9000 miles in, this 300SL’s continental flight is only halfway over
The Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing coupe has long been a blue-chip collectible. Its desirability remains so consistent, in fact, that Hagerty Insider uses 300SL values to obtain a baseline for the collector-car market. It is elegant and quick, even by modern standards. Beneath its gorgeous sheetmetal is a skeleton derived directly from motorsports. See a Gullwing in person, and you instinctively appreciate it as one of the finest automobiles ever produced. In the case of this particular 1955 300SL, however, there immediately follows a question: “What the hell is this thing doing in Alaska?”
“Usually people buy a Gullwing, and then they put it in the garage,” says Marc Souvignier, the car’s owner. “But this feels wrong to me, to just put it in a collection.”
The Souvigniers, Marc and Tina, are the nicest road warriors you could meet. Arriving in Halifax, New Brunswick, direct from their home in Luxembourg, they have driven their ’55 Gullwing more than 9000 miles through Canada and the U.S. The couple has spent two months on the move—and they’re only halfway done.
Driving a 300SL long-distance isn’t entirely without precedent. The car is a popular choice on the Mille Miglia and on classic-car tours like the Colorado Grand. Yet these events are usually around a thousand miles long; by the time the Souvigniers’ odyssey is complete, they will have gone twenty times that far. They’ve already done the equivalent of slightly over nine Mille Miglias—and, last I checked, the Mille didn’t cross the Arctic Circle.
The inspiration for the trip comes from Marc’s history with motorcycles. He is still involved in vintage racing, particularly with GP500 class two-stroke bikes. In his youth, he rode all over Europe. To recreate those adventures, he and Tina settled on a classic with a reputation for reliability.
It’s worth pointing out that the most valuable car in the world, the 300SLR Uhlenhaut coupe, spent time as a daily driver after its racing career ended. Obviously the best commuter car ever made (if a tad on the loud side)—but another reminder that mundane duties don’t have to diminish the allure of a high-end car.
In the case of the Souvigniers’ SL, such workaday miles add to its appeal. The 300SL is only related to the Uhlenhaut coupe in silhouette, door operation, and by the connection to Herr Uhlenhaut himself. But in the same way that Uhlenhaut’s SLR is so much cooler because he refused to tuck it away in a corner after Mercedes shuttered its racing program, the Souvigniers’ road-tripping 300SL has a magic beyond that of a lovely example posed at a concours. It’s moving and breathing and alive, out there in the unscripted world.
The car itself is a 1955 model nicknamed Rudolf. It is also originally a Canadian car, first delivered to Montreal before spending time in Toronto and, later, finding its way back to Germany.
It’s here that Marc and Tina’s 300SL ownership experience starts to diverge from the norm. Instead of simply contracting a restoration shop to prepare the car for touring, Marc sought out a shop whose technicians would allow him to work on the car alongside them.
“It’s important to understand what is happening in the engine,” he says, “To know how to do the maintenance. Of course you can’t just take it to a Mercedes dealer if you have a problem [on the road].”
Used to working on his own motorcycles, Marc quickly learned the care and feeding of the 300SL’s 3.0L overhead cam straight-six. 300SLs have a reputation for durability, and while the length of the planned trip would mean intermittent valve adjustments and other regular maintenance, he and the shop hoped that serious issues wouldn’t surface.
Some slight modifications, all of them reversible, were required to prep the car. The factory seats were swapped for chairs providing a slightly higher seating position to improve forward visibility on tricky roads. Since rear visibility would be nonexistent with the luggage rack in constant use, Marc mounted a small rearview camera. Otherwise, the 300SL was up to the long-distance task; it was, after all, the best possible car Mercedes could build in 1955.
The landmarks passed quickly—Niagara Falls, the CN Tower—and it was then on to Manitoba and the longitudinal center of Canada. Along the way, the Souvigniers bumped into all manner of car enthusiasts, each of them delighted to see a 300SL out on the roads and curious about its Luxembourg plates.
Marc says the highlight of the trip was driving the Dalton Highway, Alaska Route 11. The locals were dumbfounded to see a Gullwing in Fairbanks, and passing trucks always slowed to take a closer look. The couple made it about halfway to Prudhoe Ba before discovering that the washboard gravel was pretty hard on the car. A tank of what appeared to be bad gasoline was also causing some engine issues.
On the drive back south, the 300SL headed for probably the best roosting spot in Canada. Coachwerks Automotive Restoration in Victoria is a 300SL specialist founded by the irrepressible Rudi Koniczek, now retired. As Rudi & Company, the firm restored over a hundred 300SLs, including the car owned and driven by Pierre Elliot Trudeau when he was prime minister.
However, though Coachwerks is capable of completely rebuilding a 300SL, Rudolf needed little more than a new fuel injection pump and its second valve adjustment of the trip. The car was soon up and running again, heading over Vancouver Island’s coastal mountains for the Pacific surf town of Tofino.
Upon their return to Victoria, the Souvigniers are breaking their trip for a month or so. The plan is to join other 300SLs at a meeting later in the year and then to travel through California and the desert when temperatures are a little cooler. Eventually, their final stop will be in Florida; from there, Rudolf will be shipped home.
After such a long trip, some refreshing of the car will likely be required—but considerations of the journey’s impact on the car’s value are perhaps besides the point. What the Souvigniers have done is to take an icon off its pedestal and actually experience it. It is not a creature of legend but a real car, one filled with tens of thousands of miles worth of stories. It’s still a blue-chip collectible, but one with a passport stamped in Alaska.
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