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Mercedes-Benz 300SL illustration

Mercedes-Benz 300SL: glory of the gullwing

It remains one of the most spectacular cars ever made, an almost impossibly stylish supercar that also went like a bat out of hell.

The “Gullwing” doors of the Mercedes-Benz 300SL imbued an added sense of the outrageous to a car born of impeccable racing pedigree.

We look at the history of a car voted sports car of the century in 1999.

But for the hugely influential car importer Max Hoffman, it’s likely the Mercedes-Benz 300SL would have ended its days where it started them – on the racetrack.

It was Hoffman who persuaded bosses in Stuttgart that a road-going version of the Le Mans-winning W194 racer would find a market in booming, post-war America.

Mercedes W194 race car
The W194 racer

The car caused a sensation when it was launched at the International Motor Sports Show in New York in 1954, and transformed Mercedes’ reputation as a manufacturer of somewhat staid, solid luxury cars.

Mercedes-Benz 300Sl Gullwing
Sensational Gullwing

Racing origins

Before the second world war, Mercedes’ Silver Arrow cars had dominated Grand Prix racing, setting astonishing speed records of up to 270mph.

But from 1939, the company lent its weight to the war effort, producing aircraft engines, trucks and armaments, and large luxury cars used by Adolf Hitler and other senior Third Reich officers.

It took until 1951 before the team at Stuttgart hatched a plan to recapture its competition glory, charging chief development engineer Rudolph Ulhenhaut with producing a machine to beat the world.

The result was the W194-chassis 300SL – for “super light” – entered into sports car racing for the 1952 season.

Mercedes W194 at Le Mans 1952
The cars in action at Le Mans in 1952

An overhead-cam, 3-litre straight six provided the power for an elegant aluminium body wrapped around a light-weight tubular frame on a steel chassis.

Those vertically-hinged doors were not only gorgeous, but a design necessity as the car’s frame tubes prevented the use of conventional doors.

And so the car went racing, taking second and fourth at the Mille Miglia before a one-two at Le Mans.

The car competed, and won, endurance and road races all over the world, seeing off the challenges of Ferrari, Porsche and Jaguar thanks partly to its lightweight construction and slippery shape.

It was a stunning return to glory for a manufacturer that had been bombed to almost total destruction during the war, leading to a company statement in 1945 that read: “Daimler-Benz has ceased to exist.”

That they soldiered on instead, and produced such a world-beating racecar in just a few short years was a remarkable achievement.

Max Hoffman and the 300SL

Although a fuel-injected version was produced for the 1953 racing season, Mercedes decided instead to focus on preparing a new car to compete in Formula One the following year.

That should have been the end of that for the 300SL.

But US importer Hoffman, who led the way in importing European cars to the American market, had other ideas.

A hugely influential figure among manufacturers including BMW, Porsche and Alfa Romeo, Hoffman was convinced that if Mercedes was to survive in the US, it needed a high-end sports car.

Having been appointed US importer for the marque in 1952, he attended a Daimler-Benz board meeting early in 1953 and put forward proposals for a road-going 300SL.

Despite considerable resistance, Hoffman got his way, putting in an order of 1,000 cars, and another 1,000 for a smaller, four-cylinder, open-topped version called the 190SL.

Mercedes 300SL interior
Beautiful 300SL interior

From there, it was a race against time to get the car ready for the New York show just six months later.

A racecar with a damaged front end was taken into the Sindelfingen works to refine the body-styling, while Stuttgart worked on the engine and drive-train.

Creation of a supercar

The body underwent extensive remodelling, but remained recognisable from the racing version.

Wings and wheel openings were reshaped, while the oval grille was narrowed, the three-pointed star at its centre.

The show-stopping gullwing doors with fixed windows were retained, the all-aluminium body replaced by steel other than the doors, boot and bonnet.

Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing 1954

Under the bonnet, the six-cylinder, 3-litre engine was given Bosch direct fuel injection, a first for a production car.

The fuel injection system was a work of genius for the time, an entirely mechanical system that injected fuel directly into the cylinder in perfectly measured doses depending on not only the engine speed, but also the temperature and air density.

Output was up from the 170bhp of the racing car to 220bhp at 5,700rpm, and an impressive 206lb ft of torque at 4,500rpm.

The result was an engine with incredible mid-range pulling power, and a mind-blowing top speed of 160mph.

To many, this was the world’s first supercar long before the term was defined by the Lamborghini Miura.

Like our illustration of the Mercedes-Benz 300SL: glory of the gullwing at the beginning of the article?

Download a free high-quality poster version here.

Launching the 300SL

The public’s reaction to the new car at the New York show more than justified Hoffman’s decision to push so hard for the car to be made – and Mercedes’ in agreeing.

Even at a list price of more than $7,000 (nearly $67,000 today), wealthy Americans put their names down for the new German incomer.

Those who couldn’t stretch to the 300SL could opt for the smaller 190SL, which came in at $4,000 (nearly $39,000 in 2020).

Mercedes 190SL roadster
The smaller 190SL roadster

Production began in earnest in September 1954, and MotorSport magazine’s legendary editor Bill Boddy was among the first to sample the car when Ulhenhaut brought a 300SL to Silverstone in October.

Ulhenhaut, who Boddy describes as “well known to be nearly as fast as Fangio when it comes to poking a Mercedes round the circuits”, took a select group of journalists round the full Silverstone circuit, one by one.

Boddy was impressed with “the extreme power and urge” of a “truly delectable motor-car”.

Sports Cars Illustrated described the car as a “pace-setter, a style-setter, a design conception that is bound to influence the world’s automotive industry for many years to come”.

“As a piece of automotive sculpture, the 300SL is a mas­terpiece,” it wrote, comparing owning one to some of life’s ultimate desires (at the time, anyway).

Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing

“So you can’t climb Everest, you can’t have Monroe, and you’re not likely ever to ride a rocket to the moon. But you can, if you’re properly heeled, achieve an experience that’s in the same ultimate class – you can get yourself a Mercedes-Benz 300SL. And if you really respond to machinery, the effect is the same.”

“Most astonishing” car

Autocar first got behind the wheel in March 1955, describing the car as “docile and tractable in dense traffic”, but coming into its own on the open road.

“For a passenger who has not travelled in the 300 SL before, the effect is electrifying,” it wrote.

“The occupant receives at first a mild pressing back into the seat and then, as the power comes in between 3500rpm and 400rpm, he feels as though he is being rocketed through space.

“Up to 70mph is available in second gear, and then comes a quick movement into third. The rev counter needle drops back for a second or two and, again at 4000rpm, the effect of being urged forward by some irresistible force is felt.

Mercedes-Benz 300SL

“The acceleration is truly remarkable. The effect up to 60mph is not so noticeable as higher up when, with over 80mph showing, the rev counter needle swinging round rapidly towards the limit mark and third gear still engaged, the car fairly rockets forward.”

The Gullwing was not without its quirks – ventilation was poor, chiefly because of the non-opening windows; getting in and out was complicated by the high, deep sills and low bucket seats; and high-speed cornering could be problematic in inexperienced hands.

Because of the sedan-derived rear swing axle, the back had a tendency to swing out if the throttle was eased off mid-corner.

Like our illustration of the Mercedes-Benz 300SL: glory of the gullwing at the beginning of the article?

Download a free high-quality poster version here.

To keep out of the trouble, the power needed to be maintained through the corner.

As Autocar noted: “This is a car that teaches its lessons sharply and thus demands respect.”

You not only needed the money to buy the car but, if you wanted to drive it fast, the ability to handle it.

MotorSport’s Boddy finally got to drive a 300SL on British roads in 1956, reiterating Autocar’s point.

Mercedes-Benz 300SL engine
Mercedes 300SL under the bonnet

“(The 300SL) is for experienced drivers who like to motor at speeds upwards of 90 mph whenever possible,” he wrote. “There are some experiences money cannot buy, but you can have a Mercedes-Benz 300SL for £4,651.” That’s about £98,000 in today’s money.

“It is truly difficult to convey on paper the fascination, amounting almost to awe, that this car imposes on those who drive it or are driven in it.”

Arctic adventure

In the summer of 1955, MotorSport journalist Denis Jenkinson was covering a small race meeting in Sweden, drinking a cold beer and idly gazing at one of the team of 300SL Mercedes-Benz cars.

He got chatting to its driver, Count Berghe von Trips, who was planning to borrow one of the SLs and head north for a week’s holiday. Did Jenkinson know anyone who could come with him?

It was too good a chance to miss and, the morning after racing, the pair set off in Eric Lundgren’s race car, without removing any of the numbers or doing anything to it.

They had no destination in mind, just “a vague idea that we would keep heading north, hoping to see such things as reindeer, Eskimos, Polar bears, or even icebergs”.

“We decided to let the SL take us where it would.”

It was Jenkinson’s first experience behind the wheel of a 300SL, and he describes feeling underwhelmed up to 4,000rpm.

“But then things started to happen and from 4,100 to 5,700 took so-little time that I had to be quick about reaching for the gear-lever and flicking it across-into third gear,” he wrote.

“Again came that terrific surge of smooth power and 5,500 was showing on the large rev-counter. It was doing close on 100mph in third gear, and there was the same surge of power again in fourth. When accelerating hard the engine gives off a deep booming noise.”

It was a hot summer in Scandinavia, and the pair drove the car along with the Gullwing doors open, stripped to the waist.

“The view from the front was quite something,” he says. “Whether the English police would have approved is another matter, but we were in a free country and people gazed in awe and bewilderment rather than anger.”

Eventually, crossing into Norway, they closed in on the far chillier Arctic Circle, a change from Sweden’s “forests and lakes as big as oceans” to “rugged mountain country, picturesque and giving a feeling of fierce battles against Nature”.

Mercedes-Benz 300SL Arctic Circle
The first visit of a 300SL to the Arctic Circle

“Dust, stones and rubble not only formed the road but also the surroundings, and the scene of utter desolation was only disturbed by a single-track railway line running parallel to the road.”

The race-prepared car, now dusty and dirty, had taken them to the demarcation sign saying “Polar Circle”, and then a further 200 miles into the wilderness to the desolate port of Bodo and the “novelty and wonder” of the midnight sun.

After suffering two punctures on the journey back to civilisation, once driving for 15 miles on three tyres, Jenkinson was full of “admiration for the Daimler-Benz factory and the knowledge that the 300SL, while not being a perfect motor car, is certainly one of the great cars of the age”.

In all, more than 1,400 Gullwings were made between 1954 and 1957.

Roadster replaces the Gullwing

In mid-1956, Mercedes  – with Hoffman again in their ear – set about planning an open-top version of the 300SL, to replace the Gullwing rather than complement it.

To fit standard, sideways opening doors the tubular frame had to be re-jigged and strengthened to compensate, while the interior was remodelled and the side windows were of the opening variety.

Mercedes-Benz 300SL roadster
300SL Roadster

There’s little doubt that the roadster was a better car than its forerunner, the rear swing axle replaced by a single-joint, low-pivot unit to give safer handling for the less experienced.

Under the bonnet, the competition camshaft became standard, and a high compression ratio engine was optional on special order, boosting output to 250bhp.

Overall weight increased from 2710lb to 2920lb, along with the price, up from $8,905 to $10,970.

Despite lacking some of the charm of the Gullwing, the roadster sold more, 1,858, albeit over a longer period between 1957 and 1963.

The 300SL, especially the Gullwing, is one of those cars that still takes the breath away today, more than 60 years after it was launched to an awestruck public.

That Mercedes managed to build such an advanced car capable of searing acceleration and a stratospheric top speed at a time when most cars would struggle to reach 90mph marks it out as something very special indeed.

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