Every family has a story of “The Car that Got Away” — or they should have one, at least. Mine involved missing out on a car whose value then increased eighteen times over. My family had what some say is the most collectible sports cars ever. One of only 167 built. One that often sells for well over a million dollars nowadays. We just didn’t get a phone call in time.
Our story begins in 1952 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The top two places went to Mercedes-Benz in their purpose-built race car, the W194. Despite its success, Mercedes had no plans to sell a roadgoing version. The U.S. importer for Mercedes at the time, Max Hoffman (who interestingly lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright home and commissioned Wright to design his Manhattan Jaguar dealership), had a different opinion. He thought America was doing pretty well post-war and there were people with money to spend. He was able to convince Mercedes that it would make sense for them to sell the 300SL Gullwing as a road car, and he was right. The firm built and sold 167 of them in the debut year. Here’s something you don’t read every day; the street version actually had more horsepower than the race car. This was the first production car with mechanical fuel injection and if you could find a road long enough it could hit 163 mph. Yes, in 1954!
My family joins the story in 1955 when Great Uncle Welcome and Great Aunt Honey (yes, their real names) took a drive to Arizona to visit an old friend. This wealthy friend proudly showed off his newest purchase. His 1 of 167, 1954 Mercedes Benz 300SL Gullwing. Silver with leather interior (a $165 option). He laughingly told them how the dealer had convinced him to spend an extra $85 for the matching luggage set. As you can imagine, Welcome and Honey loved it.
Their friend took note of how they loved that car. So much so, that unbeknownst to them he changed his will to leave the car to them. That surprise phone call announcing them as the new owners of the 300SL came in 1974 with his passing. You can imagine their pride bringing home this ultra-rare dream car.
Great Aunt Honey especially loved how the cute luggage fit perfectly behind the front seats. Her excitement was short lived though as she soon realized why the luggage was designed to sit there. She couldn’t fit anything in the actual trunk, because it came pre-filled with a spare tire and a mammoth 34.7-gallon fuel tank and little room for anything else. Knowing her husband was so excited she did not want to complain. Returning to their home in very hilly Alamo, California (a suburb about 20 miles east of San Francisco), Great Uncle Welcome noticed his first real problem with the car. It was grueling to drive on a regular basis in the mountainous terrain around Alamo because the clutch was extremely heavy. So much so, that Mercedes eventually offered it with a clutch arm helper spring.
Honey never drove anyway so Welcome did not want to say anything since he knew how much she loved it. Honey however did begin to notice something strange. He started choosing to drive their barebones brown 1971 Plymouth Valiant 4-door sedan more and more. But how could he choose to drive that boring car when the most beautiful car he had ever seen was sitting in his driveway? Well, it’s hard to continue to love a car when you can’t get in or out of it. The 300SL had unusually high door sills as a consequence of the gullwing doors. These were challenging for most people to swing their legs across, but especially difficult for an elderly couple. To help with this, the steering wheel had a neat trick where it would turn 90 degrees horizontal to act like a handle to use when climbing in.
That didn’t address the other problem he was facing: upkeep. Mercedes recommended oil changes every 1000 miles. Because of the car’s race-bred dry sump lubrication system with large oil cooler, Welcome’s short trips around town would not get the oil hot enough to flow properly. The final straw however came from Honey the day she learned that in addition to the Gullwing not having air conditioning, the windows also could not be rolled down.
They soon made the very difficult decision that this dream car just wasn’t for them. They decided to sell it, but they wanted to make sure it stayed in the family by blessing someone who would really appreciate it, and they knew just who it should be. It was still 1974 when Welcome called my grandpa looking to find my dad. “Can I have Tom’s phone number please? I know he and his family are into cars. I have a Mercedes sports car I would like for him to have. I would only ask $5000 if it goes to him.” To which my grandpa replied, “Sorry Welcome, but I know that Tom isn’t interested. He’s got a family now, he shouldn’t be buying some old sports car.”
Welcome tried one more time. “Are you sure? I could at least ask him. If not Tom, what about you? I really want this to stay in the family.” My grandpa unfortunately replied, “You know that we have ten kids Welcome, we have no business buying a sports car. Goodbye,” and hung up the phone. Three days later, Dad found out about that phone call and (even before he yelled at his own dad for this colossal mistake) he desperately tried to reach Great Uncle Welcome … but it was too late. His neighbor had just driven away in it having offered him $10,000.
In the end, all we are left with is a good story. The Hagerty #3 average condition value for the 1954 Mercedes 300SL Gullwing is $920,000. Whenever one comes up on a Barrett-Jackson auction, I still text my dad and have him tune in to watch, even though it hurts. That fitted luggage Great Aunt Honey liked so much … is now worth $20,000!
Thanks, Grandpa, for protecting my dad from buying probably the most historically important sports car Mercedes-Benz ever made. Maybe we would not have seen the potential 18,300 percent increase in value. After all, at the time my family lived in Madison, Ohio, right on Lake Erie, so who knows what condition it would be in now. But man, it is hard not to think about what would have been if my Dad had only got that phone call. For any of you with sports cars out there, feel free to leave me one in your will. I promise to love and care for it, even if the clutch is heavy and the windows don’t go down. Until I get a call from one of you, I will keep my model of the 300SL on my desk alongside other dream cars I’ll never be able to afford. That’s my family’s story, what’s yours? What’s the “one that got away” you wished you would have bought?