This week we're returning Japanese
By Mike Duff / Saturday, December 4, 2021 / Loading comments
Does anything deliver a quicker or headier hit of petrolhead nostalgia than the name of a well-known tuning (or styling) outfit? It’s nearly 20 years since Northampton’s most famous engine builder put its branding on a fast Ford, yet just saying “Cosworth” is enough – for those old enough – to summon memories of whale tail spoilers, oversteering joy riders on the Six O’ Clock News and Jimmy Nail’s poodle perm in Spender. And everytime somebody mentions a dimmer switch I immediately think of the homonymous bodykit maker’s tubby, strake-wearing ’80s Peugeots.
Now consider Brabus, and it’s likely the mental cinema screen is filled with Mercs stuffed with huge engines and wearing what could politely be described as opinion-dividing body kits. Cars like the monstrous G63 Rocket that was announced earlier in the year sum up the company’s modern efforts.
Which is why your first reaction on seeing this Brabus version of the R129 Mercedes SL is likely to be surprise, maybe even gentle disappointment. There’s certainly a suitably ostentatious BRABUS badge on the tailgate, plus some very blingy alloys and a slight bodykit. But compared to the tuner’s more recent offerings this one looks positively discreet, which definitely isn’t a very Brabus word. Shouldn’t it be shouting more?
To the mild surprise of the database hamster, this is the first R129 to be granted the honour of Pilldom. That’s in stark contrast to its successor, the column having managed close to a full-set of the bigger engined versions of the R230 that followed, with SL500, SL600 and SL65 all having their moments of faded glory. Yet while many of the Mercs that shared showroom space with new R129s have begun their ascent into the sort of modern classicdom that puts white backgrounds onto dealer’s photographs, the SL itself remains both plentiful and reasonably priced. The cheapest six-cylinder version currently in the classifieds is up for just £6500, with that figure including a removeable hardtop.
Our Pill is a very different proposition, being offered for six times the price and with a Brabus-tuned V8 under its bonnet. It is also a freshly arrived Japanese import. Those of us who waste much of our lives obsessing over aged Mercs have noticed a growing number of these ex-Japanese cars over the last few years, often (as here) being brought in by the same specialists who regularly deal with GT-Rs, Supras and Lancer Evos. The obvious appeal of these Oriental Benzes is what is normally immaculate condition and a lifetime of the lavish, expensive care necessary to pass Japan’s notoriously strict Shaken compliance tests. The downside is the need to deal with an all-Japanese service history and often some fairly significant spec or mechanical differences.
The R129 SL was a hit around the globe, of course. The basic car started out with one of the toughest jobs in showbiz, replacing the R109 SL that was still selling strongly at the end of a scarcely feasible 17-year lifespan. Launched in 1989 the R129 shared most of its mechanical components with the W124 E-Class and was bigger and more advanced than its predecessor, boasting such innovations as a pop-up rollover protection bar, multi-layer folding fabric roof with hydraulic operation and even options like adaptive dampers and digital climate control.
But despite the promise of what was originally ‘Sport-Leicht’ branding, the R129 struggled to qualify on both criteria – even the straight-six models tipped the scales at 1,800kg, and a hardtop-wearing V8 would be over two tonnes. It was a relaxed, open-topped GT rather than a dynamic weapon and the engine choice at launch reflected that. Two 3.0-litre sixes were offered, in both 12-valve and 24-valve forms, while the 500 SL used a 5.0-litre version of Merc’s long-lived M119 V8, this making the same 322hp as it did in the 500E saloon. It was certainly rapid – a 6.5-sec 0-60mph time and an electronically limited 155mph top speed were impressive in the late ’80s – but the laid-back chassis was best suited for cruising.
Predictably, Germany’s better-known Merc tuners moved quickly into this vacuum. Mercedes itself chose to deliver more power, if not more athleticism, by squeezing a V12 into the R129’s engine bay, the SL600 being launched in 1992. But the outsiders got the drop on that by bringing out their own reworked V8s first, with both AMG and Brabus launching tuned cars.
AMG’s first attempt used a 6.0-litre engine that made a claimed 375hp. Brabus managed to go two better on that, the SL 6.0-32 used a 6.0-litre V8 that made 400hp and was good for both a sub-6 second 0-60mph time and a (no longer limited) 180mph top speed. If that wasn’t enough there was an even brawnier 6.5-litre version with 450hp. Later on, both AMG and Brabus would offer their own versions of the V12, too.
Our Pill is an early Brabus with the 6.0-litre V8. The specialist selling it says that it dates from 1989 – which would make it the first year of production – but that it was registered in Japan in 1992. Based on the evidence of being a left-hooker wearing Euro-spec projector headlights it seems likely it started life much closer to home before travelling east. Getting in touch with Brabus direct could be a good way to find out more. Getting sense from the sheath of paperwork that covers its more recent life will require a working knowledge of Japanese. But the pictures bear out the vendor’s claim the car is in fine fettle, and we’re also told it has recently had a £3,000 service, presumably before leaving Japan. It also comes with a removeable hardtop.
The asking price – £40,000 – is solid money for any R129, especially one that isn’t registered in the UK yet. You could get an earlier example of the just-retired R231 for a similar outlay. But given the Brabus tax commonly levelled to the tuner’s cars from this era the asking price doesn’t seem outrageous, especially for a car in such fresh condition.
For reference, there is currently a similarly mileage, facelifted UK spec RHD SL600 in the classifieds for only slightly more, that one boasting a full main dealer service history. While it sounds slightly ludicrous to describe any V12 Merc as a safe bet, that one is certainly a lower risk given the known unknowns attached to the imported car. But we’re not here to celebrate safe, and this far-travelled Brabus is definitely the rarer and more exciting proposition.
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