1954 Mercedes-Benz 300SL
1954 Mercedes-Benz 300SL. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photo by Bill Vance

Following the Second World War, it took Germany’s Daimler-Benz, manufacturer of Mercedes-Benz, until 1951 to introduce its new post-war 300 sedan and slightly sportier 300S. With production cars under way, the company sought to recover some of its pre-war racing glory.

Daimler-Benz and German rival Auto Union had been almost invincible in 1930s Grand Prix racing, but in the early 1950s Daimler still wasn’t financially or technically ready to return to Formula One competition.

As an interim step, it entered sports car racing using Mercedes 300 sedan components. The 300 sedan was not adaptable to racing, but its driveline and chassis components, including the now-maligned swing axles, were robust enough for competition. Also, the single-overhead-cam, 12-valve, short-stroke 3.0-litre inline six’s fully counterweighted forged steel crankshaft ran in seven generous main bearings.

A low and aerodynamic (0.25 coefficient of drag) aluminum-bodied competition coupe was designed and designated as the 300SL (for 3.0 litres, Sport and Light). Since the sedan’s frame was too heavy, a bridge-like “space frame” was fabricated from small-diameter tubes.

This strong, light frame extended halfway up the sides of the car, precluding the use of regular doors. To deal with this, the designers raised the bottoms of the doors and extended the tops into the reinforced roof where they were hinged near the middle.

They were quickly dubbed “gullwing” doors and became the 300SL’s most striking and imitated feature. A solution to an engineering problem became a significant styling signature.

These doors made entry and exit awkward, particularly for women wearing skirts. To ease the driver’s entry the steering wheel tilted down. Once inside, passengers were snug and comfortable compared with open sports cars, and enjoyed excellent visibility.

In the 300 sedan the modestly-stressed 2,996 cc engine produced just 115 horsepower at 4,600 rpm, but it was sturdy enough to reliably develop more than double that. When the production 300SL was introduced the horsepower was rated at 240. To clear the low hood, the engine was tilted 50 degrees to the left.

Carburetors were used in the early stages of the 300SL’s development, but the production model got Bosch fuel injection. It was the world’s first four-stroke, gasoline-engined production car to have this feature. It also had racing-type dry-sump lubrication.

The 300SL quickly made its mark in competition, winning, among others, the 24-hour 1952 Le Mans in France, and the Carrera Panamericana (Mexican Road Race). It was also quite successful in rallying.

After showing the way to Daimler’s return to Grand Prix racing, the 300SL could have been relegated to the company’s museum. And it may have been, except for the intervention of the firm’s New York distributor Max Hoffman.

Hoffman, the U.S. imported car czar, sold everything from Volkswagens to Rolls-Royces following the Second World War, and had a keen marketing sense. He became a Mercedes distributor in 1952, and when he saw the Mercedes-Benz 300SL sports racing car he knew it would sell in America. Hoffman implored Daimler to make it a production model, backing up his conviction with an order for 1,000 of them, an opportunity too good for the automaker to pass up.

The Mercedes-Benz 300SL gullwing coupe, and the less potent four-cylinder 190SL convertible, made their debut at the New York Auto Show in February 1954. The 300SL was a sensation with the public and the motoring press, and production began in the summer of 1954.

The 300SL fulfilled its performance promise. Road & Track (April 1955) reported that the 1,229 kg (2,710 lb) coupe scooted from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 7.4 seconds, and to 161 km/h (100 mph) in a mere 17.2 seconds. It reached a two-way top speed average of 216 km/h (134.2 mph).

The testers called it “the ultimate as an all-round sports car,” concluding, “The sports car of the future is here today.”

The 300SL had a hefty price – some $8,000, a lot of money when a new Cadillac could be had for $5,000. This is, in part, no doubt is why only 1,400 gullwing coupes were produced from 1954 to 1957. It was replaced by a roadster with a frame modified to allow conventional doors, and with Daimler-Benz’s low-pivot rear swing axle assembly replacing the traditional swing axles. Four-wheel disc brakes came in 1961, and the roadster remained in production until 1962; 1,858 were built.

Produced from 1954 to 1961, the Mercedes-Benz 300SLs left an indelible impression on the motoring world. Its fuel injection was a significant advance, and it had outstanding performance, impeccable racing credentials and the cachet of those original gullwing doors. It is one of history’s great automobiles.

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