When Janis Joplin wailed: “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz”, she wasn’t praying for an A-Class hatchback on a three-year PCP deal. Nope, given the Texan rock star’s friends all drove Porsches, one suspects only the most glamorous Benz would do. In the early 1970s, as now, that meant an SL.
The SL name (from the German: Super Leicht) was first used on the iconic 300SL ‘Gullwing’ in 1954, and has graced Mercedes-Benz sports cars ever since. The longest-lived iteration was the ‘R107’ SL, produced from 1971 until 1989.
Ironically, it had another famous Texan connection – as the car driven by Bobby Ewing in 1980s TV phenomenon, Dallas.
This R107 is the same vibrant Signal Red colour as Ewing’s 450SL, but the way it drives is very different. Modified to SportLine specification by SL Shop – a world-leading SL specialist, based in Stratford-upon-Avon – it boasts upgraded suspension, better brakes and a Porsche-baiting power output. A car more suited to British B-roads than American freeways, in other words.
SL Shop’s huge showroom houses around 60 cars for sale, plus countless others awaiting repairs or restoration. Even amidst this embarrassment of riches, however, the SportLine still stands out.
Hunkered down by 80mm on coilover springs and Bilstein dampers, with 15-inch Mercedes ‘Mexican hat’ alloys filling its arches, it looks poised and purposeful.
Pace and space
Under its long bonnet, the SL’s 3.0-litre engine has been treated to a ported cylinder head, lighter flywheel, racier camshaft, bigger injectors and a stainless steel exhaust. The result is 255hp and 250lb ft of torque – up from 185hp and 188lb ft in a standard 300SL – plus a big-chested rumble that’s more Detroit V8 than Stuttgart straight-six.
Stir the five-speed manual gearbox and 0-60mph takes just 5.9 seconds. Top speed is an autobahn-storming 169mph.
The SportLine’s interior is retrimmed in soft Nappa leather and tactile Alcantara (a type of man-made suede). There are no glaring touchscreens, thankfully, but subtle details like the red-striped seatbelts, custom white dials and AMG-style double stitching on the dashboard add a dash of modernity.
Lest we forget, the SL also has two child-sized rear seats and a practical 260-litre boot. Try squeezing two suitcases into a Porsche 911.
Sideways in an SL
Charming as they are, regular R107s have all the dynamic acuity of a pedalo on choppy waters. It only takes one corner to realise this version has been totally transformed. The SportLine turns in keenly with little body-roll, then holds its line with real resolve.
Instead of chronic understeer, there’s a sense of progressive, throttle-adjustable balance that is easy to exploit. Sideways in an SL? It seems somewhat unbecoming, but I felt obliged to try…
Even at slower speeds and in traffic, this SL is a more engaging car to drive. The manual transmission – a rarity on an R107 – adds an extra layer of interaction, and helps you to enjoy all 7,000 revs (the redline is 1,000rpm higher than a 300SL). And with the roof down, the metallic snarl from the twin tailpipes is just glorious.
Say a little prayer
The SportLine isn’t perfect, of course. Despite some tweaks, its recirculating ball steering is still slow-witted, while the taut ride is more akin to a hot hatchback than a convertible cruiser. However, having driven plenty of restomods, this one tugged at my heart-strings more than most. It makes a driver’s car of the SL without diluting its classic character.
This particular SportLine is currently for sale at £140,000. Alternatively, SL Shop can build you one for around £150,000 – including a donor vehicle – or offer the parts separately to modify your own R107.
So… this or a brand new Mercedes-AMG SL with electronic everything and nearly 500kg of extra weight? I know which one I’ll be praying for.
Tim Pitt writes for Motoring Research
PRICE: From £130,000
TOP SPEED: 169mph
FUEL ECONOMY: 25mpg (est.)
KERB WEIGHT: 1,410kg