60 years Mercedes 300 SL: the Eternity-Generating Star

Mercedes 300 SL history
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As humans, we are not yet able to fully understand the limits of space and time. In order to maintain a subjective kind of orientation along our own limited lives, we badly need some existential marks. Considering the automobile universe, one of these major marks is, for sure, the launching of the 1954 Mercedes 300 SL, exactly 60 years ago. During the history of Mercedes-Benz, things happened before it and other things happened after it, but all of those seem to be somehow centered on the 300 SL…

The moment when this star began to shine: the 1954 edition of the New York Auto Show. Why then? Why there? Let the legend of the Mercedes 300 SL come around. Going back in time for a couple of years, in march 1952 we would have found a bunch of people attending the completely informal and discrete premiere of the Mercedes 300 SL (W 194) racing car on the highway, somewhere between Stuttgart and Heilbronn. Beneath it’s front hood, there was a modified 3,0 litre OHC (170 PS) engine, taken from the Mercedes 300 limousine-series. A lightweight tubular frame was designed by the german specialists under Rudolf Uhlenhaut’s supervision and a very simple-looking body came to cover it. One particular detail seemed to be problematic in the picture: the elements of the structural frame didn’t allow a normal shape for the doors, so the designers had to come with something strange in order to make the car’s cockpit accesible: a pair of roof-hinged doors! Even so, it was not easy at all to get inside. By the other hand, the technical requirements were all fulfilled: the car was weighing only 1240 kg and it’s drag coefficient was only Cx=0,25 (not too many of the todays’ cars can claim such a good value). Elseway, everything seemed just OK, as seen from the Mercedes racing team point of vue, led by Alfred Neubauer.

Roof hinged doors solution was chosen because the elements of structural frame does not allow a normal shape for the doors

The competitional baptism for the 300 SL came with the same year’s edition of the Mille Miglia race. A nice surprise for a debut: two of the three participating 300 SLs reached the finish line on the 2nd and 4th positions. Quite soon, the 300 SLs managed to show everybody what they were capable of: at the end of the Berne Grand Prix, the podium was completely taken by the Mercedes “gullwing” coupes. And, as a kind of maturity test, a really tough race had to be run in june 1952: the 24 Hours of Le Mans. At it’s end, the 1st and the 2nd positions were taken by Mercedes 300 SLs. From then on, all the victories and good competitional results of these cars looked just like something natural. Was there any serious further challenge to achieve? Yes, there was: the 3rd edition of the unforgiving Carrera Panamericana, a 3100 km long rally, going thru altitudes from the sea level to 3196 m. Prat Motors, the American importer of Mercedes-Benz decided to jump in for this race. After an impressive team effort, the first two positions were conquered by the Mercedes 300 SLs, while the third was taken by a Ferrari.

This exceptional achievement inspired Max Hofmann, the man who was directing the import of the Mercedes-Benz cars to the US, to ask for an industrial-scale production of a street-legal version of the 300 SL. And he had to insist to see this thing done, while the german managers of the brand were skeptical.

So, the Mercedes 300 SL Coupe came in 1954 to officially enlarge the brand’s range at it’s high end. The body was redesigned in a glamorous manner, yet the shape of the “gullwing” doors was still there, to confirm the presence of the authentic racing car underneath this new and sophisticated appearance. Unusually advanced technical detail: the updated “straight-six” engine was fed by direct fuel injection. During the next months and years, good news about the competitional victories of the 300 SLs continued to pour like rain, both from the factory team and from private competitors.

A Cx of 0,25 is a brilliant value also for our times

Mercedes 300 SL should not be regarded only as a top achievement of that era, but also like a perspective opener. The “gullwing” inspiration pushed Uhlehnaut to build in 1955 the extraordinary Mercedes 300 SLR Coupe (W 196 S chassis, 300 PS). Only two of those were assembled and one was retained as personal car for Uhlenhaut. As a joke, he used to say “I have the fastest office car in the world”. Funny, because this was completely true: the Mercedes 300 SLR (built on the technical basis of the W 196 – Formula 1 racing cars) was able to reach the top speed of 300 km/h. Later on, at the beginning of the seventies, the inspiration of the “gullwing doors” was taken further by the designer Paul Bracq for the shape of the experimental cars Mercedes C 111. By that time, the Mercedes SL series had already evolved towards the concept of a hardtop-granturismo car, moving away from the original extreme concept of the SLs. However, this concept never leaved the history of Mercedes-Benz. The C112 prototype (V12/engined), the Vision SLR Coupe ans SLR Coupe and the SLS AMG are there to underline this idea. And today we are witnessing the birth of another legitimate inheritant of the 300 SL’s glorious tradition: the Mercedes AMG GT. It’s design proudly bears some of the definitory styling details of the ’54 Mercedes 300 SL , even if the “gullwing” doors aren’t here anymore.

Mercedes 300 SL W 198 I/1954
Configurationsix in line
Displacement (cc)2996
Compression ratio8,5:1
Max power/revs (HP/rpm)215/5800
Transmissionmanual, 4 gears
L/l/h (mm)4570/1790/1300
Kerb weight (kg)1300
Max. speed (km/h)228
Acceleration 0-100 km/h (s)9