Save the planet - buy a V8: Mercedes SLC

May 07 2021
Save the planet - buy a V8: Mercedes SLC

Second-hand Style, with Richard Cooke

LAST month you may have noticed that this column was conspicuous by its absence.

For the first time since the start of the pandemic, I found myself without a car to review.

To that end, if you own something that people would be interested to read about (and are happy for me to drive it round the block), do please get in touch with my editor. His number is at the bottom of this page, and I promise to be polite about your pride and joy. Or at least not rude.

In the meantime, I have a used vehicle purchase recommendation for you. Later this year, Bristol will introduce a Clean Air Zone, charging certain vehicles £9 a day to enter the central area.

London already has a CAZ in place. These are mainly aimed at reducing the number of diesel vehicles travelling around the city, but petrol cars older than 2006 will also be charged.

Electric vehicles will, of course, be exempt. But electric vehicles are arguably as bad - or worse - for the planet than a dirty second-hand diesel.

I’m serious. All new cars require steel, which is produced in the main by burning fossil fuels, often coal, and sometimes in places a long way away from the car factory. That steel therefore needs shipping, on massive vessels that burn heavy fuel oil, which is worse than diesel for emissions.

A used car has already gone through this grubby production cycle.

Diesel exhaust emissions are filthy, though, and I don’t advocate them. Bristol is right to try and get rid, ASAP.

And it is true that electric cars produce zero emissions, which is lovely for your lungs. But their batteries contain cobalt, and cobalt is really problematic.

It is produced by smelting iron, and is a key component in all lithium-ion batteries. Some 70% of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Congo, 30% of which is dug up by ‘informal’ workers.

Informal is the term used by the mine owners to disguise the fact that they employ local children. These children, as young as 12, are ‘paid’ with food and lodging, and mine with their bare hands. Informal miners work in a totally unregulated industry.

Congo has updated Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for the 21st century. Kurtz has swapped his ivory for cobalt, and his malign influence lives on in the batteries of vehicles sold to assuage Western guilt and show off the owner’s eco credentials. The horror, the horror.

My solution is simple and full of joy: A Mercedes 450 SLC. Now classified as a historic vehicle (i.e. at least 40 years old), the big SLC is exempt from the Bristol and London CAZ.

The lazy, low compression 4.5 litre V8 will run forever with the right care and attention, meaning you won’t ever need to buy another car. This is recycling in the best possible sense of the word. The cherry on the cake is that it is affordable to buy and maintain, coming in far cheaper than its more popular SL cousin.

Mercedes built the SLC alongside the convertible SL between 1971 and 1981, and offered a straight six (weedy, avoid) and three V8s.

The pick was always the 4.5, as the other two (a 3.5 and a 3.8) used just as much fuel and gave out less power. On the used market there is little price difference between them.

So what do you get? The engine produces about 220hp, runs out of puff at 5k rpm but will keep up with modern traffic. 0-60 is about 9 seconds, hampered by an old-fashioned automatic gearbox.

The long bonnet rises majestically as you accelerate. Torque is prodigious. Top speed, broadly irrelevant, is maybe 120mph.

You can really hustle an SLC, despite the slightly soft suspension, and the addition of a solid roof helps with rigidity compared to the SL.

Back in the 70s, Mercedes took them rallying across Africa, and it won the London to Sydney race, so these are tough cars - unless you expose them to moisture, of course, in which case they rust like it’s going out of fashion. Store this car in a garage.

Inside, the padded steering wheel is huge, as are the lovely clear period dials. Front seats are wide but not very supportive, so maybe better to corner with grace rather than pace.

The SLC is longer than the SL by a few inches, meaning space in the back for two is fine.

The boot is adequate, fuel economy is not: 15mpg, maybe 20mpg on the motorway.

Better to think instead of all the murderous cobalt mines you won’t be supporting each time you fill the 20 gallon (90 litre) fuel tank.

What to pay: 1978 Mercedes SLC 450, £15k