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Mercedes-Benz SL Through the Years

Just as a new Mercedes-Benz SL-Class is set to be released to the public, we take a look back through the years at the historic sports car.

Looking Back at the Mercedes-Benz SL

It’s kind of hard to understate what a big impact the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class has had on sports cars, luxury cars, and motoring as a whole. More than once it’s set the bar for exterior design. Many credit it as the very first proper supercar too. Of course, some of that is based on the idea that it started out as a road-going version of an actual race car. Regardless, the SL, short for “Super Light”, is getting an all-new model for 2022, so there’s no better time to dig into its illustrious history. Let’s take a trip through the years of the Mercedes-Benz SL.

First Generation (1954-1963)

1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL - netcarshow.com

1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL – netcarshow.com |  Shop Mercedes-Benz SL-Class on Carsforsale.com

  • The very first Mercedes SL actually dates back a little further in time to 1951. That’s when the brand came up with the 300 Super Light, a 3.0-liter race car.
  • It was incredibly successful and in 1954 it spawned the 300 SL Coupe and the 190 SL Roadster.
  • The 300 SL was the same one many simply known as the Gullwing. It received those gullwing doors directly from the design found on the race car it was derived from.
  • In some circles, the 300 SL Gullwing is considered the very first supercar simply based on its racing pedigree and outstanding on-road performance for its day.
1955 Mercedes-Benz 190 SL Roadster - netcarshow.com
1955 Mercedes-Benz 190 SL Roadster - netcarshow.com
  • The 190 SL Roadster shared much of the external design of the 300 SL, but with conventional doors and a smaller engine.
  • The 300 SL made 215 horsepower from its 3.0L inline six, while the 190 SL made 105 horsepower from its 1.9L inline four.
  • In 1957, the 300 SL Roadster replaced both the Gullwing. It featured a slightly more powerful 3.0-liter engine and more advanced suspension technology.
  • Before it ended production, Mercedes fitted the SL with disk brakes and an alloy engine block for better performance.
  • All early Mercedes-Benz SLs were notable for their handling and braking prowess. Those driving dynamics proved to be a solid foundation for the next generation too.

Second Generation (1963-1971)

1963 Mercedes-Benz 230 SL Roadster - netcarshow.com
1963 Mercedes-Benz 230 SL Roadster - netcarshow.com
  • Instead of building a similar-looking car for its next generation, Mercedes boldly created another SL icon of its own in the W113 230 SL Roadster.
  • It featured an all-new exterior design with fewer curves and a more upright driving position.
  • The distinctive removable hardtop gives this generation its nickname, Pagoda. Under the hood was a 2.3-liter six-cylinder engine making 150 horsepower.
  • In 1967, Mercedes switched to a 2.5-liter six-cylinder engine capable of more torque, and in 68’ an even larger 2.8-liter unit was offered with 170 horsepower.
1963 Mercedes-Benz 230 SL Roadster - netcarshow.com
1963 Mercedes-Benz 230 SL Roadster - netcarshow.com
  • European spec models are mostly found with a manual transmission and no air conditioning.
  • American spec models tend to be the opposite and feature a four-speed automatic with air conditioning.
  • Euro models also made more power at 168 horsepower. The American’s got 158 horsepower due to a lack of emissions requirements overseas.
  • By the end of its production, the Mercedes-Benz SL had gone from a race car for the road to a luxury cruiser.

Third Generation (1971-1989)

1971 Mercedes-Benz 350 SL - netcarshow.com
1971 Mercedes-Benz 350 SL - netcarshow.com
  • While not considered as desirable as the first or second generation, the third generation of the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class cemented the car in the brand’s future.
  • It ran for 18 years and saw the introduction of the first V8 SL as well as more production volume than any SL before or after it.
  • In terms of design, the third gen SL largely built on the shape of the second generation with sharper lines and hard creases.
  • The first version in this generation was the 350 SL which featured a 3.5-liter 200-horsepower V8.
1988 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL - carsforsale.com
1988 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL - carsforsale.com
  • A year later, the US got the 450 SL with a 225-horsepower V8.
  • For the first time since the Gullwing itself, a fixed-roof coupe version of the Mercedes-Benz SL became available during this generation.
  • Six-cylinder engines were available throughout the generation and were updated from 2.8-liter units to 3.0 liters in 1985.
  • The R107 SL and its hardtop sibling are well known today for long-term reliability, great ride comfort, and decent power.

Fourth Generation (1989-2001)

1989 Mercedes-Benz 500 SL - carsforsale.com
1989 Mercedes-Benz 500 SL - carsforsale.com
  • When the 1989 Mercedes-Benz SL arrived, it updated every inch of the platform and shared many parts with the E-Class sedan of the same time period.
  • Six-cylinder engines with between 200 and 231 horsepower were available at the base level of the SL, but for the most part, V8s did the brunt of the work.
  • For the first time, Mercedes introduced a V12 version of the SL to widespread praise and adoption.
  • Technology was at the forefront of the SL-Class with features such as automatic rollbar deployment, adaptive damping, and improved crumple zones.
  • AMG became a full-time part of Mercedes during this generation and the product of that collaboration changed the game.
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1999 Mercedes-Benz 500 SL - carsforsale.com
1999 Mercedes-Benz 500 SL - carsforsale.com
  • The very first batch of AMG-tuned SL cars was utterly uncompromising. They include the SL 500 AMG, the SL 55, and the SL 60.
  • Then there’s the super-rare but historic SL 73 AMG. It uses a 7.3-liter V12 that makes 518 horsepower.
  • That same 7.3-liter V12 engine served as the basis for the one Horacio Pagani would ultimately use for the Zonda.
  • This was the last generation of the SL to feature a manual transmission.
  • Never before had the SL-Class been so luxurious, so technologically advanced, or this powerful. The next generation still took things to the next level though.

Fifth Generation (2001-2012)

2001 Mercedes-Benz 500 SL - carsforsale.com
2001 Mercedes-Benz 500 SL - carsforsale.com
  • The fifth generation of the Mercedes-Benz SL did away with the straight-six engine options and the manual transmission.
  • Instead, a trio of V6’s became available as well as a pair of automatic transmissions.
  • Now on a platform called the R230, this SL was notable for its many technological advancements including speed-sensitive steering and active suspension.
  • This generation of the SL also featured the first folding hard-top roof ever on a Mercedes-Benz SL.
2009 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class - netcarshow.com
2009 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class - netcarshow.com
  • When the SL 55 AMG was released in 2002, it was the most powerful Mercedes-Benz at the time.
  • The SL 55 AMG’s resilient 5.5-liter supercharged V8 made 470 horsepower and 516 lb-ft of torque.
  • A facelift took place for the 2008 model year that saw big changes to the exterior design of the SL.
  • Mercedes got really wild and shoehorned a 6.0-liter twin-turbocharged 500-horsepower V12 under the hood of the SL to create the SL 600.
  • Of course, AMG one-upped that with a 6.2-liter V12 called the SL 65 AMG Black Series. It made 661 horsepower.

Sixth Generation (2012-2020)

2013 Mercedes-Benz SL 500 - netcarshow.com
2013 Mercedes-Benz SL 500 - netcarshow.com
  • When the sixth generation of the SL was released, the SL 500, SL 63, and SL 65 were all on the table from early on.
  • The base V6 made 302 horsepower, a new high for the bottom SL in the lineup.
  • For the first time, the Mercedes-Benz SL was largely made from aluminum to save weight and add strength.
  • Technology again took a forefront in the production of SL with features like an adaptive windshield wiper that supplied washing solution as needed.
2017 Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG - netcarshow.com
2017 Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG - netcarshow.com
  • Two different suspensions were available. One was semi-adjustable and the other was a fully adjustable air-based system.
  • A seven-speed automatic was joined by a nine-speed transmission option for the first time.
  • The SL 63 AMG version of the car made 537 horsepower, while the SL 65 AMG bumped it up to 630 horsepower from its V12.

Seventh Generation (2022-Present)

2022 Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG - netcarshow.com

2022 Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG – netcarshow.com |  Shop Mercedes-Benz SL-Class on Carsforsale.com

  • An all-new SL-Class is set to go on sale shortly.
  • For the first time, it’s been developed entirely by Mercedes-AMG.
  • Another first for this model, the SL will feature Mercedes’ 4MATIC+ all-wheel-drive system.
  • The new Mercedes SL will also get AMG Active Ride Control with active roll stabilization and rear-axle steering.
2022 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG - netcarshow.com
2022 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG - netcarshow.com
  • Mercedes is returning to a soft-top convertible roof in place of the hard-top folding unit used in the previous generation.
  • Interestingly, the driver information display is larger than the center display, 12.3-inches compared to 11.9-inches.
  • Sales of the new SL-Class should begin any day now, continuing a legendary Mercedes model.

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Stephen Rivers

Stephen Rivers is a car enthusiast who loves all things built with passion, extending to nearly all car cultures. After obtaining an occupational studies degree in sports medicine, Stephen turned his attention to sports cars. He was employed as an auto shop manager, spent time in auto sales, and worked as a software developer for a racing company, but Stephen began writing about cars over 10 years ago. When he's not in front of a computer screen, he's racing his own Bugeye Subaru WRX in as many autocross and rallycross competitions as he can.

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