Our Cars : Richard’s SLK and the roadster revival

Richard Kilpatrick reckons we’re in a golden age of affordable open-tops…

And here’s why

Back in the ‘80s, one of the photographers working at our studio was a properly keen young bloke with a taste for bikes and cars. The memorable experiences of his automotive youth are invariably how desperately unreliable and ratty these vehicles were – and the one that sticks in my mind was a Spitfire 1500.

So when a vicious staircase assaulted me and my solution to having one leg for three pedals was to grab a Mercedes-BenzSLK – a car I’d previously dismissed as being of ‘that’ era of Daimler-Benz products – due to the astoundingly low cost, it dawned on me that I was effectively driving the equivalent of that blighted Triumph…

Let me explain. In Britain, the roadster drought was astonishing in the 1980s – to the extent that whereas a 20-something in the mid ‘80s might have cast eyes upon an MG, a Triumph, perhaps a Healey of some flavour, and a variety of imported lovelies like the Peugeot 304 Cabriolet, by 1992 they weren’t really on the radar. They were classics – in fact, the only one to still be lurking around as a used car was the Fiat X1/9 – which I had, and enjoyed, when I was 19 and the car was only 4 years old – yet was utterly welcome at a classic car show parading around with the mid ‘70s 1300s.

British cars like MG Bs, TR7s and Spitfires, despite being only around 12-13 years old – even younger sometimes in the case of models like the TR7 – were already seen as either classics or anachronisms, depending on how fresh the memory of them was with the source of the opinion. In the mid ’90s I considered buying a Jensen Healey GT from Clelands, the Volvo dealer – it felt like an old classic car, yet it was only 18 years old or so.

Now, I don’t know what these old cars cost in real terms – I got the impression one of the factors affecting our young photographer’s choice was budget, and that’s possibly why his examples were less than reliable.

My SLK was well under £3000. For that, I got a relatively uncommon Yellowstone 230K automatic with MOT & Tax on it, good cosmetic and structural condition for a 14 year old car, and a good to average interior. A patchy history seemed to imply generally good care, though aftermarket and ill-fitting wheels and a generally coarse engine note suggested recent neglect. Ill-fitting third-party rims look as bad as overused colour popping effects in photographs…

Almost everything worked – in fact as far as I was concerned, everything did work! More on that later…

The SLK’s footwells are spacious enough to deal with a leg in a cast (though the organ-style pedal was not as compatible with left-foot driving, so the car got a rest until I could use my right one in the end), and the boot – with the roof up – is huge. There’s not much headroom, and the angle of the small roof means I tend to clout my head on the cant rail when checking over my shoulder. Most of the time the roof is down, as the car is garaged, so it’s not really a problem! Unlike the full size SL, leaving the roof down all the time isn’t destroying an expensive canvas and plastic window top, and in day to day use it’s more convenient than removing a hardtop and more secure than a softtop (particularly the SL’s vented example). The M111 four cylinder, 16v engine puts out just shy of 200bhp, enough for 0-60 in 7.3 seconds and 143mph. Or ‘adequate’, really.

The steering is precise enough, and better than modern systems, but not as talkative or as sharp as the MX5. It’s a nice car to be in, feels solid and the general condition suggests that rumours of the death of MB quality were greatly exaggerated – it is, in areas, inferior to the W124/W201 era of solidity, but those cars were as overrated as the C-class was underrated, in hindsight – we tolerated rust on the W124, decried it on the W210, for products that were relatively cheaper and more sophisticated.

Now at six months of ownership, the SLK celebrates by showing what it can do when running correctly, and it’s impressive… getting there has been a fun, and not overly expensive experience. More to come on that; for now, it’s interesting how many two-seater softtops there are on the market.

21st Century Roadsters

Perhaps the roadster was killed off, like the proper sports coupé, by derivatives of hot hatchbacks. When I was a young driver, the Golf GTi/Clipper Cabriolet was almost an inevitable solution when looking for a convertible. In fact, it felt like the roadster end of the market was held up by some fairly ropey specialist cars… with the mainstream manufacturers opting for fairly dull conversions.

VW’s Karmann Ghia gave way to the Golf. Peugeot’s pretty cabriolets were replaced by the 205 Cabriolet – still pretty, but with four seats and a roll over bar combined with an upright driving position, not really the sporting drive that a dashing young blade around town was looking for. And the 205 was related to the Talbot Samba Cabriolet, a car which only looks right in brown.

Fiat’s family car line had given us the 124, which really refused to die in Lada form. Yet it also spawned some stunning variations – the 124 Spider was a remarkably attractive car that continued in production for some time, for the US market at least – Europe got a drophead version of the 124’s successor… the Strada/Ritmo.

MG didn’t even dare to tread the waters of convertibles; Rover wouldn’t do that until the ’90s. Enterprising chaps with hacksaws slicing the top off the Metro and Montego really didn’t cut it against fully engineered cabriolets, though the success of the MG R V8 and the proposed redesign of the MG B hinted that perhaps, the B could have carried on in the same way the Mini did. The real loss for Austin Rover was throwing away the TR7 redesign, Broadside, which refined the original drophead into a very mature design with mass-market appeal.

Toyota’s MR2 lost the raw appeal of the Mk 1, itself almost a copy of the Fiat X1/9. The Mk 2 MR2 was heavier, grown up; a spider version was produced in limited numbers.

Only Reliant tried with any effort to fill the vacuum – the plastic-and-spaceframe SS1 was a sophisticated handler and a well proportioned, albeit challenging design – let down by poor build, some cheap implementation of clever solutions, and generally substandard finishing.

For young drivers, the landscape is of course wrecked by insurance premiums that seem positively unreasonable. Which is a shame, because our stars of the ‘70s have been replaced by a troupe of affordable, fantastic little cars, few of which have any serious drawbacks compared to their spiritual forebears.

Bringing up the mass market of the MG B and perhaps, the Midget, we have that staple of the roadster market, the Mazda MX5. These are critically acclaimed and deservedly so, yet a basic S1 1600 will make you feel at home even if your heart lies with Abingdon’s finest. Forget the Hethel cues of the pop-up nights, bumperless nose and fake chain-driven Twink cam-cover – the flat cardboard and vinyl door trims, the hard plastic dash, clicky switches and sheer fun of the MX5 are pure MG Midget or B.

For the Spitfire, GT6 and the like, may I offer the BMW Z3. Not a car I’m particularly fond of, the parallels between the Z3 and Triumphs are fairly obvious, and the flat rump, long nose and general character of them reminds me very much of the Spitfire – the GT6 of course being the breadvan M-Coupé.

The SLK feels so much like a TR6 to drive, that it’s almost an insult to Mercedes’ designers. The vague steering compared to the sharp responses of the MX5, the chattering of the hardtop seals… but also a maturity to it. Yet it’s also successfully evocative of the original 190SL, a wholly deliberate act by the designers. Although perhaps it’s fairer to liken the SLK to the Sunbeam Alpine – a strong, sophisticated alternative to the MG B which is often overlooked.

Porsche’s Boxster revived the 914/6 concept, though as they reach middle age, they’re proving to be almost as unreliable – and a considerable amount more costly – than 1996’s other mid-engined debutante…

The MG F was so modern, so accomplished, that I struggle to place it. Rather than being an echo of a past benchmark, the F IS a benchmark in itself – and hopefully will be recognised as such.

Fiat’s Barchetta, far from reviving the 124 Spider, feels more like the real replacement for the 304 Cabriolet than Peugeot’s lardy folding hard-top alternatives.

However – this is just one opinion. The fact, the solid part of this, is that from Alfa Spider to Z3, a smorgasbord of affordable roadsters lurk within the classifieds of 2012 – and with a late summer hopefully lurking in September, there’s still time to enjoy it before finding that the winter layup involves rather less rust, and rather more computing power, than it did in the ‘80s.

Richard Kilpatrick
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  1. Couldn’t agree more. I’ve got both an MGB GT (with the Webasto roof for open-air thrills) and a MK1 MX-5 1.6.

    The Mazda is the easier to live with of the two in terms of starter classics but the MG has more character and a better sound, and it’s the one which seems to make more people smile.

    Driving the Mazda’s a little like ordering a Bacardi Breezer on a night out; it is, depending on who you’re with, a little bit girly, but it’s cheap and fun in a giggly, youthful sort of way. It’s a 22-year-old and behaves like one, with its modern mechanicals, cheap and simple soft top and its sprightly but not scary handling meaning the joys of driving one is accessible to just about everyone.

    The MK1 version is usefully more delicated than the ones that followed and yet tougher than the sports cars of the MGB’s generation, which is why it’s not surprising that it’s the best selling sports car of all time. As a sports car recipe, I don’t think it’s ever been bettered.

    But… but… it’s the MGB that gives me the bigger buzz. Driving it – in fact, doing anything with it – is like ordering a pint of Adnams Tally Ho on a night out, which might mark you out as a bearded real ale enthusiast to the casual observer but has an ineffable depth of character the alcopop just doesn’t. It is a car you describe not with figures and statistics, but with the carefully-chosen phrases best known to Observer wine critics.

    The Mazda is, I think, tomorrow’s must-have classic because it’s more fun more of the time than the MG, firing faithfully into life day after day before dancing deftfully from corner to corner wherever you go. The MGB, with its heavier steering in particular, demands more of your attention when you’re driving it.

    I absolutely love both of them – the biggest problem is choosing between them on a sunny day!

  2. I thought the MX5 was fantastic, really – I was strongly considering selling the Rover 114 Cabriolet and getting an MX5 1.6 anyway, before my accident.

    But can you imagine, say, in 1992 being about to buy a 1969 MG B for less than an average month’s wages AND rely on it, every day? Aside from a proper battle over a low priced S-limited I saw recently, typical 1989-1993 models are under £1000, and unless you’re really unlucky the worst you’ll have to face is rust on the outer sill – which is obvious and there are so many, you can just walk away and find another.

    I should give an MG B a proper go sometime, but yeah, The MX5 Mk 1 is pretty much perfect.

  3. That photo of the dark green Alpine reminds me of a one that a young work colleague had in the early 70’s (I was young then too!). He used to give me a lift home in it, from College on our day-release days. I think it had alloy wheels too.

    All these roadsters look in good nick.

  4. Since 1998 I’ve had two SLKs, one in Linarite Blue/black leather and a facelift car in Yellowstone/yellow & black leather.

    Never had any bother with either of them. Did everything you’d expect and never felt built down to a price.

    The only shock was doing a factory collection in 2001 on the yellow one. It’s an experience I’d recommend. We went to Bremen and the M-B PR machine goes into overdrive but what threw me was that the cars were basically hand made! There was very little machinery in the factory and lots of men! They even made wiring looms by laying out coloured wires on along a suitably marked table depending on which accessories you’d ordered. Which was how mine didn’t have the electric seats I’d ordered since they’d fitted the wrong loom! I even watched two men fitting the windscreens using a mastic gun and two sets of glass suckers to position it, followed by a good push to seat it!

    Nevertheless, neither ever let me down and I enjoyed them immensely.

  5. I’ve had a couple of small age-related issues – nothing I’d attribute to any particular failing of manufacture or design – and they’ve been surprisingly easy to fix. An article is incoming…

    I can only imagine what collecting a car like this would be like! Andrew Elphick’s done it and posted a story – http://www.aronline.co.uk/blogs/2010/10/08/b-klasse-delivery-turned-into-holiday/

    Did they fix the seats before you took it away?

  6. MX5 are great cars. I have been a passenger on many occassions and have had the chance once to drive 1 and it was brilliant. I have had two friends and an Uncle who have owned Mk1’s (well Uncles was a Eunos import), while my colleague a young 20 year old lad bought a current model which was a year old. It is starting to become cool again to drive sportscars as I have seen more kids driving them. Maybe the day of the hothatch is dead or ist it just cheaper to insure a sports car than a hotc hatch.

  7. MX5s do attract a similar crowd to the classic British sportscar, owners clubs and meetings, drives together through Scotland…

    The one we never got was the Pontiac Fiero, a brave effort that was never replaced by GM, the Toyota MR2 and MX5 taking the market forward.

    Saloon/hatchback derived convertible may not have had the driving purity of proper roadsters, but I always thought the 306 cabriolet was a very stylish thing…

  8. I had a 306 Cabriolet, and yes, it was definitely a pretty car, and handled quite well – I wouldn’t call it sporty, as such, but it felt a lot stronger than the R19 Cabriolet and a lot sleeker than the Escort/Golf/Astra lot.

    Followed it up with a New Beetle Cabriolet, which was about as sporty as sitting indoors watching Murder She Wrote and eating scones.

  9. @ Richard: I hope you are recovering ok, I have yet to break a bone, although I came close the other day when some bright spark decided he needed to eat, hold his phone, and fiddle with his radio at the same time – on a local back road thats more like a RAC rally forest stage than a navigable highway – I really like having ABS.

    The fun part with the Sunbeam Alpine SI/SII is that you can take the H120 holbay engine and drop it straight in to replace the 80/85hp engine fitted as standard. This gives you a useful 27hp extra. It makes a difference, trust me. The first sceptre I had, someone had retro fitted this engine without telling anyone (including me) – and the speedo didnt work. I knew the RPMs in o/d top were 20.1 in the manual so I assumed 3000rpm was 60mph – up until the friend who was following me asked me if I was aware I was doing more like 85mph… eek.
    If you want even more fun, and horrible understeer you can get your hands on the Tiger version with the 283cui ford V8. Chrysler killed *that* when they took over Rootes – could hardly have a Ford engine in a Chrysler product. Sadly they didnt replace it with a 318 V8 or even a 318 6-Pack (probably a good thing because both would probably have been lethal).

  10. The Tiger’s far, far too expensive, though. Last one I saw was so far into five figures it would have been a choice between that and a Lagonda!

    Mine was an SV with a 1725, IIRC, but it died at a very inconvenient stage in life so got sold and replaced with the 500SL. Regret it now, of course, but I didn’t have the garage space, tools or time and got increasingly frustrated with a very determined non-runner. Even tried fitting one of those new 123Ignition dizzys and all that sort of stuff, but it just wouldn’t fire up despite everything checking out!

    (It also had rather more filler in it than I was comfortable with, particularly around the dash/windscreen panel).

    The leg’s okay, apart from wondering if one of the screws is about to escape. I don’t recommend breaking bones even out of curiosity, it’s been a real nuisance!

  11. The MG F was so modern, so accomplished, that I struggle to place it. Rather than being an echo of a past benchmark, the F IS a benchmark in itself – and hopefully will be recognised as such.

    with this senteces you make me happy and you desribed one of my favorite cars without big descriptions and comparision.

    thanks Richard

  12. I think the most usable and easy to live without of these cars must be the MX-5 although i have never been a fan of these,what i have began to notice with a few SLK’s is they get bought for a few grand and next news they suffer with EML’s which generally means a cylinder misfire and a goosed cylinder head,Dronsfields in Oldham a independant MB specialist just replace the engines because of this,that said if you get a good 230K they are satisfyingly brisk andafter that,the hydrogas MGF’s were an hoot to drive,the steel suspension ones far too hard a ride.

  13. Of course it’s not all sweetness and light with the SLK, many are already riddled with rust the autos have a problem where transmission fluid and coolant mix in the heat exchanger taking the ‘box out and electrics can be a real burden. I’m sure there are many good ones one there, but many have already met their maker with terminal tin-worm.

    The problems with Mercs of this era are not over-egged – they are often rolling disaster zones.

  14. Few SLKs have departed due to terminal rot – the rust generally nibbles the edges. But they’re up to 16 years old now; anything’s going to rust at this stage, the problem for MB’s reputation was that the rust on the bootlid/front wings would show up when they were still quite recent and valuable. Yes, it’s shocking, but it’s hardly new – my 8 year old W124 was starting to rust in the rear quarter panels.

    Transmission fluid/coolant mixing is a risk on so many cars, it’s hardly an MB exclusive fault.

    But… more to come. If I didn’t DIY, maybe mine would be a rolling disaster zone, maybe not. I think with any car, a bit of specialist knowledge is needed – I can’t weld, so a ‘simple’ car like a TR7 is a complete disaster for me, but trim, components, complexity, I don’t mind.

  15. Francis: Tell me more about this EML (MIL? Engine Management Light?) and goosed cylinder heads? Engine replacement seems drastic – the main failings are oil contamination of the loom and so forth, which aren’t cheap to fix through a dealer but I don’t see how swapping the engine is much of a shortcut.

    A few reports of HGF on M111s, but mostly they’re very robust – so I’m interested in what the fault is here!

  16. @14 plenty of mid 1990s to early 2000 Mercs were scrapped for rust under ten years old, something common in the 70s and 80s, but by the mid 90s most cars were well rust-proofed – Mercs weren’t. The SLK probably fairs better as they are often lightly-used weekend cars.

  17. @15 the heads on these are prone to valve seat problems and distortion of the combustion chambers,on top of that you have small brass bleed valves underneath the inlet manifold that cause similar misfire monitoring on engine management,and cam variators rattle on throttle blip (surely familiar?)i replaced an head on a C class kompressor but it was never the same,most independants just find good engines to replace because there is no guarantee of a cure-they run fine just the EML comes on,and it cocks up long and short term fuel trims up!

  18. I’ve genuinely never heard of that. I’d be more inclined to suspect that most indies are failing to diagnose wiring loom problems and are swapping over engines because unsurprisingly, a known-good used engine probably comes with a known-good loom.

    Mine doesn’t even have an EML – that’s on 2001 on models, unsurprisingly the same era with the worst loom issues relating to oil ingress from the transmission or cam actuator. There’s a knock sensor under the inlet manifold, but that’s hardly unusual tech these days.

    Not saying that it’s not the case, but it’s the first I’ve heard of any inherent issue with the M111 engine, rather than all the bits attached to it which have a few well-understood failings. Given that if I had a trailer I could have a beautiful black Alfa Twinspark mouldering on my drive too, I think the SLK is a relatively easy thing to deal with – but then maybe I’ve got a Mercedes mentality and not an Alfa or PSA one 😀

  19. (And as an aside, I’ll happily have a look over a car diagnosed as needing an engine replacement, given that the cost of that replacement has gotta be well into four figures and SLKs are hovering near £2K for the older/less desirable ones).

  20. @19 Im MB dealer level trained and accredited,we see a lot of them,if you get the chance to see a MB star machine at work with WIS installed you would be impressed,i have seen the oil in the looms as well BMW suffer with thier mechatronic sleeve as well. But the misfires are genuine engine faults checked with pressure transducers etc and the HERMANN MB scope,amazed you have never heard of these problems!

  21. Nice SLK. Yellow suits it. Really tempted to buy one myself, but then I also get tempted by the R107 SL for not much more cash.

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