A Visit To The 300SL Museum

300SL1

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. 04

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.

300SLLemans

 

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.

01

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).

300Adenauer

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.

tubr frame

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.

And they prompted some imitators over the decades, notably the Delorean and even the AMG-Mercedes SLS of a few years ago.

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.

300SL3

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.

mercedes-300SL-Gullwing-3-07

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.

db601

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 Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing 07

Sophia Loren arriving to a film premier in her SL

07

Glenn Ford’s SL

08

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.

06

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.

 

 

A Visit to the 300SL Museum

This is a factory produced wooden 1:1 replica of the M186 M198.980 engine used in the 300SL. The other one is at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart.

A Visit to the 300SL Museum1

The 300SL belonging to the (then) manager of the 300SL museum. If I remember his story right, he restored this himself many years ago. At the time of the museum visit, he had just gotten back from a 3,000 road trip to Banff, Alberta. Canada

 

A Visit to the 300SL Museum2

A Visit to the 300SL Museum3

This 300SL roadster is finished in the spectacular DB 543 Strawberry Red Metallic. It is the original factory color. The roadster was started in 1957 and “Gullwing” production ended. The frame is different allowing for the conventional doors.

A Visit to the 300SL Museum4

 

Update 05-10-18 Some of you may have seen the 300SLR Coupe and believed that it was related to the 300SL.

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.

For decades.

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.

 

300SLRUhlenhautS

11 Comments

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11 responses to “A Visit To The 300SL Museum

  1. A well-researched and most excellent piece, Bill, and it fired off a few synapses for me. The Ol’ Man was stationed in Paris in the mid-’50s; the 300SL was his dream car and remained so until he died. He had a friend who owned one of these beauties during the time he was stationed in Paris and got to drive the car on several occasions. He NEVER tired of telling stories about those drives and the experiences got faster and better as time marched on. Funny how that works, eh?

  2. Bill Brandt

    It is, Buck. And for me to remember that red Gullwing pulling up to my school, at the age of 8 years old! The 300SL definitely leaves an impression on you!

    There are lots of Gullwing stories – one of my favorite – I heard from a friend while he was in the Army – in Germany – in the 1950s. Daimler-Benz was just getting back on their feet, and were eager to sell their cars to US servicemen. They actually had a “traveling show” going to the PXs with the line of their cars.

    They came one snowing night, and my friend noticed an older man outside the entryway, trying to keep warm. (Then, as now, you need proper military ID to get in – or be a guest).

    My friend took pity on him, and invited him in for some coffee.

    He finds out that this man is none other than Rudi Caracciola, who was one of their top drivers during the 1930s and the GP war with Auto Union.

    (As a side bar if ever you are in Indianapolis, go to the museum in the center of the track. You will see all or most of his trophies. He was no Nazi but a lot of them had swastikas because of the times. He was in practice at Indianapolis on – about – 1947 – and crashed being terribly injured.

    Tony Hulman, the owner, became friends with him and let him convalesce at his home for 6 months. In gratitude Rudi gave him his trophy collection).,

    Anyway, this now older man, still working for Mercedes-Benz, after the coffee gives my friend a ride in … a Gullwing during that snowing night. A ride on a dark snowing night driven by one of Mercedes’ GP champions.

    My only personal tie to a 300SL – besides the sighting in 1958 – my friend’s car – was getting difficult to keep due to his insurance requirements. It was becoming so valuable – with the insurance company wanting him to keep it in a more secure area –

    After a while some possessions own you – not the other way around.

    So he decided to sell it through one of the auction houses.

    But before they picked it up, I get a phone call.

    “Bill, I’m sorry for the short notice but if you want to drive my 300SL come over here now before they come”.

    I thought about it for a moment, thought that if a rock hit the windshield or scratched the bodywork or (heaven forbid) it got into a minor fender bender (people would drive up near you with their smart phones taking pictures) – anyway if I caused any damage I might as well sell my own car for starters to fix it –

    Maybe I was foolish turning down that opportunity but I think my friend understood. Some possessions end up owning you.

    Just riding in it months earlier was a thrill. People at intersections had one of 2 reactions. Either they “saw” it – turned around – then with neck almost snapping, turn again and “SEE” it, or – reaction was nothing.

    We could have been in a Corolla.

    That was a memory I’ll always remember, too.

  3. XS3mdrvr

    Ahh… The memories. One of my classmates at USN ET”A” School at Treasure Island back in 1960 had one of those. Beautiful car.

    Speaking of beautiful, Sofia Loren reminds me of a girl named Sofia I met in Luanda, Angola about 1967 who looked just like her. Beautiful ladies, both. Thanks for the memories 🙂
    Joe Harwell

    • XS3mdrvr

      Hogday, I really appreciat your post on RAF Bentwaters. Very nice, and good to hear from some of the long-timeLexicans 🙂

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