The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL ‘Gullwing’ is the heavy weight champ in the rise of the brand as a sports car manufacturer. Martin Philippo is enchanted by its winged beauty.
The name has a magical ring to it, Mercedes-Benz Gullwing. Internally it is called the W198, commercially known as the 300 SL, for Super Leicht. A wonderful automobile, that of course didn’t just sprout from nothing. The origin of the 300 SL is the W194, a genuine racing car. In the early fifties the engineers at Mercedes do not manage to extract as much power from an engine as competition like Ferrari does. To compensate what they lack in power, they build there racing car as light as can be. The W194 weighs as little as 850 kilograms. Propelled by the three litre straight six from the stately W198 ‘Adenauer’ it goes pretty damn good. That good, that the W194 reaches first and second at Le Mans, wins the Carrera Panamericana and takes the first three spots on the Nürburgring.
The success of the W194 at the circuits begs for a street legal version. States side of the ocean there is a very large interest in such a vehicle. The man pleading its case is Max Hoffman, Daimler-Benz importer in the United States. He personally guarantees the factory in Germany he will sell a thousand examples of the car. Less of a gamble than we might think, since Hoffman knows pretty well how many wealthy Americans are longing for a fast, reliable sports car at the time. The German board doesn’t give in easily, Max needs to plea and push effortlessly, but in the end the people in Stuttgart give way to his never ending argumentation. In 1954 the all new 300 SL is shown at the New York Motorshow. The 300 SL being nothing more than a direct descendant of the W194 it all started with isn’t really a downside, it might even boost the myth even more. This is exactly the image Hoffman was looking for to boost his business.
The extremely low weight of the Gullwing is reached by using an aluminium tube frame clad with a steel body. Parts like the bonnet and doors are made of aluminium. There is an optional body available that is completely made out of aluminium sheet, reducing the total weight with another 80 kilograms. The huge price tag of this option limits the total output of this version to just 29 cars leaving the factory. The construction of the space frame forces the designers to create larger sills, leaving no room for standard doors. The iconic gull wing doors are actually nothing but a necessary work around. In opposite to the double barrel carburetors of the racing car, the 300 SL is the first production car ever to receive mechanical fuel injection. The Bosch system helps to raise the output to 215 hp and a top speed of over 260 km/h. An icon is born.
No other model has meant as much to the image of Mercedes-Benz as the 300 SL. Up til the Gullwing the brand is known for its stately and reliable touring cars. People associate Mercedes-Benz with men smoking cigars and wearing hats, rather than with racing overalls and courage. The Gullwing changes all of that in one strike. The 300 SL is literally a racing car for the public roads. From now on Mercedes is named in the same breath with other great names of the track. Its characteristic wings appear on posters, in book and magazines. They become world famous. Anno 2017 the Mercedes-Benz Gullwing still is a very much desirable car, fetching astronomic numbers at auctions around the world. The wealthy customers Hoffman pictured way back in the fifties to achieve his dream of a fast sporty Mercedes are still there.