History of the 1954 - 1957 Mercedes-Benz 300SL
The 1954-57 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing coupes have a strong claim to be the best all-round sports car for the longest time. The 1,371 steel-bodied and 29 alloy bodied cars can still run with (and away from) modern traffic. Mercedes-Benz management replaced the Gullwing coupe with the more convenient roadster in 1957 but were disappointed to find they didn’t sell many more cars in the following seven years than they had in the first four – only 1,858 convertibles against 1,400 coupes.
If ever there was a case of “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday”, the 300SL is it. The race in question was Mexico’s 1952 La Carrera Panamericana, a vicious, 2,000-mile marathon, which culled 53 of the 92 starters and killed drivers and spectators alike. A week after Mercedes won 1-2, the company had 400 orders for 300SLs. The cars were so fast that team manager Alfred Neubauer was unable to keep up in a Douglas DC3 spotter plane.
La Carrera was the fifth race the Mercedes-Benz 300SLs entered. They placed 2nd in the Mille Miglia, 1-2-3 in the Berne, Switzerland Sports Car Race, 1-2 at Le Mans, 1-2-3-4 at the Nurburgring and 1-2 in Mexico. Mercedes-Benz had planned to cease 300SL production before November’s La Carrera, but the company’s importer in Mexico City, and U.S. distributor Max Hoffman in New York pleaded for an entry.
After the win, 125 of the first 166 300SLs built in 1954 were sold in the U.S. While a Volkswagen Beetle topped out at 70 mph, and a Porsche at 100 mph, the 300SL could hit 161 mph with the right gearing. The Mercedes-Benz 300SL immediately attracted the right buyers -- owners included the Duke of Edinburgh, King Hussein of Jordan, King Baudoin of Belgium, King Constantin of Greece and movie stars like Sophia Loren and Clark Gable.
Mercedes-Benz withdrew from racing after the 1955 Le Mans disaster, but privateers took over. John Fitch and Olivier Gendebien won their class in the 1955 Mille Miglia, then Gendebien won the Liege-Rome-Liege and Alpine rallies. W.I. Tak won the Tulip Rally, Werner Engle won the European Touring Car Championship, Armando Zampiero the Italian Sports car Driver’s Championship and Paul O’Shea won the SCCA’s D Production class in the U.S. In 1956, Prince Metternich finished sixth in the Mille Miglia; Shock and Moll won the Acropolis and Sestriere rallies and the European Rally Championship. Stirling Moss was second in the Tour de France and Willy Mairesse won the Liege-Rome-Liege race.
The Mercedes-Benz 300SL still fascinates engineers. The space frame is ingenious; the high, wide door sills replace the torsional stiffness sacrificed to the gullwing doors, and the tilt wheel eases driver access. The Bosch mechanical fuel injection works smoothly enough for daily use and the 215 bhp, 2,992 cc 6-cylinder engine is canted 30 degrees to lower the hood. The cabin is light and airy and fitted luggage makes the most of the rear space. The only real complaint involved the belly pans, which assist the car to its top speed. They retained engine heat and it was common in the day to see 300SLs gliding down the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, with the gullwing doors “up” for improved airflow. Perhaps it was also a matter of style.
Mercedes-Benz replaced the Gullwing with a more conventional 300SL roadster, which debuted at the Geneva Automobile show in March 1957. Sales of the Gullwing fell to 76 cars, after the announcement of its discontinuation, but the new roadster sold 554 units the first year.
The space-frame was significantly altered to stiffen the roadster body, and the engine given a new camshaft and high compression to compensate for the extra weight. The independent rear suspension was reconfigured to a single, low-pivot point with a compensating spring to reduce the understeer and oversteer characteristics of the Gullwing. The nose was lowered, the grille was smaller and the headlights redesigned, with a handsome “cathedral window” on the European cars. A hardtop was optional, as were Rudge knockoff wheels and fitted luggage. As on most Gullwings, the body was steel, with aluminium doors, bonnet and boot lid. The roadster remained one of the fastest sports cars, with top speed from 133 mph to 155, depending on the gearing.
Defined as a sports-racer by the Sports Car Club of America, the 300SL roadster was placed in Class D, against the Aston Martin DB3S, Maserati 300S and Ferrari Monza. While the other cars were lighter and more nimble, Paul O’Shea took advantage of the 300SL’s reliability, ran every event he could, and won the 1957 championship. He scored three time the points of runner-up Carroll Shelby, in a Maserati 300S.
The Mercedes-Benz 300SL was upgraded throughout production. The first 1,377 had Alfin drum brakes; disc brakes were introduced in 1961, and fitted to the remaining 479 cars. The final 210 300SL roadsters, sold in 1962-63, had an aluminium engine block and are considered the most desirable. While more tractable, and certainly more convenient than the Gullwing, the roadsters were perceived as being softer and more compromised, paving the way to the “pagoda roof” 230/250/280SL boulevardiers.
Period alternatives are the Aston Martin DB4, the Aston Martin DB5, the Ferrari 250 Lusso, and the Lancia Aurelia Spider.