Probably no other Mercedes is as well-known around the world as this one: the 300 SL went down in history as the "Gullwing". Now the brand legend is celebrating its 70th birthday. We take a look back at the automotive superstar of the 1950s.
Mercedes-Benz presented two new sports cars at the International Motor Sports Show in New York from 6 to 14 February 1954. The 300 SL super sports car (W 198) and the compact 190 SL roadster (W 121) thrilled the public. Both were the brainchild of Maximilian E. Hoffman, Mercedes-Benz importer for the eastern USA. The 300 SL with its characteristic gullwing doors is derived from the racing sports car of the same name (W 194) from 1952. It is launched on the market in 1954 and becomes an iconic sports car of the century.
Gallery: Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Coupé (W 198)
Two years earlier, there was already a 300 SL: on 12 March 1952, Mercedes-Benz presented the 300 SL (W 194), a pure motorsport vehicle. With it, the brand wins four out of five races in the season: the sports car races in Bern (triple victory) and at the Nürburgring (quadruple victory), the 24 Hours of Le Mans (double victory) and the III Carrera Panamericana in Mexico (double victory). At the Mille Miglia, the first race at the time, it finished second and fourth.
The W 194/11 racing prototype was created for the 1953 season. It was no longer used due to preparations for the entry into Formula 1, but was an important technical step on the way to the racing cars (W 196 R) and racing sports cars (W 196 S) in 1954 and 1955.
Weight savings were hardly possible with the engine and gearbox of the maturing W 194. The steel axles, taken from the Type 300, also weighed heavily. This meant that weight could only be saved in the frame and body. Another option for competitiveness was to find a body that was as streamlined as possible.
Rudolf Uhlenhaut, head of passenger car testing at Daimler-Benz at this time, therefore took up his idea of a lightweight tubular frame, which he had already been working on a few years previously. The designers developed this idea to perfection. The result is a lightweight, extremely torsion-resistant tubular lattice frame made of very thin tubes assembled into triangles, whose tubular elements are only subjected to compression and tension.
The tubular lattice frame weighs just 50 kilograms and becomes the backbone of the W 194. The success on the weight side is dramatic, whereas a Type 300 S weighs around 1,780 kilograms, the Type 300 SL (W 194) weighs just 1,100 kilograms.
In order to reduce not only the weight in terms of good acceleration, but also the frontal resistance for optimum top speed, Uhlenhaut tilted the relatively high six-cylinder in-line engine 50 degrees to the left during installation, reduced the height even further by using dry sump lubrication and thus eliminating an oil sump as an oil reservoir, and achieved a very low bonnet as a result of these measures.
The doors, which later became so iconic, are more a necessity than an intention. In order to give a tubular frame high stability, it must be as wide as possible in the area of the passenger compartment. In the first vehicles, the door cut-out starts at the beltline. The doors, cut deep into the roof, open upwards and are reminiscent of outstretched wings, which is why the car is christened "gull wing" by the Americans and "papillon" (butterfly) by the French.
The driver and front passenger enter the car from the top, so manoeuvrability is an advantage. Nowadays, you often see 300 SLs driving into the car park with their doors open at classic car rallies. The reason: the coupé has no air conditioning, but heats up enormously in summer.
The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL (W 194) racing coupé was turned into the production sports car, also with the type designation 300 SL, but with the model number W 198. Its early history was turbulent: the Board of Management of Daimler-Benz AG made a courageous decision when it promised Maximilian Hoffman on 5 September 1953 to provide him with a small and a large sports car for the International Motor Sports Show in New York, which began on 6 February 1954. It was courageous because neither of the two vehicles existed at the time.
However, the development of the engine with direct petrol injection, originally planned for the 300 SL (W 194) and the 1953 racing season, was well advanced. In addition, the car, its chassis and the tubular trellis frame had proven themselves in numerous competitions in 1952. This made it an excellent basis for the series product.
However, there is still a great deal of development work to be done. For example, a body more suitable for everyday use, better driving comfort and improved driving safety were required. In addition to a heating system, racing cars lack any kind of sound insulation for weight reasons.
The working noises from the gearbox and rear axle may be acceptable to racing drivers with earplugs - but not to a gentleman driver who spends a considerable amount of money on a top sports car. A production model should also offer a reasonable amount of luggage space. The fact that this immense balancing act between the demands of Daimler-Benz and those of Maximilian Hoffman succeeded is still a minor miracle from today's perspective.
The chief engineer at the time, Karl-Heinz Göschel, was responsible for making petrol direct injection, which was still in its infancy at the time, suitable for everyday use in a car. When asked how such a gigantic achievement was possible, he says dryly: "We worked day and night and had no time for meetings."
One might almost say the thunderous applause that the new 300 SL (W 198) received in New York in February 1954 was unanimous and unmistakable. Whether the technology aficionados were delighted by the direct petrol injection, presented for the first time in a four-stroke engine in a commercially available car, or the connoisseurs of beautiful shapes fell for the beguiling lines of the gullwing, such a vehicle was not expected from Daimler-Benz.
A racing or racing sports car, yes, but a large Gran Turismo that could compete with any Italian or British car in its class - that was a sensation in the mid-1950s. The key data alone make this clear: 215 PS, a top speed of up to 162 mph (260 km/h) depending on the transmission, and a standard time of 9.3 seconds to 62 mph. In modest Germany dreaming of the VW Beetle, the 300 SL was a real rocket.
For once, however, the savvy market professional Maximilian Hoffman was not quite right about one thing: he wanted the 300 SL as an open-top vehicle from the outset; three years after the debut of the coupé came the roadster. However, the more glamorous car, which continues to set standards to this day, is the Mercedes 300 SL Coupé with its gullwing doors.
Only 1,400 examples of the coveted sports car with the characteristic doors hinged on the roof due to the tubular frame were built. Today, the vehicles reach prices well in excess of one million euros, depending on previous ownership or special technical features. Even when new, the 300 SL was worth the equivalent of a detached house at DM 29,000.
Gallery: Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Roadster (W 198)
Nevertheless, it immediately found many fans, especially in the United States: within 17 months, 996 examples of the Gullwing were sold, 850 of which went to the USA, or 85 per cent of production in 1954 and 1955. After that, the US export quota tapered off at a lower level. Overall, Mercedes-Benz exported more than half of all 300 SL models in the W 198 series to the USA by 1963, namely exactly 51 per cent of the total of 1,400 Coupés and 1,858 Roadsters produced.
This 300 SL Roadster (W 198) followed the "Gullwing" coupé in 1957. Technically, the Roadster largely corresponded to the Coupé. However, by modifying the side sections of the tubular frame, the entry height could now be reduced to such an extent that normal front-hinged doors could be realised.