Once in a great while, if all of the stars are properly aligned, an automaker will come out with a new car that will not only be well-received by fans, but one that’s so far ahead of the competition that it will also change the public perception of the company. The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Coupe, produced between 1954 and 1957, was one such car.
Mercedes-Benz has a stellar competition history, and it was this history that created the events that gave birth to this iconic road-going coupe. In 1952, Mercedes sought to revive their illustrious pre-World War II racing heritage with a racing coupe, the 300 SL. This race car was not the road-going 300 SL Coupe, but a purpose-built race car, internally known as the W194.
Designed by Daimler-Benz’s Rudolf Uhlenhaut, the W194 used the 3-liter, inline six-cylinder engine from Mercedes-Benz’s 300 sedan, which was mated with a lightweight, welded aluminum tube frame. The W194 met with instant success, winning its class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the grueling Carrera Panamericana.
The Mercedes-Benz success in the Carrera Panamericana, a 2,000+ mile race over open roads between the southern and northern borders of Mexico, garnered the 300 SL and Mercedes-Benz great publicity in the North American motoring press. It was then that the seed for a road-going 300 SL was planted in the mind of Max Hoffman, an American importer of Mercedes-Benz cars.
Hoffman, a major importer and distributor of most foreign car brands, was considered a VIP client by European car manufacturers. In meetings and correspondence with Daimler-Benz executives throughout 1952 and into 1953, Max stressed his belief that an upscale, road-going version of the 300 SL race car, tailored to affluent American performance enthusiasts, would be a huge success.
Max was, apparently, a very persuasive person. The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Coupe made its debut at the International Motor Sports Show in New York City in February 1954 and was an instant sensation. It became the ultimate auto status symbol and was bought by celebrities and movie stars worldwide.
There are some who believe that the 300 SL Coupe is still the ultimate auto status symbol, and judging by recent auction results, they may be right. One of the 29 all aluminum-bodied 300 SL Coupes ever made was the top auction seller at the Scottsdale, Arizona auctions in 2012, sold by Gooding for $4.62 million.
Although many refer to the 300 SL as the ‘Gullwing’ Coupe, due to the resemblance of its open doors to a seagull’s wings, the official name never included the term ‘Gullwing’. The lightweight multi-tube frame necessitated very high and wide door sills to retain its structural rigidity, and one way to provide reasonable ingress and egress to the interior was to hinge the doors at the top so that they opened and closed from the bottom.
Road Tests and Classic Cars: http://www.danjedlicka.com/classic_cars/gullwing.html
Hemmings 1954-1957 300 SL Coupe: http://www.hemmings.com/hmn/stories/2012/04/01/hmn_feature3.html