After my recent explosive automotive setbacks, I was certainly due for a win. Surprisingly, it came in the form of an old V12 German convertible that was literally held together by duct tape. In just a few short months since purchase, my 1997 Mercedes SL600 has been transformed into a total stunner — and sorting it out cost way less than I thought.
Now, I didn’t go into this purchase totally blind, as I actually briefly owned this car several years ago. This was during my car dealer days — and despite how much I loved the SL600, I was in the business of selling cars to put food on the table. I sold it to a life-long friend, who ended up barely driving the car. Other than catching the bumper on a curb and almost ripping it off, it’s almost like he put the car in a time capsule for me — and then he sold it back for less than half the price.
At $5,000, I once again owned a flagship of the Mercedes line — a car praised for its perfect blend of classic themes converging with modern appointments. And despite the duct tape, the car was still a low mileage, decently clean example. Conservatively rated at 389 horsepower back in the day, this was the first Mercedes convertible ever offered with a V12 engine, and the smoothness of the powertrain was somehow matched by the magical hydraulic suspension system. This generation of SL also touted a huge list of new comfort and safety features, which makes it feel like a modern, practical car even today.
This purchase may have seemed like a rare moment of brilliance on my part — but the worst thing you can do to an old Mercedes is allow it to sit for long periods. In my experience, lack of use causes more problems than daily driving — and this SL600 certainly didn’t benefit from its long slumber. In addition to the battery going flat, the hydraulic suspension collapsed, the worn brakes rusted over and the tires were ruined. The soft top was left down for years, and the hydraulic system seemed too weak to pull the canvas top back up to the closed position.
The soft top was the most concerning part, as the numerous hydraulic bits are known for failing. Fixing one failed component usually prompts the next weakest part to fail — so it’s recommended to have the whole system sent out for rebuilding at once. The last time I did this with an SL this vintage, it cost over $2,000. I got lucky this time, as my mechanic, the Car Wizard, was able to revive the system with a little lube and diligence. Additionally, the power windows needed to be reprogrammed due to the dead battery, which was confusing the soft top computer. I expected to spend thousands on reviving the top — but it ended up only setting me back $180.
Before taking delivery of the car, the previous owner was kind enough to install a new battery — and after a few minutes of idling, the hydraulic suspension eventually elevated to normal height, though the fluid in the reservoir was low. I also noticed that the shocks felt stiffer than normal, which led me to believe the fluid accumulators had collapsed. These sphere-shaped attachments store excess fluid when the suspension is compressed over bumps — and when the gas-filled bladders inside of them fail, the whole sphere fills with fluid. In addition to giving the SL the ride characteristics of an old farm truck, it also drops the fluid level in the reservoir. So it was obvious these accumulators needed to be replaced — and with a fluid flush of the system, this job set me back $570. Not the cheapest repair, of course, but it could have been much worse.
Things get cheaper from here, as the brakes weren’t too expensive to replace at $470, and a simple recharge of the air conditioning system at $100 brought cold air back into the cabin. The only fluid leak cost a measly $60, as all that was needed was a new copper washer on a hydraulic line. In total, I was only $6,380 into a fully functional, lower mileage SL600 — which is amazing. But, unfortunately, it didn’t look the part of a flagship Mercedes.
Since I had saved so much on the mechanical repairs, and I needed new tires anyway, I decided to treat the car to some AMG Aero monoblock wheels. Prices on these have doubled since I last remembered shopping for them, as I ended up spending $2,000 on a freshly refinished 18-inch staggered set — and I spent another $800 to have tires mounted and balanced to them. It certainly hurt spending that much on a set of wheels, but it felt like it was worth it the moment I saw them mounted to the car. While the period-correct wheels completely transformed the look of my SL600, it still had its warts from the curb hit on the front bumper, as well as some paint damage to the passenger door and rear bumper. Thankfully the car is black, which makes painting individuals panels easy, as there’s no worry about matching the color to the older existing paint. Refinishing these three panels cost $700 — and after a final buff and a $100 interior detail, I now had a near-showroom-fresh-looking vintage SL.
With the wheels and paint repair added to the mechanical repairs, I ended up nearly doubling my investment with $4,980 spent. Still, even at $10,000 all-in, it’s way less than any comparable SL600 available on Autotrader.com — and I expect it would now easily fetch $14,000 as it sits. Now I just have to decide whether I want to keep it or not. My stable is pretty crowded — especially with old Mercedes models — but if I was going to keep one more, I can’t think of anything better for the price.