22 September 2014

Mercedes-Benz 300 SL 60th Anniversary

Editor’s note: In honor of the 60th anniversary of the Mercedes-Benz Gullwing, the world’s first super car, writer Jim Koscs — with some help from David Lillywhite of Octane magazine, Dan Trent of PistonHeads.com and Matthew Bell of PartsGateway — examines just what it is that makes this car “one of the greats.”

Who could argue that the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, introduced 60 years ago, was not the world’s first supercar?

“What a familiar sight Gullwings have become at concours, and auctions, and on the pages of magazines,” says David Lillywhite, editorial director of Octane magazine. “So familiar that sometimes we need to remind ourselves that these cars are bonkers, road cars so closely based on the W194 racers that those unconventional doors were a necessity, not a design frivolity, to allow for the space-consuming race-derived tubular chassis underneath.”

Those doors that opened into the roof like hatches, borne of engineering need, gave the car its official unofficial name: Gullwing. But a racing pedigree gave it life.

A small, teardrop-sleek Mercedes-Benz coupe that scored a stunning one-two victory at the 1952 24 Hours of Le Mans, and another one-two winning punch in Mexico’s infamously dangerous 1,900-mile Carrera Panamericana, had seemingly come from nowhere. In fact, it came from the minds of Mercedes passenger car engineering chief Rudolph Uhlenhaut, who was tasked with using as many existing parts as possible to concoct a sports racer to take on entries from Britain and Italy.

As a starting point for the new racecar, the big Mercedes 300 sedan’s 3.0-liter overhead-cam inline six, 4-speed transmission and 4-wheel independent coil-spring suspension (by swing-axle at the rear) were cutting edge for the day. Uhlenhaut tweaked the six to make 171 hp, about 30 shy of the Jaguar C-Type’s DOHC six. His chassis design was a true space frame with triangular sections designed for maximum rigidity. But the high sill area left no room for conventionally hinged doors. The solution, hinging them at the roof, became the most memorable workaround in sports car history.

“SL” stood for Sport Leicht (Sport Light), but at about 1,900 pounds, the car was not as “leicht” as originally planned. Aerodynamics would make up for that. The sleek body required tipping the tall engine at a 50-degree angle, which necessitated a dry-sump oiling system and other modifications.

The company’s importer in the States, Max Hoffman, risked his livelihood and reputation to make the case for a production version of the 300 SL. He backed it up with a deposit for 1,000 cars. He also placed orders for a second model that would ride the 300 SL’s coattails, the 4-cylinder 190 SL derived from the simple 180 sedan but closely resembling its more sophisticated sibling.

The 300 SL made its world debut in New York at the International Motor Sports Show in February 1954, with a 190 SL prototype alongside it. As Hoffman predicted, demand was instant and strong.

The 300 SL became the defacto state-of-the-art in sports cars, with a $7,000-plus price tag to match. Mechanical direct gasoline fuel injection was a production car first, and the cast aluminum intake manifold, with individual 17-inch ram pipes, could make even a line of Weber carburettors look dated.

Performance didn’t disappoint. The 3.0-liter engine’s 220 hp (SAE) at 5,800 rpm was a 50-hp bump over the racecar, and an optional Sport Cam boosted power to 240 hp. A 300 SL could sprint from 0-to-60 in under eight seconds and reach 140 mph, depending on the axle ratio.

“It’s a fabulous car to drive and far more raw and exciting than its boulevardier image might suggest, with just a whiff of menace in the extremes of its handling to imbue it with a hint of danger,” says Dan Trent, editor of www.PistonHeads.com. “From behind the wheel it’s a rare case of a hero exceeding all expectations; as an object of design, engineering and symbolism it’s also a worthy icon.

The 300 SL’s body adopted the basic contours of the W194, but what had been simply an efficient, aerodynamic shape to cover a complex chassis on the racecar had evolved into a thing of stunning beauty, far more finished and far more elegant. The body was steel, with aluminum used for the hood and trunk panels, rockers and door skins.

Beneath the radical body was essentially the same spaceframe chassis, still requiring roof-hinged doors. Entering such a sleek machine through a hatch seemed perfectly in tune with the approaching space age. The Jaguar XK140 may have impressed with its four-wheel disc brakes, but the Gullwing’s big Alfin drums were more than up to the job.

The production 300 SL was far more civilised than the W194 racers, and also about 800 pounds heavier. Its interior was luxurious, and optional luggage was specially fitted for the area behind the seats. An optional all-alloy body cut weight by about 170 pounds, but only 29 such cars were made.

Crucial to Mercedes customers, the Gullwing could be used as a daily driver at a time when most high-end sports cars could be fickle about such duty. The Gullwing appealed to more than racing aficionados. Pablo Picasso bought one, and Sophia Loren received a Gullwing as a gift from her husband.

Tractable enough for the road, the production Gullwing proved a capable racer in its own right. American racing hero and Mercedes team driver John Fitch won the GT class in the 1955 Miglia Mille driving a bare-bones but otherwise stock 300 SL. Even today, some Gullwing owners drive hundreds or even thousands of miles to participate in club events and tours.

Matthew Bell, of PartsGateway, says that the car’s unwavering attraction is the result of several factors. “Personally I would say it’s down to the 300SL’s mass appeal within its own market,” Bell says. “For wealthy motorsport fans, there is the Le Mans winning race car roots, for the fashionista there is completely unique and instantly recognisable styling, even when the gullwing doors are closed, and for the car enthusiast there is the 3.0L fuel-injected engine, beautiful interior, and exclusivity.”

In 1955, Road & Track said this after road testing the 300 SL: “The sports car of the future has become a reality.”

Mercedes-Benz built 1,400 copies of the vehicle that forever changed sports car design and engineering.

“Every once in a while a car comes along that far surpasses the sum of its parts, no matter how special those parts may be,” says Bell. “Recessions come and go, decades pass, but true icons will always endure. The Mercedes-Benz 300SL has endured, when the men were separated from the boys, this unique piece of automotive history was not found wanting.

“It’s one of the greats,” Lillywhite adds, “never to be taken for granted.”

10 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Larry Crane Los Angeles October 1, 2014 at 17:41
    Just returned from the annual Gull Wing Group International convention in Banff Alberta. There were 35 cars that drove there from around the country. It snowed 10 inches the day they arrived. No one blinked. Several commented on the sound of the belly pans dragging on the heavy snow. Many of the cars continue to get over 10,000 miles each year, in large, cross-country chunks. Current prices do not affect the driving. Most are not for sale.
  • 2
    Eric Los Angeles October 1, 2014 at 20:11
    But what about that 300-SL roadster?
  • 3
    MIKE MANNING MENTOR,OHIO October 2, 2014 at 17:50
    I worked for a mb dealer in cleveland hts ohio in the early 1970's.Dowd Imports,Oldsmobile,Toyota and Mercedes.We had a1956 gullwing on the showroom floor and sold it for $5000.If I only new! I am still in the car busines for 43 years working for only two dealers in all that time.
  • 4
    F.T. Nugent Holland Michigan October 2, 2014 at 09:54
    I bought a 300SL in 1963 for $3500.00. The Vin number 198 040 10 7500011, white with red leather. It was a great car needing some work. Parts were available. I also found a set of fitted luggage for a few hundred dollars. It was sold in 1971 for $5000.00. At that time before inflation set in, it was just another used car. Many regrets to this day.
  • 5
    Robert Fratkin Washington D,C, October 2, 2014 at 00:08
    Super car--but not more so than the 300SL Roadster, even without the gull wings. In 1965, I had the opportunity to buy one of the roadsters for $6500, but alas, didn't have the price.
  • 6
    Mac Florida October 3, 2014 at 07:48
    Magnificent automobile in cooler climates. Miserable though in a hot climate. It is a common sight to see them driven across the Concours field with the doors open because ventilation is so poor. I have heard owners complain of the intense heat and exiting a Gullwing dripping in sweat. It is the roadster that is the better driver.
  • 7
    DAVID BROWER United States October 4, 2014 at 09:10
    Just to set the record straight, goliath had fuel injection on the market in their gp-700 sedan in 1952. Sure, it was a 2cyl 2 stroke motor but they clearly beat mercedes to the showroom with the first fuel injection system. They also had an amazing fuel injected streamliner on the track in 1951. I have no idea why people keep claiming this was a first for mercedes . Perhaps the mercedes salesmen kept repeating it until the goliath was forgotten
  • 8
    SYD MEAD PASADENA, CALIFORNIA October 4, 2014 at 11:30
    I had a GullWing for 43 years; three complete paints from bare metal, a completely new interior, new chrome, new glass and grommets. A fantastic car. Driving it in 'curvy' terrain was like being on the back end of a long, stretched rubber sling. The fastest I drove it was from Detroit to Charlevoix, Michigan in three hours...14O up the new (at the time) 75 interstate. I will always be grateful that I had the chance to own, drive and care for such a fantastic machine
  • 9
    Hal Ashton Tucson, Az. 85750 October 9, 2014 at 14:40
    My father, Harold Ashton, bought a 1955 Gullwing in 1961 and 300SL roadster in 1972. My brother, Larry and I have been the caretakers of these cars since 2013 and drive them frequently. Same family for 53 years!
  • 10
    Wayne Levittown, ny October 11, 2014 at 11:12
    The year is 1965 when I was a senior in High School, My physics teacher drove a 356 bath tub as his daily driver. This was a time when teachers taught and PC was not. One student was bragging about how fast his brothers new 396 chevy was. The teacher stated he owned a car that would beat his brothers ride in both acceleration and top speed. The discussion got heated with the students and the it was arranged for a drag race to take place at a local airport. Teach showed up with his 300SL and proceeded to destroy the chevy across the board. This became a fantastic training aid for us as he could refer to the reasons why the 396 lost. From horse power, torque, power to weight ratio, gearing and of course how the Chevy was like a brick moving though air compared to the 300SL. Fast forward to 1972 and I see two Gullwings in a high end shop (the Eagles Nest) near Grumman, both for sale.

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