1954: Enter the Gullwing
It was to become a perfect surprise. On February 6, 1954, Mercedes-Benz used the International Motor Sports Show in New York as the stage for launching a sensation: the world premiere of the silver-colored 300 SL coupe, an elegant shroud with a virtually untamed racing car underneath. It raised pulse rates and prompted enthusiasts not only in the USA to pilfer their bank accounts. The combination of tubular grid-type frame and gullwing doors was without precedent; the low, stretched hood with its characteristic power domes, the distinctive splash guards above the wheelarches, the perfectly balanced, elongated and elegant bodywork lines – all these were the hallmarks of a dream car.
For a comfortable road-going sports car of 1954, direct gasoline injection, 215 hp or even more and road speeds up to 260 km/h were breathtaking. But so was the price, too: DM 29,000 was a fortune in 1954.
Production of the SL started in the summer of 1954. Compared to the New York exhibit, it was further improved in its detail features, even more attractive, even more comfortable, even more impressive in its concept.
Euphoria on the part of the press
After the first tests, the press was beside itself. The German trade journal auto, motor und sport wrote: ‘Among the sports cars of our time, the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL is both the most refined and the most fascinating – a dream of a car.’
The British journal AutoSport enthused: ‘The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL is a car with a wonderful external appearance, coupled with virtually unbelievable performance. Its design and production quality border on perfection and the entire concept represents the uncompromising realization of all the new ideas the car incorporates.’
Road & Track in the United States was equally full of praise: ‘When a comfortable interior combines with remarkably good handling, with almost terrifying road-holding, a light and at the same time precise steering and a performance that matches or even exceeds that of the best cars to date, then there’s only one more thing to say: The sports car of the future has become reality.’
Racing and rally successes
The racing heritage of the 300 SL seduced renowned drivers all over the world into entering the car in sports car races and rallies. In the 1955 Mille Miglia, the team of John Fitch and Olivier Gendebien drove a production SL to superior victory in their category. It was the race from which Stirling Moss emerged as the triumphant overall winner at the wheel of his 300 SLR racing sports car. Werner Engel won the European touring car championship in an SL in 1955, Walter Schock in 1956. The Liège – Rome – Liège marathon rally was won by Olivier Gendebien in 1955 and by Willy Mairesse in 1956. In the USA, Paul O’Shea clinched the American Sports Car Champion’s title in Production Class D of the championship series organized by the Sports Car Club of America in 1955 and 1956.
The “road-going racing coupe in its evening suit” became the symbol of success for the rich and the beautiful of its day and age, a dream come true for a few other people and a dream they were at least able to see and hear every now and again for the vast majority. The engine’s vibrant melody fascinated people just as much as the elegance of the ladies who managed to slide into the depths of the seat and emerge again in well-practiced, perfectly lady-like fashion. By 1957, 1,400 customers all over the world had taken delivery of 300 SL coupes. Over the following decades, well-maintained cars continued to fetch astronomical prices.
The car’s timeless elegance and the fascination it exudes to this day meant that it was voted “Sports Car of the Century” in an international election in 1999.
Text and photographs from Daimler Media.