windows being quite slow.

As a 'practical classic', it was a good idea. My particular one was something of a lemon, but if you get a good one it's comfortable for two people, can carry four, and can lug most things you need it to. It's quick enough for UK roads, and beautiful. It's not horrific on fuel consumption, and the engineering is first-rate: get a good one and maintain it well, and it should last forever.


Buying a car is always going to be a compromise. For my budget, a more modern car might have been sensible, but would have to have been something with much less style (Golf, 406). Going back to the 1980s, I could have bought a more luxurious car like my Dad's S-class, but that wouldn't suit me as well because I prefer something sporty. And finally, an older sports car such as an MGB, Mazda RX-7 or Alfa Spider would have been nice, but not as practical: they're all two-seaters, and not as dependable as a good Merc.

Overall, I can't think of many cars with such a good blend of style, performance, practicality and value for money as the SLC. But make sure you get it thoroughly checked out first.


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