Yesterday our car club had a wonderful drive to a museum dedicated to the 300SL. Actually it isn’t really a static museum, filled with poor cars that will never be driven.
Even the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart will on occasion send their historic and near priceless cars around the world to be driven at events.
This museum – in Napa, actually houses SLs for their own owners to drive.
Update: 04-07-18 – I received word that the museum has closed.
This SL just got back from a 3,000 mile trip to Banff…
And since there was recently a Gull Wing Group convention at Banff in Alberta, Canada, some were still on the road. Which to me is kind of cool – taking these cars – now up to 60 years old, for 1000s of miles on the roads.
Driven as they were meant to be driven.
These were never delicate cars but cars designed and meant to be driven. There is a story of one owner who drove his all over Europe – and Russia (then the Soviet Union). There was another who took his car hunting, with a deer strapped over it.
But the main reason I am writing this is to tell you about its fascinating history. As far as I know, it is the only car in the world whose genesis was a competition car. There have been many cars designed for the street that were then modified (and strengthened) for the track.
But the 300SL as we know it was first designed for the track, and later, thanks to the efforts one amazing man, Max Hoffman in Manhattan, Daimler-Benz actually improved the competition car (which won in such venues at LeMans and the Nurburgring), and it premiered at the New York Auto Show in 1954.
So let’s go back to 1951, when the company was still clearing the rubble from WW2. A few years before that time, there was a serious belief that the facilities, so devastated, meant the death of Daimler-Benz.
The Company had such a glorious history in auto racing that culminated in the 1930s with the ferocious battles with Auto Union.
Monterey Historic Races – 2005. An original 300SL
The Board of Directors went to their chief engineer, Rudolph “Rudi” Uhlenhaut and gave him the good-news-bad news routine. Which he then repeated to a few of their legendary drivers from the 1930s, gathered at his office around a table.
The good news – we are back in racing! The Company couldn’t afford to get back into GP racing, but they wanted to go sports car racing.
The bad news? We are limited to the parts we currently have – in particular the (then) new 300 “Adenauer” (so named because the German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, used them).
The 300 “Adenauer” – parent of the Gullwing!
The 170 series, designed before the war, got them back on their feet – their “bread and butter” car – but the new 300 was designed as a limousine – and to tell the world that Mercedes-Benz was coming back!
But that meant that they were limited to a 3 liter inline 6 engine. The competition was using engines up to 4 liters – a serious handicap!
Plus – the Adenauer weighed almost 4,000 lbs – 3,900 and some change.
What to do?
Uhlenhaut as an engineer was legendary – he decided to start with the frame – and they designed a tubular frame that weighed all of 130 lbs. This frame made necessary the unusual “Gullwing” doors – they could not have conventional doors and “up” was the only way they could go.
As an aside when they made the street version the engineers hated those doors as they considered them to be a design compromise.
But the public loved them.
While they paid homage to the 300SL, only the original had those distinctive doors out of necessity.
But back to the story.
They designed the frame, then designed the car around the frame.
The large engine was even “tilted” to allow for a streamlined hood and body. The Gullwing has an extremely low drag co-efficient, revolutionary for 1952. Since there was so little room under the hood they took out the oil pan and gave it a proper competition dry-sump lubrication system.
The Adenauer weighed close to 4,000 lbs and the Gullwing lost 1,700 of those lbs., to 2,300!
And it started winning races.
And the public started noticing it.
Hoffman built his Park Avenue showroom – designed by none other than Frank Lloyd Wright – and saw the potential. He went to the Daimler-Benz Board of Directors and said that he could sell 1,000 of these cars if they would build one for the street.
The resulting car – at the New York Auto Show, was even more advanced than the competition version. Imagine for a moment, during the time of the Hudson Hornet, a car that, with the right gearing ordered from the factory, was capable of 160 mph.
In 1954, right off the showroom floor.
1954 New York Auto Show – the 300SL premiered in America.
The body looked a bit different, notably the grill. The biggest change was the addition of fuel injection, the first in a production car.
Well, technically it wasn’t the first – that honor going to some forgettable little German car that came and went.
The mechanical fuel injection was based on the Bosch system developed with Daimler-Benz for their WW2 aviation engines.
Their DB600 series were innovative besides having fuel injection – they were a liquid cooled supercharged V12 that was inverted, for better center of gravity and ease of servicing.
The car took the public by storm. I can remember at the young age of 8 years, going to school in Sherman Oaks, CA and seeing some child arrive in a red Gullwing.
I guess, even 55 years later, that was my first introduction to a Mercedes-Benz.
Skitch Henderson, the Tonight Show’s original band leader, even brought his new Gullwing on stage to show the audience.
Women were ambivalent about the ingress-egress portion, at least when they had skirts. There really is no dignified way of entering or exiting a Gullwing.
But that didn’t stop some like Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida from owning them.
Sophia Loren arriving to a film premier in her SL
Glenn Ford’s SL
Skitch Henderson’s SL
I got a ride in a club member’s Gullwing a couple of years ago and I can tell you the process of getting into the car is 4 steps.
1. Sit on the wide (about 12”) sill over the tubular frame.
2. Swing the inner leg into the footwell
3. Put the outer leg into the footwell.
4. Slide into the seat.
Yes, I meant “into” as the seat is a bit of a drop from the sill. You get the feeling that you are not riding in a Gullwing, but putting it on.
In 1957, due to the sales and demands of the Southern California market, they modified the frame to allow for conventional doors and the softtop/hardtop combination that became a feature of all subsequent SLs until 2003.
A stunning 1959 300SL in the original factory color of DB543 Strawberry Red.
There aren’t many cars that get the kind of attention that these cars generate – even 60 years after their introduction.
It is truly a timeless and iconic car.
Update 04-07-18 – I wanted to add that Max Hoffman was also responsible, through his now-defunct Park Avenue showroom, of bringing other marques such as BMW, Volkswagen and Alfa Romeo to the United States.
I will add a few more photos of the 300SL – due to encroaching space limitations on this website, I regret that they are so small.
It is not.
It came out a few years later and was derived from the W196 Grand Prix car. One of the most celebrated wins in not only Mercedes-Benz but sports car history was the 1955 Mille Meglia with Sir Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson.
It was after the horrific accident later that year at LeMans, that killed 77 spectators and involving a 300SLR, that the Daimler-Benz Board of Directors decided to leave factory sanctioned racing – which they did.
So – the 300SLR Coupe? There were 2 made for the 1956 season which of course never came for Mercedes.
Rudi Uhlenhaut later converted one for his own use on the street.
Both of these cars belong to the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart.