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.”