By Will Silk
Few will doubt that perhaps the most breathtaking cars ever to emerge from Germany were the beautiful 300 SL Gullwing coupes of the mid-1950s. This edition of Classified Ads from the Past spotlights an advertisement for two of these svelte machines that originally appeared in the pages of Road & Track’s April, 1964 issue.
The year was 1952, and Germany was searching desperately for a halo car to deliver the heavily shaken nation from the ashes of World War Two and aid in gaining the country some foothold in exporting to foreign markets. The competition department in Stuttgart was trying to gain strength again after being virtually unbeatable during the late 1930s. The car that would emerge was developed heavily by Rudolf Uhlenhaut for international competition against the likes of Ferrari, Maserati and Jaguar.
The internal coding for the car would be W194, and it would be a tube-trellis chassis to gain lightness to aid in compensating for the lack of power from the carbureted three-liter six cylinder engines. This, coupled with lightweight aluminum body work and further tuning to the M186 engine that was canted some 50 degrees in the chassis, led to a truly thoroughbred machine. Power was rated at a handy 175 horsepower at 5200 RPM. Brakes were alloy drums with hydraulic assistance and the chassis offered fully independent suspension at all four corners, albeit with Mercedes’ traditional swing axle layout at the rear.
It was the chassis, however, that played the largest role in giving the car its distinctive gullwing doors. Due to the system of tubes that were employed to construct a chassis suitable for the rigors of the world’s circuits, Mercedes engineers were forced to either cut certain chassis tubes to fit the car with properly hinged doors and completely comprise the chassis’s stiffness and road holding abilities; or develop a new way to affix doors to this wonderful automobile they had constructed. The engineers chose the latter path, thankfully, and developed upward opening doors that were hinged to the roof of the body work. Drivers and passengers still had large sills to overcome during ingress and egress, but beneath those sills lay vital chassis tubes that assisted the driver greatly once underway and up to speed.
The 1952 season was a busy one indeed for the Mercedes works squad, as they took on the world at some of the best known venues of the time. Karl Kling and Hans Klenk kicked the door open in the spring of 1952 at Italy’s grueling Mille Miglia race, finishing 2nd overall and two positions ahead of legendary works pilot Rudi Carraciolla in another 300SL. The momentum continued, as the team then headed to the Grand Prix of Bern for a 1-2-3 finish. The Le Mans 24 Hour Race in France was next on the schedule and once again, the silver cars from Stuttgart walked away with the top two podium positions. The August race at the infamous “Green Hell” of the Nurburgring saw the works squad absolutely decimate the competition on home soil, for it was a 1-2-3-4 finish for the squad that weekend, Hermann Lang taking the top podium position. The team then left the Continent to head to North America where they enjoyed a 1-2 finish at one of the toughest open road races in the world, the Carrera Panamericana. While this was the last triumph of the works 300 SL racing program for 1952, work on a true, road-going version of this iconic racer was beginning in Stuttgart.
In 1954, Mercedes-Benz again shocked the world with the debut of the 300SL Gullwing for road going use. Bearing a strong resemblance to the 1952 300 SL that dominated the competition that season, the new 300SL from Mercedes offered all the racing flair for the street, albeit at a hefty price. While the chassis was pretty much carried over from that of the W194, the new model was known internally at Daimler Benz as W198 and utilized a steel body with aluminum doors, hood and trunk lid. The option existed to order a 300SL in full aluminum bodywork, though the $7500.00 U.S. price tag climbed dramatically when this box was checked off at the dealer. Suspension was still fully independent. The engine is where the real breakthrough of this incredible machine lie, as the engine retained the three-liter displacement of the racer, but was no longer carbureted like the racing machines of 1952. Instead, Mercedes employed the use of direct fuel injection via a mechanical pump that put fuel directly into each of the six cylinders. Direct injection, as it’s commonly known today, was nothing new at Daimler Benz as they had utilized the feature on the DB601 aircraft engine that powered the Messerschmitt Bf-109 throughout the war years. This resulted in an output of 220 horsepower from the canted straight six mill. With such power on tap, an honest 160mph was obtainable depending on which rear gear ratio was loaded into the axle, making the 300SL one of the fastest production sports cars of the time.
Despite the $7500.00 U.S. price tag, the 300SL sold 1400 units thanks to Max Hoffman’s efforts between 1954 and 1957 making it a strong success in Germany’s efforts to gain credibility in the North American market. In 1957, the coupe was discontinued, and along with it came the end of the gullwing era. Mercedes-Benz would debut a 300SL roadster that year to take the coupe’s place and hopefully appeal to more buyers, along with a four cylinder sibling, the Mercedes-Benz 190SL roadster. While both the 300SL roadster and 190SL roadsters would carry Mercedes into the 1960s, the short-lived Gullwing models remain the most coveted of all SL models to this day. Due to the low production of the Gullwing, prices today frequently exceed the half million dollar range for superb examples, making both of these cars featured in 1964 pages of Road & Track magazine appear to be incredible buys for their time.
[Source: Road & Track]