Being an Unlikely Racing Hero Makes the SLC an Icon

When looking back at previous Clarion Builds vehicles, there has been a consistent theme: Stock-plus restorations of iconic classics. But what makes a car an iconic classic worthy of such a restoration?  


To give a little context on the subject, lets ignore the word “iconic” for a moment and focus on what makes a car “Classic”? Car collectors typically consider vintage vehicles with a design that entered the market more than 25 years ago to be classics. Generally, when beginning the hunt for a new project, we start by reviewing all of the vehicles on our collective bucket lists that match this criterion. 


Our selection of the NSX as one of our past projects was a great of example of this. Upon commencement of the NSX project in 2016, the 1991 model year (or, year-one) NSX turned 25 years old, officially making all first generation NSXs, 1991-2005, classics. Similarly, the 850Ci, our third project, was wearing a fresh “classic car” badge of honor when we started that build. However, for the latest Clarion Builds vehicle, we didn’t choose another newcomer to the classic car hall of fame. Instead, we opted for one that had been considered a classic for nearly a quarter century – the 1981 Mercedes Benz 380SLC (C107). 


Understanding the 380SLC’s classic status, what makes it “iconic”? The definition of what makes a car iconic isn’t as black and white as what makes it a classic. There has to be something about the vehicle that makes it unique, exciting or historic. For example, did the vehicle redefine a company’s signature design? Did it revolutionize a vehicle category? Did it sell millions of units in its lifespan? Is it an easily recognizable vehicle?  Is it backed by some racing heritage? The list could probably go on forever. So, what about the SLC makes it iconic? 


Originally introduced at the Paris Motor Show in 1971, the SLC/C107 platform was a stretched version of the popular SL coupes and roadsters. Wearing Mercedes Benz’s new design signature at the time, the SLC was an extremely well equipped, luxury GT car on a sportscar chassis. At first glance, one might look at an SLC and think it was an SL, but after a minute or two you start to notice the longer wheel base and the interesting details that Mercedes Benz engrained into the C107’s design. The SLC’s roof wasn’t removeable like the SL. It was fixed in place and fitted with an optional body-colored sunroof. This fixed roof increased rigidity of the 107 platform and translated to a solid driving experience. As you make your way back toward the car’s roof, you’ll see, sitting just forward of the C-pillars, beautiful and distinctive louvered quarter windows. The details flow into the vehicle as well, with high-end wood grain and quality leathers flowing throughout. These cars came with power windows, central locking, air conditioning and power steering as standard options – in 1971, these features were mostly optional on vehicles. But, still, while we love the design and features of the SLC, those points alone aren’t what make it iconic. 


During its production run, Mercedes Benz cranked out only 62,888 SLCs, with the largest chunk of those cars being the 450SLC. Thus, finding an SLC isn’t difficult. But, with only 3,789 380SLCs produced, it is the rarest production SLC besides the racecar spec C107.026. And this brings us to what makes the SLC iconic.  


In the late 70s, the big and heavy C107 became an unlikely hero in Rally racing, a sport generally dominated by compact, lightweight coupes like the Fiat 131 Abarth, Ford Escort RS1800 and Peugeot 504s. But, despite having the odds stacked against them, Mercedes Benz entered nearly production versions of the 450SLC into a few world rally events. The early cars were essentially pulled from the assembly line with the standard M117 SOHC 4.5 liter V8 the standard good for 227 horsepower, and a three-speed automatic transmission – extremely unusual for a rally car. With some skid plates, rally lights and a roll cage added they were entered into the Vuelta a la América del Sud, a 30,000km lap of South America in 1978 and won! 

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With a victory under its belt, Mercedes Benz modified the C107 platform to make it even better and created a lighter weight (thanks to an aluminum hood, doors and trunk lid), 300+ horsepower all aluminum 5.0-liter V8-powered, wider-stanced monster called the 450SLC 5.0. This car went on to win the Rallye Côte d’Ivoire, came in second at the Safari Rally and came in second place in the World Rally Driver’s Championship for 1979. With so much success in rally racing, in 1980 Mercedes Benz yet again tweaked the C107, creating the 500SLC – a 329 horsepower V8, 4-speed auto version of the car that would take 1-2 at the 1980 Bandama (Ivory Coast) Rally, second at the Rally Codasur (Argentina) and third in New Zealand – resulting in the SLC placing fourth overall in the WRC. In the latter half of 1981, the racing team proposed moving away from the SLC to the smaller wheelbase and lighter SL for Rally racing, thus ending the SLC’s streak of rally racing excellence. Ironically, the plans to race the SL variant were squashed by Daimler Benz’s board members refusing to fund the program.


Outside of rally racing, in 1978 AMG entered a 390-hp variant of the 450SLC into the European Touring Car Championship, competing against a variety of lighter, smaller and manual transmission equipped vehicles from Audi, BMW, Mazda. Again, appearing to have a disadvantage against the competition, the SLC surprised the world by ripping through a four-hour long torture test at Nurburgring Nore, emerging as the winner! 


And this, our dear fans and friends, is what makes the car iconic. The SLC platform wasn’t designed for rally racing or destroying racing circuits, it was meant to serve as a personal luxury vehicle. And while our 380SLC may not have come from the factory with the powerful 5.0 V8 that carried the C107 platform to victory in so many rally races, the spirit of those cars can be felt the moment you sit in the driver seat. Yes, it’s heavy, it’s well-appointed and yes, it’s an automatic – but so were the ones that made the C107 platform a WRC champion. While we’ve done transmission swaps and suspension mods on previous Clarion Builds vehicles, we’re keeping the SLC mostly stock… why? because it’s a winner as-is. 

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Alyson Yarberry