Mercedes-Benz 300SL: Greatest car of the 1950s

As Classic Car Appreciation Day (July 13) approaches, we’ll be counting down each day with the greatest vehicle of each decade, from the earliest days of the automobile to the present. It’s by no means a final, definitive, for-all-time list, so please weigh in—respectfully—in the Forums with your comments, endorsements, and disagreements. Today: the 1950s.

Mercedes-Benz roared back to racing greatness in 1952 with a car called the W194. It won overall at Le Mans, won at the Nurburgring, and took top honors in Mexico’s grueling Carrera Panamerica, so it was already among the greats. But U.S. importer Max Hoffman then persuaded Mercedes that there were enough Americans with deep pockets and a penchant for sporty cars that it would be a good idea to build a road-going version. The 300SL was born.

1955 Mercedes Benz 300 SL interior
RM Sotheby's
1955 Mercedes Benz 300 SL engine
RM Sotheby's

Introduced at the 1954 New York Auto Show, it was an absolute marvel in terms of styling, design, and performance. The 2996cc straight-six was the first in a passenger automobile with fuel injection, direct injection at that, which put it decades ahead of its time even among high-end performance cars.  Thanks to its aerodynamic body and 240 horsepower, 140–160 mph was possible, depending on gearing. That made it the fastest production car of its day.

And then there are those doors. They were born out of necessity since the car’s aluminum tube frame made the sills too high for normal doors. The top-hinged “gullwing” setup makes getting in and out about as graceful a process as rollerblading through sand, and the windows don’t roll down so the interior gets hot pretty quickly. But you can’t deny that 300SLs just look fantastic. The exotic spaceframe chassis was the kind of thing typically reserved for race cars, and it saved weight along with its aluminum doors, hood, and trunk lid. A fully aluminum body was optional, but just 29 were made.

This was the first of the “SL” series of Mercedes two-seaters, and it embodied the Sport Leicht (Sport Light) principle by actually being both sporty and light. Later SLs were arguably neither.

With an absurdly high top speed, racing pedigree, exotic materials, cutting edge technology, unmistakable looks, and a top dollar asking price, the 300SL had just about all the ingredients of what people started referring to in later years as a supercar. In fact, it’s easy to think of the 300SL as the primordial supercar. That 1400 people bought a Gullwing along with nearly 1900 roadster versions also proved that Hoffman was right. There indeed was a sizable market for very expensive race-derived sports cars, and Mercedes tapped into it at a time when Ferrari and Maserati were still only selling road cars a handful at a time.

1955 Mercedes Benz 300 SL back 3/4
RM Sotheby's

Gullwing doors became something of an automotive cliché in later years, but they make the 300SL one of the most distinctive cars of the 1950s. Its ingenious design, world-beating performance, and supercar ingredients, meanwhile, make it the greatest. And we’re not the only ones who think so. German magazine auto motor und sport proclaimed that the “Mercedes 300 SL is the most refined and at the same time the most inspirational sports car of our era—an automotive dream.” It was also on the short list of nominees for the “Car of the Century” award given by the Global Automotive Elections Foundation in 1999.

Honorable Mention:

The Citroën DS because even though it’s been 63 years since it bowed at the 1955 Paris Motor Show, the DS still looks like a car from the future.

The Jaguar D-Type because it won Le Mans three times on the trot and because its impossibly curvy, breathtakingly gorgeous bodywork is a perfect blend of form and function.

The Tri-Five Chevy because if you ask any American to draw you a car from the ‘50s, chances are you’ll get a picture of a Tri-Five Chevy. It also debuted the Chevy small-block V-8, an enduring and successful design still winning races today.

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