This Stick-Shift 1992 Mercedes-Benz 300SL-24 Has Us Feeling Blue
Very few cars exemplify early 1990s wealth quite like Mercedes-Benzes of the era. The cars were blocky in a kind of old-school way and incredibly over-engineered. In fact, their simple, angular sheet metal wasn’t too far removed, stylistically, from the blocky and huge car phones that graced so many of these luxury rides. Talk about period appropriateness! And in 1992, if you wanted to show off the size of your . . . bank account, you bought a Benz. If you wanted to be especially showy, then you bought an R129-generation SL-class roadster such as the beautiful blue-over-blue-over-blue example pictured here.
Say you’re more of a contrarian? Well, so long as you had money in 1992, Mercedes-Benz had just the car for you: The stick-shift 300SL. These are rare—fewer than 200 are said to have made it to the United States between 1990 and 1993, and the five-speed manual transmission was only available on the six-cylinder 300SL model. The more powerful, eight-cylinder 500SL was an automatic-only model. Really, the 300SL was effectively automatic-only, too, given how few were sold here with the stick. No surprise, the option was dropped from Benz’s U.S. lineup when the SL was refreshed for 1994 with an enlarged inline-six engine (now displacing 3.2 liters; up from 3.0) and became the SL320.
The combination of a manual gearbox and the SL’s smooth, surprisingly raspy inline-six was a good one. Driving one takes some mental adjustment, however. The shift pattern is an odd “dog-leg” design, meaning first gear is down and to the left, with second up to the right, third below, and fourth and fifth in the farthest totem of the H-pattern. This is a race-inspired setup, as it places second and third in line with one another for quicker, surer shifting, and makes it more difficult to accidentally slip into first gear while puttering about at higher speeds. Newbies, however, will surely get hung up the first time they go to pull away from a stop and find themselves accidentally in reverse, which is located above and slightly to the left of first (where first gear would be on most other cars equipped with a manual transmission).
Why does a sturdy cruiser like the 300SL have a dog-leg transmission? Against all evidence to the contrary, it’s likely not so that enthusiasts could nerd out over how rare and bizarre the stick shift gearbox of the 300SL is nearly 30 years in the future. The correct answer is probably “why not?” (It’s worth pointing out that the Mercedes 190E 2.5-16 Evolution performance sedan of the same era also featured a dogleg five-speed.) In any event, it was bolted up to the then-new 3.0-liter, 24-valve M104 engine, which kicked out a decent 217 horsepower. Other than its manual transmission, this 300SL is the same elegant, expensive two-door roadster as its self-shifting counterparts, As such it has the same ridiculously complicated power-folding cloth top (all came with a body-color hardtop, too) and luxurious interior expected of the model line.
Early R129 SLs, 300 or otherwise, were also available in a number of delicious and sometimes odd color combinations, as evidenced by this very blue example that’s currently for sale on BringaTrailer.com. It’s an Italian-market car originally, so instead of “300SL” badging, it wears far cooler “300SL-24” lettering above its left rear taillight. That said, it’s fundamentally the same as U.S.-market models of the time. (This one was imported in 2007, according to the listing.) Its Nautical Blue paint (with lighter-blue bumpers and lower body cladding) seems to never end. Hell, even the car’s interior is blue (Royal Blue, if we’re being technical): from the leather seats to the dashboard to the carpeting and even the steering wheel and shift knob! The cloth soft top is—you guessed it—also blue. Such color-over-color-over-color combinations weren’t uncommon on Mercedes-Benzes at the time, and you can find similar treatments in red, green, and even gray and white.
No matter which color scheme catches your fancy, you’ll look fancy in any R129-era SL-Class. The six-cylinder cars—at least, those without the rare and sought-after manual transmission—are fairly inexpensive, too, although maintenance costs may run rather high. Most folks strive for the 500-badged V-8 models for which prices are rising, and sadomasochists or the actually wealthy can just have the 600-badged V-12 models. Take ’em and their chilling upkeep costs, because we’re more than happy to hear the sweet sound of a six-cylinder engine and feel the mechanical connection of a dog-leg manual transmission.
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