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The automotive world is full of good comeback stories, successful cars that saved their factories, reestablished market dominance, or became landmark models and cherished collectibles. However, amongst all those tales of winning against the odds, the story about the Mercedes 300 SL is probably the best one. Here, we have a model that not only firmly positioned the company on top of the industry but cemented its engineering reputation, helped secure its financial position, survived the post-war recession, won new customers, and became the most expensive classic car in the world! This model introduced unique technical solutions, construction techniques, and design features miles ahead of the competition, winning numerous races and the hearts of countless celebrity owners. And all of that, just less than ten years after the war, almost destroyed the factory and ruined its future. Yes, the 300 SL (W196) was that successful, so it deserves a closer look.
As you can imagine, Mercedes was in ruins by 1945 and the end of WWII. Not only were facilities damaged by bombing, but much of its workforce was in labor camps and even mobilized by Nazis. Once, one of the most prominent European brands was reduced to a few workshops and pre-war technology since it stopped making civilian vehicles in 1942 and concentrated on military technology. When war stopped, the first order of business was to assess the damage and reestablish production as soon as possible. In 1946, pre-war Mercedes 170 V production was resumed, but only for government services. Passenger cars were available from 1947 but in modest numbers.
However, the spirit of mechanical excellence, prestige, and luxury didn’t abandon the Mercedes, even in those dark days of its history. The company slowly expanded its portfolio and tried to compete in the luxury car field, even though this segment was extremely limited in post-war Europe. In 1951, Mercedes introduced a giant 300 “Adenauer” luxury sedan, which was an ambitious and reasonably successful model; however, the company needed something extraordinary and advanced to turn the attention of the automotive world. Mercedes management was well aware of the impact that glorious Silver Arrow Grand Prix racers of the 1930s had on Mercedes’s image and wanted to repeat the trick. However, the funds for such a project were extremely tight, and engineers were given the green light, but they were instructed to use as many production components as possible.
Introduced in 1952, the Mercedes W194 was the predecessor of 300 SL. It was a purpose-built racing machine, and it was surprisingly advanced. They were so advanced that it was hard to comprehend. With its aerodynamic and streamlined body, it was designed to achieve high top speeds; however, the main features were underneath the aluminum body. The tubular steel chassis was light and robust, with the 3.0-liter, six-cylinder engine installed as low as possible and slightly tilted for low center of gravity. The car had independent suspension on both axles, big drum brakes, and a compelling performance. However, it had the impeccable quality and durability you would expect from a Mercedes Benz. It was immediately entered into the competition and proved unbeatable in 1952, 24 Hours of Le Mans and Nürburgring and finishing second in 1952 Mille Miglia. The racing success proved to be just what Mercedes needed and helped elevate the brand and boost sales.
Mercedes 300 SL (W196)
If the W194 were victorious only in Europe, the Mercedes history would be much different. However, in 1952, Mercedes entered a gruesome endurance race in Mexico called Carrera Panamericana and won with a spectacular 1-2-3 finish. This event, which US brands dominated, reestablished the Mercedes name in North America, and all of a sudden, Mercedes made a name for itself and went from a forgotten company on the brink of extinction to one of the hottest names in the sports car world. Undoubtedly proud of the success, Mercedes’s board of directors didn’t intend to turn it into a production model. But, in 1953, during a board meeting in the company’s headquarters, Max Hoffman, a famous and influential importer of luxury European brands for the American market, promised to order 1000 examples of Mercedes racing cars if the company made a road-going and road-legal version. The board was stunned by the massive order, especially knowing that by that time, the company had only made about ten W196 racing cars. But, the newly-appointed and very ambitious chairman, Fritz Konecke, decided to take the risk, allow the production of a standard version, and see if Max Hoffman would stand behind his word.
Transforming a racing car to a road-going, passenger vehicle is always a problematic process that requires a lot of compromises. However, Mercedes made surprisingly few of them, making the production version even more advanced than the W194 racing machine. First, the lightweight but firm steel tubular chassis was retained along with the swing axle and independent rear suspension. Under the hood was the same, light and tilted, 3.0-liter straight-six engine but with one significant improvement – Bosch mechanical fuel injection. This revolutionary item (the first in the world) was an extremely advanced feature for the mid-50s. Interestingly, Mercedes produced numerous airplane engines with fuel-injection systems during WWII, so their engineers had crucial know-how of the system. The engine was borrowed from a 300 “Adenauer” sedan, but with the help of mechanical fuel injection, it delivered 240 hp and 294 Nm (217 lb-ft).
The design was based on the racing W194 but refined with more chrome, nicer wheels, scoops, and elegant lines. The race car was made out of Electron (a very light but explosive material), but the road-going version used more conventional aluminum. Of course, the most striking feature was the “Gullwing” doors that opened vertically, and although they astounded the car public, they were a necessity. Because a racing chassis was used, the side of the tubular frame was too high to mount a conventional door, so “Gullwing” doors were used, like on the race car. This made the W196 notoriously hard to get in and out, but the tiling steering wheel helped a bit.
Presentation and Performance
This, by far the most advanced Mercedes road car by that date, was presented in 1954 at the New York Car Show, a manifestation deliberately chosen by Max Hoffman. With the base price of just under $7000, the 300 SL was understandably expensive but well worth every cent. Mercedes named it “300” due to the displacement of the engine and “SL” for Sport and Licht (light), both of which W196 was. Despite a heavy unit, suspension, and plush interior, the Mercedes 300 SL weighed just 1295 kg but managed to reach 100 km/h in just 7.5 seconds and top 260 km/h (160 mph). At the time, those were all incredible figures which promoted it as the fastest production car of the period. From today’s perspective, we could call the 1954 Mercedes 300 SL the world’s first supercar since it had such an effect on the market and was followed by superlatives and the industry’s first features and technology.
However, although unique in just about any aspect, the 300 SL wasn’t perfect. Yes, it was fast and powerful, but its rear suspension wasn’t up to the task. The swing axle design might provide the car with comfort, but it robbed it of stability at high speeds. Due to rapid camber changes, the 300 SL was known as the tricky handler and hard to drive at the limit.
Despite the steep price and tricky handling, from the start, the 300 SL proved to be the favorite sports car of the ’50s celebrities. The original owners list basically “Who is Who” in the world of art, politics, and movies. The 300 SL graced the driveways of Juan Perón, Herbert von Karajan, Tony Curtis, Porfirio Rubirosa, Rob Walker, Juan Manuel Fangio, Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Romy Schneider, Clark Gable, and Gunter Sachs. The initial response made Max Hoffman and Mercedes very happy, and the company especially liked that many owners entered their cars in local races, winning and promoting the brand.
Mercedes 300 SLR
Parallel with the road-going 300 SL development, Mercedes continued its racing program with fuel-injected and open-top 300 SLR. It was a roadster version with an improved engine, stiffer suspension, lighter body, and better aerodynamics. In 1955, the Mercedes team had a fantastic start to the season with the legendary win at Mille Miglia. However, a few months later, at Le Mans, the tragedy struck. French driver Pierre Levegh, who drove a leading 300 SLR, crashed and catapulted into the spectator stands, killing 82 and injuring 120 people. The incident was so terrible that it forced Mercedes to kill its racing program and retire its competition ambitions for decades.
Even though the Mercedes 300 SLR left the racing arena at the height of its success, the company also experimented with a closed SLR version called the Uhlenhaut Coupe. Rudolf Uhlenhaut was the chief engineer who oversaw the development of all 300 SL cars. He was also a talented driver, and Mercedes produced two coupes, one of which was his personal car and test mule, at the same time. That specific car became the world’s most expensive classic when it achieved an insane price of 135 million euros in 2022.
Mercedes 300 SL Roadster
By the late ’50s, Mercedes’ racing program was shut down, and further development was canceled. At the same time, after initial interest, the sales of the 300 SL coupe started to slow down. It was to be expected, and since the car was expensive, many customers could afford it. However, Mercedes knew the 300 SL was a fantastic car and light years ahead of the competition. For example, the Ferrari 250 GT of the same vintage had a live rear axle, conventional chassis, and carburetors, while the 300 SL had fuel injection, tubular chassis, and independent rear end.
To keep the customers and expand the 300 SL range, Mercedes offered a 300 SL Roadster, a convertible version that was available from late 1957, just as the Coupe was discontinued. The Roadster had identical mechanics, design, and performance, but it featured a much-changed chassis, which allowed for some trunk space and conventional doors. The Roadster is over 120 kg heavier than the Gullwing coupe. Interestingly, the Roadster was also significantly more expensive than the standard 300 SL, and in 1957, it had a base price of over $10,000, which was very expensive. However, higher costs didn’t affect its popularity, and by 1963, Mercedes sold even more open-tops than coupes. Once again, the 300 SL Roadster was a favorite with Hollywood actors, and Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Nataly Wood, and Yul Briner all had this gorgeous convertible in their garages.
Max Hoffman promised the board that he would sell a thousand cars. And, amazingly, he did. Exactly 1,000 300 SL Gullwing coupes have been sold in America alone, and Mercedes managed to shift 400 more globally, making the production of the Coupe at 1,400 cars. From 1957 to 1963, Mercedes sold 1,858 Roadsters, bringing us to 3,258 cars produced in 9 years.
Mercedes SL300 Specs
Gullwing Coupe (1954-1957)
|3.0L inline 6-cylinder M198 engine
|215 hp @ 5,800 rpm
|202 lb-ft (274 Nm) @ 4,600 rpm
|Up to 163 mph (262 km/h) with optional gearing
|Approximately 7.3 seconds
|2-door coupe with gullwing doors
|Front-engine, rear-wheel drive
|Approx. 2,866 lbs (1,300 kg)
|3.0L inline 6-cylinder M198 engine
|225 hp @ 5,800 rpm
|203 lb-ft (275 Nm) @ 4,600 rpm
|Up to 155 mph (250 km/h)
|Approximately 7 seconds
|Front-engine, rear-wheel drive
|Approx. 2,822 lbs (1,280 kg)
Spectacular in every way, the 300 SL was the pinnacle of Mercedes ethos for decades and one of the rare “Halo Cars” that actually made money for its company. It was a rolling test bed for numerous mechanical features and inspiration for many regular Mercedes models. The Mercedes 300 SL Coupe and Roadster are one of the first cars that gained collector’s car status back in the ’70s and, since then, became one of the most recognizable shapes in the classic car world. Expensive when new, they are even more pricy now and if you want to enter the magical world of W196 cars, you will need over 1 million dollars or euros.
What makes the Mercedes 300 SL iconic?
The Mercedes 300SL is renowned for its distinctive gullwing doors, elegant design, advanced technology for its time, and impressive performance. It was one of the first production cars to use fuel injection and had a top speed that made it the fastest production car of its era.
When was the Mercedes 300 SL produced?
The 300SL was produced between 1954 and 1963. It was first introduced as a gullwing coupe from 1954 to 1957 and then as a roadster from 1957 to 1963.
What does ‘SL’ in Mercedes 300 SL stand for?
‘SL’ stands for ‘Sport Leicht’ in German, which translates to ‘Sport Light’ in English. This designation highlights the car’s sporty characteristics and lightweight construction.
How many units of the 300 SL were produced?
A total of 3,258 units of the 300SL were made: 1,400 of the coupe and 1,858 of the roadster.
Why were the gullwing doors used on the 300 SL?
The gullwing doors were a result of the car’s tubular frame design, which required high door sills, making conventional doors impractical. The result was not only distinctive but also functional.
What is the current value of a Mercedes 300SL in the collector’s market?
It’s considered ‘priceless’. As a highly sought-after classic, the 300 SL commands a premium in the collector’s market. Prices can range significantly, often reaching well into the millions, depending on condition, history, and originality.