1981 Mercedes-Benz SL Review

1981 Mercedes-Benz SL 380 SLC 3.8 litre OHC Aluminum V8 from North America

Year of manufacture1981
First year of ownership1981
Most recent year of ownership2002
Engine and transmission 3.8 litre OHC Aluminum V8 Automatic
Performance marks 8 / 10
Reliability marks 9 / 10
Comfort marks 8 / 10
Dealer Service marks 4 / 10
Running Costs (higher is cheaper) 9 / 10
Overall marks (average of all marks)
7.6 / 10
Distance when acquired2 miles
Most recent distance128000 miles
Previous carPorsche 911

Summary:

A well engineered balance of many qualities

Faults:

Transmission oil leak. Front sub frame bushings. Air Conditioning Compressor. Ashtray wood trim detached. Hood latch cable stretched. Shocks, tires, brakes and services per manufacturer's recommendations. Timing chain failure. Original Becker stereo failed. Vacuum metalized chrome on plastic power window switch bodies delaminated. The plastic trim covering front seat hinges came apart.

General Comments:

The 380 SLC was a US model produced only one year, 1981, which was the final year of Mercedes SLC production. Only about 1500 380 SLCs were built. According to published Mercedes Benz specifications, this model was lighter than it's 450 SLC sister, and over 200 pounds lighter than the SL Roadster produced the same year. Both bore and stroke dimensions of the engine were smaller than the 450 motor, giving it improved fuel economy, it was quicker revving, and the car performed about the same as the slightly more powerful 450 SLC, probably due to the 380's lower weight. I am a car enthusiast and have owned and restored a number of automobiles both foreign and domestic over the years. I presently own 4 cars. This Mercedes is the only brand new car I have ever owned. It was actually a $46,000 gift.

All of the repairs listed above are common to any Mercedes Benz over a 21 year lifespan with the exception of the timing chain failure. This single year model had a weak monoplex timing chain, whereas the 450 and 500 models had a much stronger duplex chain. There was no recall by Mercedes to fix these cars because there were few built, and the problem did not become apparent until many years after the date of manufacture. Since this is an overhead cam engine, the clearance between valves and the piston crown is minimal. When the timing chain fails, Valves suddenly out of synchronization with the engine's combustion cycle collide with pistons and are damaged. The cost of repairing this damage at a Mercedes dealership today would run six to nine thousand dollars - often more than the car is worth. I repaired and updated my car in my home shop a few years ago for twelve hundred dollars in parts and machine work. I spent about 25 hours on the project, but that included restoration and detailing of the entire engine bay.

Generally speaking, these are solid, good performing, safe, well mannered automobiles that represent a fantastic value for the used car buyer, do-it-yourself restorer, or collector. This 380 has been a trusted companion for 21 years. I'm lead-footed on the open road and this car has never been nursed along. Other than some slight wrinkling of the door panel coverings, another typical Mercedes issue, the interior is as clean and unblemished as the day it was delivered. The paint is original and in remarkable condition. Every original system and accessory on the car works, and this is attributable to proper care and maintenance. Components like the radiator, brake calipers, and water pump are all original. Mercedes Benz suggests changing the brake fluid and coolant annually, which very few owners do. I do these things myself to make sure they get done and done right, and this is why the original brake and coolant components on my car are still in fine shape. Nearly every repair issue that other SL and SLC owners on this forum have listed were directly related to poor, improper, or deferred service or care by previous owners.

I get compliments every time I drive this car, especially in the last 4-5 years. I refuse every casual offer strangers make to buy it. This is because there isn't another European luxury 2+2 coupe of this quality and condition that I could own for the same money, and very few cars on the used market have a perfect maintenance history. I also intend to get my money's worth over the next 20 years, for having to repair the engine damage, resulting from a defective timing chain. I notice that clean, original examples of the final year SLC's are rarely seen for sale these days, and when they surface the asking prices have been climbing since about 1998.

Would you buy another car from this manufacturer? Yes

Review Date: 27th April, 2002

9th Apr 2004, 18:55

I recently purchased a gold 1981 380 SLC coupe from the family of the recently-deceased owner in Sacramento, CA. It is absolutely a dream to drive. I think it will need a cylinder-head rebuild soon. It has 266,000 miles on it now. The sellers told me the transmission had recently been rebuilt and the timing change "issue" addressed. The body/paint is in excellent condition. But because it has mercedes "bucket" seats instead of the standard ones the driver's door (which also controls some vacuums, etc.) doesn't always shut correctly, and has to be shut again for power windows/sunroof/locks to work. Otherwise it is in very good condition and I paid a good price. Thank you for the good words of your review, which I read prior to purchase. Any tips on good seat leather work and mechanics in the San Francisco Bay Area would be greatly appreciated.

Average review marks: 7.6 / 10, based on 1 review