In this article we’re going to cover the main differences, both cosmetic and performance related between the Mercedes R107 500 SL Euro spec and the North American market 560 SL. We’ll cover the ‘why’ and ‘how’ regarding the 500 and 560 SL in another article… and that story can’t be told without mentioning the 380 SL and the ‘grey market’ of the 1980s. For now… onward, to some photos of 500 and 560 SLs I’ve taken of my own cars and customer cars over the years to illustrate the primary, visual differences between the two models with a brief overview of performance differences.
The easiest way to tell a European spec R 107 500 SL apart from the North American market 560 SL is the bumpers. The European car has slim bumpers with a rubber bump strip going all the way around the edge. U.S. cars have much larger chromed steel bumpers with rubber over riders and large plastic pieces that wrap around the corners of the car.
Why the difference? In the early 1970s U.S. government regulations required cars in the U.S. to be equipped with what are called ‘5 mph bumpers’ to prevent damage to the body of the car and associated safety systems if involved in a low speed impact, say, while parallel parking. Mercedes came up with the bumpers you see on the 560 SL, although they were first used on 450 SL models starting with the 1974 model year.
To most anyone’s eye, the look of the slim bumpers found on the Euro 500 SL is more pleasing to the eye than the battering ram bumpers found on the 560 SL. Furthermore, the slim bumpers were what the Mercedes designers penned in the late 60s when they originally designed the car. On both models, clear fog lights tuck under the bumper nicely. The 560 SL received amber turn signals attached to the underside of the front bumper adding to the ‘clunky’ presentation from the front.
Headlights are the other easy way to tell a 500 SL Euro spec car from a 560 SL. All European R107 models received this same headlight treatment, a single, rectangular glass lens with a reflector unit and two bulbs inside. U.S. Spec cars were required to use ‘sealed beam’ headlamps in accordance with U.S. governmental regulations. As a result, U.S. cars have two, round sealed beam units housed within a rectangular housing. It’s a matter of taste as to which headlamp you prefer, but the general consensus is that the European headlamps are more attractive, and again, this is the head lamp style the Mercedes designers originally applied to the R107 design.
European headlamps can be installed on U.S. cars and you see it from time to time. Further proof that Euro lights are more desirable can be seen in their price on teh used market. Today, a set of used, OEM European headlamps ranges in price from about $1,500 to $2,500 depending upon condition and they aren’t necessarily easy to find! A very clean, used set of U.S. spec R107 lights can usually be found for under $200.
Despite the 560 SL being a larger displacement engine, 5,547 cubic centimeters compared to the 500 SL’s 4,973 cc, the actual horsepower and performance advantage goes to the 500 SL. The 560 SL needs the additional displacement to overcome the horsepower robbing emissions controls found on U.S. cars. Even with a larger engine, it couldn’t quite keep up with the 500 SL. Both cars were equipped with a 4 speed automatic transmission, a 4 speed or 5 speed manual was available on the 500 SL, all U.S. market 560 SLs were automatics. The table below lays out the performance differences between the two cars. 0 – 60 times vary depending upon where you look. The numbers below are based on numbers published in period.
Horsepower: 240 (DIN) 227 (DIN)
Top Speed: 140 mph 137 mph
0-60 mph: 6.9 sec 8 sec
These Mercedes R107s were anything but sports cars. Tipping the scales at over 3,500 Lbs. they were better ‘boulevard cruisers’ than sports cars. Like most Mercedes, they do perform very well over high speed, long distance highway runs, like an autobahn drive on the A8 from Stuttgart to Munich, if you’re brave enough.
Another small difference that actually increases performance in the form of a couple of miles per hour and a couple of miles per gallon when measured over a long distance highway run is the rubber spoiler added to the edge of the trunk lid of the 500 SL.
Mix and Match Euro and U.S. Spec Parts
In the U.S. today it’s not uncommon to find a 500 SL with U.S. spec lights and bumpers or an American market 560 SL with European headlights and or bumpers. This happens for a couple of reasons. Lots of people just like the Euro look better, so they might put Euro bumpers and / or Euro lights on their 560 SL. The bumper conversion is a little more involved than just unbolting one set and putting on the other, however, headlamps can be changed out easily.
What’s more common is seeing U.S. spec sealed beam headlights on a 500 SL. When some grey market cars were imported they were required to be converted to meet U.S. D.O.T. regulations. That means, Euro lights and bumpers would be removed and U.S. spec equipment would replace them. What was often more problematic, and expensive for the person importing the car, was having all the U.S. emissions equipment added.
There were ‘conversion’ firms all over the U.S. that added catalytic converters, different exhaust systems, smog pumps, etc. to imported 500 SLs so they would meet U.S. D.O.T. regulations. The quality of this work varied based on the experience and competency levels of the shop doing the work. Many times, once a 500 SL was completely converted it would pass the D.O.T. inspection. The owner would take the car home, take off the new U.S. bumpers and lights the car needed to pass D.O.T. inspection and put the original Euro equipment back on. So, today, you often have a mix and match of parts on these cars. The ideal 500 SL is one that received a D.O.T. exemption upon importation and didn’t have any stateside modifications made to it.
The Third Brake Light
When the 560 SL was introduced in 1986 the U.S. had mandated all cars have a third brake light situated in the middle of the rear of the vehicle. Mercedes added a third brake light, towards the front edge of the trunk lid, just about at the base of where the hard top sits when fitted on the new 560 SL. The third brake light remained in the same place for the 1987 model year, but for the final two years of the 560 SL, 1988 and 1989, the third brake light was installed on the very rear edge of the 560 SL’s trunk lid. Third brake lights were never installed on the 500 SL. The red 500 SL that appears in some of the photos here had its third brake light added once it arrived in the U.S.
These primary cosmetic differences between Euro and U.S. cars above also apply to other R107 models, like the U.S. market 380 SL and Euro market 280, 300 and very rare 420 SL models. Below, some photos of Euro vs. U.S. cars.
All photos taken by Dave Tobin, Mercedes-Market.