The 1980 Mercedes-Benz R107 500 SL Rally Car on endurance tests in the Californian desert.

Hot Ride: The 500 SL Rallye in the Californian Desert.

The Mercedes-Benz 500 SL Rallye goes on an expedition in the Joshua Tree National Park.
Photos & Text: Royce Rumsey
  • Hot Ride: The 500 SL Rallye in the Californian Desert.

  • Constantin von Kageneck and the 1980 Mercedes-Benz R107 500 SL Rally car in the Californian desert.

    The ideal soundtrack for the desert.

    The sound system of our support vehicle, a Mercedes-Benz GL 450, is playing Jerry Butler’s R&B classic, “Only the Strong Survive”. It’s an appropriate soundtrack for our team that has assembled in the chilly, pre-dawn darkness of the California desert where the harsh conditions range from sub-freezing temperatures to a sweltering, record-breaking 52 degrees Celsius – and water is nowhere to be seen. Survival here is only for the durable, resourceful and fast. The Mercedes-Benz Museum has brought a rare rally car with exactly those attributes to this foreboding, remote spot in the California desert: the ingenious 1980 R107 500 SL Rallye.

    On its way through dusty trails.

    Constantin von Kageneck of the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center USA is going to be driving the R107 through the narrow cactus-lined, dusty trails of the desert, providing dynamic demonstration runs for our photography and videography crew. The combination of the R107 at speed in this location with desert light promises to make for memorable images. The rally variant based on the 500 SL Roadster was intended as the successor to the longer-wheelbase SLC coupés that Mercedes-Benz campaigned in international rallying in the late 1970s.

    Mr Constantin von Kageneck of the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center USA is driving the R107 through the narrow cactus-lined, dusty trails of the desert.

    This particular R107 is one of four that was prepared for the 1981 rally season. Its shorter wheelbase promised added agility and handling benefits compared with the predecessor coupés. The renowned race driver Walter Röhrl, was to be at the wheel of this particular car.

    The sparse interior featured a dominant, large upright hydraulic handbrake, that when deftly applied, would swing the rear of the car out to line it up for approaching turns.

    Spectacular drifts.

    For the 1981 rally season the reliable and durable M117 engine in the R107 had been uprated to 320 hp. Additionally, he was fitted with a lower final drive ratio to provide spirited acceleration. In order to apply the power of the eight-cylinder engine to the ground, the drive axle featured an 80 percent locking differential. Despite the requisite tubular safety cage, the weight of the car had been reduced from 1,586 to 1,350 kilograms. The front of the car was fitted with a phalanx of four huge and powerful Cibié rally lights. The sparse interior featured a dominant, large upright hydraulic handbrake, that when deftly applied, would swing the rear of the car out to line it up for approaching turns. All these features of the R107 rally car allow for spectacular visuals and drift angles – to the approval of the rally fans and photographers.

    Emerging dawn light embraces the R107 as it is silently pushed down the transporter ramp to the desert floor.

    The calm before the storm.

    Emerging dawn light embraces the R107 as it is silently pushed down the transporter ramp to the desert floor. Constantin von Kageneck goes through a considerable starting checklist. The fuel pump hums and with a turn of the ignition key and a push of the start button, the M117 fires to life; shattering the desert dawn silence with its beautiful basso-profundo exhaust note.

    The once curious lizards scamper for cover under nearby rocks. The first runs of the day are being made along the wide-open desert floor of Camp Young – which will provide for good “shakedown” runs to prove out the R107’s performance and allow for good aerial videography.

    The Cibié rally lights illuminate the desert morning as the R107 makes its first pass down a rough desert path.

    Sand, dust and pebble stones.

    The Cibié rally lights illuminate the desert morning as the R107 makes its first pass down a rough desert path. The Fulda rally tyres spin and claw at the gravel and sand as the 500 SL Rallye slews sideways through rock-strewn kinks in the road. Following the R107 is a plume of dust, sand and small pebbles.

    A few miles away traffic on a freeway seems to slow as they also take in this rare, distant spectacle. In the early morning sun this all creates a visual delight for the overhead hexacopter drone and the ground-based photographers.

    The striking visual of the R107 at speed rapidly slithering through the Joshua Tree-lined road is captured to the approval of all assembled.

    Surrounded by Joshua trees.

    The R107 is reloaded into the transporter cautiously and proceeds to two additional desert locations. By mid-morning we have arrived at an ideal location, providing secluded parking for the sizable transporter and a relatively smooth sandy road that snakes through surrounding Joshua Trees with a backdrop of gorgeous rock formations. The road here is much smoother than Camp Young and Constantin is carrying increased speed with each pass. Even in the bright mid-day sun the R107’s quartet of Cibié lights brightly shine and sometimes overpower the camera lenses – tricking and confusing their metering and focusing. Nonetheless, the striking visual of the R107 at speed rapidly slithering through the Joshua Tree-lined road is captured.

    Already seven continual hours of driving and shooting lie behind the R107.

    Superb performance and reliability.

    Seven continual hours of driving and shooting have passed and the R107 hasn’t missed a beat, emerging without a single misplaced tyre despite some very demanding turns on slippery, sandy surfaces. We are all reminded of Mercedes-Benz’s hallmarks of superb performance and reliability.

    We have proven to be not as tough as the R107 and we need to take a break to wipe the dust from ourselves and our gear and cool down from the oppressive desert sun and heat before we proceed to the next desert run venue.

    New background music.

    Early afternoon arrives and with it, the R107 is unloaded from the transporter at our third location. This venue features a dusty road that curves and undulates through crests and dips alongside cactus plants and rocks and disappears from view as it passes by at speed and the unbashful R107 exhaust note is very useful as photographers and videographers can hear the approaching vehicle long before it can be seen. The sound of the R107 exhaust reverberating from the surrounding rock formations creates the most beautiful soundtrack for the day – with all due apologies to Jerry Butler.

    The sound of the R107 exhaust reverberating from the surrounding rock formations creates the most beautiful soundtrack for the day.
    As the R107 is as capable both on-road as well as off-road it is loaded back up for runs at our fourth location – an asphalt ribbon through the desert surrounds.

    The desert shakes.

    The R107 is capable both on-road as well as off-road. So it is loaded back up for runs at our fourth location – an asphalt ribbon through the desert surrounds. Here, you can explore the upper regions of the R107’s speed as photographers now have to practice their high-speed panning techniques to keep up! As in the prior location, the R107’s vocal exhaust announces its rapid arrival. In fact the R107 can be heard from nearly two miles away in the otherwise silent, desert afternoon.

    The R107 – a brute of a car.

    At the end of the day we return to our first location to finish the shoot. The R107 has now made continual, demanding runs for 14 straight hours without a single complaint. The dusk light on the dust and dirt covered 500 SL Rallye provide for striking images as the R107 is no trailer-queen. It’s a muscular no-nonsense brute of a car that can take in its stride the ultimate that the California desert can dish out.

    The R107 has now made continual, demanding runs for 14 straight hours without a single complaint.

    The R107 has indeed proven itself to be a strong survivor and it is reloaded into the transporter to the impressed adulation of those of us fortunate to have witnessed its persevering prowess.

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