Despite faults, Gullwing remains coveted classic

The highly coveted Mercedes-Benz 300SL figured in some of the most memorable racing moments of all time, from the most heroic to the most tragic.

Such is the legacy of a car that, more than 50 years following its creation, commands eye-riveting attention whenever one appears at any classic-car gathering.

If it wasn’t for Max Hoffman, however, North Americans would have known little of the 300SL.

In the 1940s and ’50s, Hoffman, who lived in New York City, was an importer of a number of European auto makes, catering to a small and exclusive group of enthusiasts.

Up to that point, the 300SL was a strictly race-only piece and Hoffman was more than familiar with its impressive competition record. It had won the 1952 24 Hours of Le Mans (France) endurance race as well as that year’s Mexican road race, the Carrera Panamericana. Hoffman was convinced the car would be a big hit in the United States. He pleaded with Mercedes-Benz to build a street version for public consumption and backed that up with a commitment to buy 1,000 of the brutish-looking coupes.

Mercedes obliged and set about to build the road-going 300SL.

Visually, the consumer-oriented SL (the letters stood for Sports Light) varied only slightly from the racing model. Instead of an aluminum body that attached to a tubular space-frame chassis, the production version used panels made of steel, although aluminum was retained for the hood, trunk and roof-hinged “gullwing” doors. Also retained was the 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder motor (canted at a 50-degree angle to make it fit) and four-speed manual transmission. Equipped with Bosch fuel-injection, the 240-horsepower street SLs made 65 more horsepower than the racing versions.

The 300SL was presented to the public at the 1954 New York Auto Show. Despite the then-outrageous price of around $7,000, a tariff that was about $5,000 greater than your typical domestic sedan, importer Hoffman had no trouble selling all that the factory could ship him.

As with most sports cars primarily designed for racing, the 300SL wasn’t exactly user-friendly. To gain entry, there was the issue of straddling the high and very wide door sills, while carefully lowering yourself into one of two extremely snug-fitting bucket seats. Fortunately, the SL’s giant steering wheel was hinged below its hub so the bottom half could be folded upward for extra cockpit maneuvering. Also, the hard-to-reach doors were frequently a problem during wet weather as they tended to leak.

The trunk was another problem. In fact, it wasn’t really a trunk at all, but a storage area for the spare tire and a small tool kit. The optional fitted luggage had to be stowed on a shelf behind the front seats.

Other problems with the 300SL included the intense engine heat that, despite two roof-mounted rear air vents, remained trapped inside the passenger area. Then there was the raucous noise made by the motor at anything above idling speed. Finally, the swing-axle rear suspension made the car difficult to handle for all but the most seasoned of professional drivers.

But buyers didn’t seem to care. What they did appreciate was the 300SL’s exceptional performance, rock-solid reliability and distinctive design.

The 300SL seemed destined for glory as 1955 rolled around. That notion was fortified in early May when a specially prepared eight-cylinder roadster version of the 300SL — called the 300SLR — piloted by racing legend Stirling Moss, won the Italian Mille Miglia road race. For 10 hours, Moss drove the narrow and twisty 1,000 miles of public roads, maintaining an average speed of nearly 100 mph. The second-place car finished more than a half-hour later. It was a proud and shining moment for Mercedes. Then, disaster — the worst ever at a racing event — struck.

Barely a month later at Le Mans, an SLR driven by Pierre Levegh, who was travelling at 160 mph struck the rear of a much-slower Austin Healey. Levegh and his car were vaulted into a throng of spectators. The resulting fire and flying debris killed Levegh and dozens of people. Mercedes-Benz ended its racing program shortly after the incident and calls for an outright ban on the sport were given serious consideration in many countries.

In 1957, after a production run of 1,400, the 300SL Gullwing was replaced by an equally attractive, but far more hospitable convertible. The top remained completely hidden from view when not in use, while a removable steel roof was optional. The SL’s horsepower rating was also slightly increased to 250.

Six years and 1,858 ragtops later, Mercedes-Benz halted production of the 300SL in 1963. However, the SL-class designation has continued virtually uninterrupted as the company’s flagship luxury roadster.

Through triumph and tragedy, the original SL left its mark not only on the racing world, but in the minds and imaginations of sports-car fans the world over.

Malcolm Gunn is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at: Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.

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