Gullwing Turns 70: Iconic 300SL “is Mercedes-Benz”

Presentation of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL “Gullwing” at the International Motor Sports Show in New York, February 1954. Mercedes-Benz AG

The Mercedes-Benz 300SL coupe is never out of the spotlight for long. And for good reason—it remains one of the most acclaimed automobiles ever built. Today, though, marks a special moment for the model—on this day 70 years ago, the 300SL debuted at the New York International Automobile Show.

Now a centerpiece of any car collection fortunate enough to have one, the 300SL was a sports car ahead of its time. Known for its hallmark gullwing doors, extraordinary power, and technological advancement, it remains among the most acclaimed automobiles ever built. And, as is often the case when it comes to European cars of the 1950s, we have Max Hoffman to thank for its existence in the U.S.

The 300SL was a direct descendant of the Mercedes-Benz W194 race car that won the Carrera Panamericana and 24 hours of Le Mans in 1952. Hoffman, an influential U.S. importer who was responsible for popularizing European cars in America, convinced the Stuttgart automaker that the German sports car would be met by an eager American market. He was right—so right, in fact, that seven decades later a 1954–57 300SL coupe has an average value of seven figures, even in #4 (Fair) condition. When new, the car sold for $6820 (equal to about $77,252 today).

Presentation of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL showroom
Mercedes-Benz AG

When unveiled on February 6, 1954, the Mercedes-Benz 300SL (W198) was applauded for its elegance and innovation. Powered by a water-cooled 3.0-liter overhead cam straight-six engine, it was the world’s first four-stroke production passenger car to be equipped with output- and efficiency-enhancing direct fuel injection. With 215 horsepower, the 300SL had a top speed of 155 mph, making it the fastest production car of its day.

The 300SL’s unforgettable styling was dictated by its engineering: the lightweight coupe’s rigid 110-pound space frame supported the engine, transmission, and axles, but left no room for conventional doors. That resulted in the 300SL’s most distinctive feature—upswinging doors that hinged at the top and, when open, gave the look of a bird extending its wings. The car almost immediately gained the nickname “Gullwing” throughout the media and with the public, although Mercedes-Benz never calls it that. In fact, the original hand-typed manual referred to the doors as “trap doors.”

1955 Bonneville National Speed Trials: Participants in a new Mercedes-Benz 300SL sport coupe with gullwing doors discuss the upcoming run down the salt flats. Bob D'Olivo/Getty Images

While the gullwing doors look impressive when open, getting into the 300SL is a little more difficult than a car with standard doors. The driver and passenger have to sit on the sill and swing their legs inside before sliding onto the seat. Regardless, buyers seemed to consider it a minor inconvenience.

To gain publicity for the new 300SL, Hoffman turned to one of his regular customers, racing driver Briggs Cunningham, to purchase the first one (serial number 198 040 4500003) from his showroom.

The car has changed hands three times since Cunningham bought it, the last time in 2013 when it was purchased by Dennis Nicotra.

“It’s the greatest car, and I love it, and most people that have them love them,” Nicotra says in the above Hagerty video featuring the car. “But it’s about as impractical as you’d ever want it to be. When you see what it takes to get in and out of this car, it’s quite a chore… but driving it, it feels great, it looks great, it performs exceptionally well. They’re just a joy.”

They also draw plenty of attention.

“This is such a great car to own,” Nicotra says. “No matter where I go, people stop and ask about it.”

The market for the 300SL coupes, of which approximately 1400 were built, generally remains strong, although it does fluctuate. Last month, Barrett-Jackson’s annual Scottsdale auction yielded the dramatic sale of a 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SL for $3.41 million, the highest amount ever paid for a 300SL steel-bodied coupe. That sale may have been an outlier though, according to John Wiley, Hagerty manager of valuation analytics.

“Generally, the 300SL market is becoming more sophisticated, as values for cars with great provenance are pulling ahead of those without,” Wiley says. “Oftentimes, that means unrestored and only one or two owners from new. The 300SL Gullwing auctioned by Barrett-Jackson was restored by a model expert, but it only has a partial ownership history. Yes, the 300SL market is improving, but we’ve often seen how Barrett-Jackson’s prime-time audience produces unrepeatable prices, and this concours restoration 300SL is one of the latest examples.”

Though that record sale might not be indicative of the 300SL market as a whole, it’s a shining reminder of how the car always finds its way back into the spotlight.

“The 300SL played an important role in the United States … [and] really showed the best of what Mercedes-Benz could offer,” says Michael F. Kunz, manager of Mercedes-Benz Classic Center USA. “… It is Mercedes-Benz.”




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    For a very long time, I didn’t care anything about ANY M-B except the 300SL. I’ve broadened my horizons some since then, but it still is the seminal sport coupe in my mind. With seven-figure prices de rigueur, it’s clear I will never own one, but I can still admire them for what they are: ’50s style that hold up as beautiful even 70 years on. In my opinion, they are right there with E-Type Jags, Ferrari GTOs and Astin Martin DBs as the best examples of cars that make people’s pulses quicken.

    My father told me about a buddy of his winning one of these in some kind of contest. He was real excited till he got it home. His single garage was so small the doors would not open.

    He sold it and bought a Corvette.

    I bet he looked back with regret.

    Funny, I never even thought about what a 300SL would be like in a small garage (and I’ve definitely had a few small garages in my life). My wife and I were just out in the bay where we have some overhead shelving, getting down some Valentine’s and Easter decorations. I’m now wondering if the “trap doors” of an SL would even open under that. I’m assuming that current owners of these classics would not have the same issues…

    If he couldn’t open the doors on a 300 SL Gullwing in his garage, there is no way you could open the doors on a conventional car.

    Great article. The couple in the title photograph taken during the pre-show Press Day looking at the Gullwing are my father and his wife. This began a 70-year-long relationship with the 300SL that began with him placing an order for one on that day, February 5, 1954, switching his order to a 300SL Roadster, and taking delivery of it on July 22, 1957. The car has remained in the family to this day. An additional coincidence is that the Cunningham car was the first 300SL he actually got to drive.

    How cool is that? You look at a photo in a Hagerty article and see your parents at a show in 1954, essentially picking out their next vehicle purchase! And then to be able to add that the car they eventually bought is still in the family nearly 70 years later – that’s an awesome story, Todd! 👍

    Wow, that’s amazing! There’s a story for another day if you’d like to be interviewed some time. Thanks for sharing!

    Jeff, I tried to send you an email but am not sure if I have the correct address. I would be interested in connecting. If you are able to capture my email address through my comment, please email me your contact information. Otherwise, how can I contact you?

    Last July, I was driving my 1959 Buick Electra off the car ferry from Victoria, BC to Port Angeles, WA. Much to my surprise, the first car in line to load onto the ferry to Victoria was a magnificent silver 300SL. The line was backed up at the U.S. Customs booth, and I had to stop briefly near the 300SL. The Mercedes owner dashed over to engage in conversation. Oh, how I wish there had been more time for me to learn details. I remain surprised today to have seen one of these iconic automobiles so recently in modern traffic.

    I don’t see that as contrarian at all – we each have a right to our opinion – if we all liked the exact same thing, it’d be kinda boring. And those roadsters were/are indeed gorgeous and come with their own type of fun.

    1966 on a used car lot in Sacramento, sat a 1955 300SL. I was looking for a car to replace my 1958 Chevy. I spotted this 300SL amongst the throng of American iron. Needless to say it stood out. I was approached by a salesman who could not give me much information except to say it was a Mercedes Benz “sports car”. A few more unanswered questions and I asked to start it. Oh what a sound and oh the smoke. He said, “some European cars smoke.” I told him I didn’t know that. I told him I would be back after I talked to my dad. My dad came with me to the lot and said it was a nice looking car. The salesman started it. Smoke and more smoke. Dad asked how much they wanted for this piece of junk. “$5,500” but we might be able work something out if you’re interested “. I did get to sit in it and check it out, pop the hood watch it idle and belch smoke. I was in love! My dad was not. So close,End of story. Sad end of story.

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