Car Stories: The Sleek SLK
Updated: Nov 16, 2021
When the market for small convertible sports cars exploded in the 1990s - thanks mainly to the Mazda MX5 - Mercedes took its time to reveal its hand. It was a wise decision: the resulting SLK managed to be different and distinctive in a market that had become saturated with me-too Mazda clones.
Here's the story of the SLK, why we've added one to our fleet and the history of our car.
First, Some History
In 1989 Mazda played a curve ball. Its new MX5 seemed to take the car industry entirely by surprise. Here was a small, inexpensive convertible designed expressly for a market that every other car maker had decided expired when the last MGB rolled off the production line. Received wisdom in the late 80s was that sports car drivers wanted hot hatches. Not convertibles.
Except they did. Or at least they did when offered a car that looked a lot like a classic Lotus Elan, drove like one - in fact, arguably better - and came blessed with that most un-Lotus like of characteristics: Mazda levels of durability and reliability. The MX5 was simple yet very, very clever.
It's a measure of just how off guard Mazda caught car makers that it took most of them until the mid to late 90s to launch their own rivals. Even MG, which had been fiddling around with a B replacement since the dawn of time, only launched the F in 1995.
Mercedes came to the party in 1996 with the SLK, the name a handy reference to its SL model (SL standing for 'sporty and light' albeit in German), but smaller (hence 'K' for kurz - meaning 'short'). The new car was part of Mercedes' drive to broaden its product range and its market reach by appealing to customers who might not otherwise have bought a Mercedes, mainly on account of not being rich enough. The SLK wasn't really designed to compete with the MX5 - prices started far higher - but it was intended to snatch some of the customers who quite liked the idea of a MX5, but wanted something a bit more grown up. And with a better badge.
The SLK was not only expensive but also different. Unlike competitors such as the Audi TT, Porsche Boxster and BMW Z3, the SLK was not just a convertible - it was a hard top coupe too. This clever split personality came about thanks to its innovative folding hard top, copied from the larger SL. At the touch of a button the two piece hard top could be electrically lowered and hidden away behind the seats.
The SLK was luxurious, to match the high price, and came with a huge variety of engines, from supercharged 'Kompressor' four cylinder engines to 3.2 litre six cylinder motors. Owners could personalise their cars with a wide range of interior trims and exterior options.
Most SLKs were sold as automatics, which reflects the car's original clientele, rather than its true nature. Because it turns out that behind the sober suits and obsession with shut lines, some of Mercedes' engineers really did rather enjoy driving. The SLK was engineered for fun. With rear wheel drive, decent weight distribution and powerful engines, the SLK could be a proper driver's car: it wasn't as nimble or chuckable as a MX5, but it did love B roads.
The slight problem with all of this is that the Mercedes of the late 1990s that built the SLK wasn't quite the same Mercedes of previous eras that built cars like the W123 and W124 taxi-rank denizens or the evergreen 1980s R107 SL. In the 1990s the executives at Mercedes fell in love with the idea of the idea of Mercedes and decided that selling customers cars called Mercedes was enough. It was no longer entirely necessary to engineer them or build them as Mercedes.
All of which means that the SLK does display some clever engineering touches - like that roof - and it does have the reassuring solidity of Mercedes steering, but when it comes to the bits you can't see - and even those you can - it's much more about the idea of Mercedes than the reality of one. So SLKs rust - badly - and the interiors deteriorate - quickly.
Most of these distinctly unMercedes-like qualities didn't manifest themselves with new owners. Which may explain why Mercedes sold so many SLKs and the original model spawned several generations up to the present day (although the name has changed slightly). But these problems have affected the car's values on the modern classic scene. That roof - which can cost £3,000 to repair - puts people off, as does rust and confusion about the car's character. It is, after all, a Mercedes that handles well, and that is not something you might expect from the three pointed star.
Look beyond the confusing image though and you'll find a very, very capable sports car that is uniquely a convertible and a coupe.
When looking for new cars to add to the Great Driving Days fleet, my ethos is not about how 'classic' they are - which doesn't always equate to 'great to drive' - but how enjoyable and rewarding they are to drive. I want cars that you expect on a classic car hire fleet, like a MGB GT or E Type, as well as those you don't - cars that surprise and delight. Because we also run a lot of multi car driving experiences, often covering 200 miles in a day, it's also important to have a good mix of cars so that customers return reasonably refreshed and not feeling like they've had a workout.
Cue the SLK. In the late 90s car makers rushed to launch coupes and convertibles and in 2021 these cars are all coming up to 25 years old. Many of these cars, like the Alfa 916 GTV and BMW Z3, are fantastic drivers cars. So this era provides rich pickings for me when looking to develop the fleet.
The SLK was on my shortlist to add to the fleet but not at the top, mainly because of its iffy reputation and my impression that a sporting Mercedes wasn't really a sports car at all. But then the right car came up at the right time and I found myself on a train to Kent to collect our late model SLK 200 Kompressor. Although the engine is one of the smallest Mercedes dropped into the SLK, the Kompressor is no slouch - power is around 180 bhp - and this engine is particularly reliable. This car also had desirable AMG upgrades including exhaust and wheels. It was also a rare manual, which was the only gearbox I wanted.
On the drive back I discovered just how good the SLK is. It's engaging, it's quick, and yet it's also really relaxing to drive. Where a MX5 feels focussed and fidgety, the SLK is able to hustle when you want to hustle, cruise when you want to relax. And then there's that roof: it's a party piece that never grows old. The car also works really well as either coupe or convertible, with surprisingly little scuttle shake. The penalty is a small boot with the roof down, but it's a small price to pay for such a unique car.
The SLK has proved really popular on our Road Trips. Customers appreciate its easy, relaxed style compared to some of our older classics.
You can hire the Mercedes SLK by the hour, day or weekend or as part of our multi-car Road Trips. Find out more at www.greatdrivingdays.co.uk or call 01527 893733 or email email@example.com.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days, 01527 893733