An automotive icon from the 1950s, this rare alloy-bodied two-seater was the supercar of its day.
(Originally appeared on www.roadandtrack.com – APR 29, 2011 – Road and track explores the history of the 300SL Gullwing.)
So who doesn’t know about the Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing? This is another of those automotive icons from the 1950s that is as much a part of automotive culture in the U.S. as it is in Germany.
Of course it was a New York dealer, Max Hoffman, who assured the 300SL would be built when he placed a large enough order for Mercedes to justify production. Hoffman did this with several other automakers, which is how we got the Porsche Speedster and BMW 507.
Mercedes’ first postwar sports car was a successful race machine called the 300SL, so it wasn’t a giant step to a production version.
To save time and then-scarce Deutschmarks, Mercedes borrowed components from its luxury 300 sedans. That would include the 3.0-liter engine fitted to the SL with fuel injection and tilted to the side to provide a lower front profile. Chassis components were also inherited from the 300. As they were heavier than the engineers would have liked, the design of the body and the frame under it were kept light.
The 300SL’s most celebrated feature is, of course, the gullwing doors. They were, however, not a fashion statement. To give the lightweight tube frame maximum stiffness, its sides had to be rather tall, making conventional doors impossible. Hence the gullwing doors, a technical necessity leading to a design hallmark.
Mercedes’ sports car was the darling of many celebrities like Sophia Loren, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Glenn Ford and musicians Skitch Henderson and Don Ricardo. The latter was the leader of the NBC Radio orchestra and quite the Mercedes fan. Ricardo was well known in Southern California and on the Bonneville Salt Flats with his 300SLs, including the one now in the Ralph Lauren collection. The car was originally bought by Tony Parravano, a rather mysterious character in West Coast racing, but it was Ricardo who made it well known.
This particular SL no doubt appealed to the musician because it is one of the rare aluminum alloy-bodied 300SLs. While Mercedes assembled some 1400 300SLs, only 29 received the lightweight bodywork. In addition to the alloy body, these extremely special 300SLs rode a bit lower on a firmer suspension then the standard cars, had hot camshafts and knock-off wheels.
Not surprisingly, 300 SLs were raced with success. American John Fitch drove one to a GT class win in the 1955 Mille Miglia, Olivier Gendebien won the rugged Liège-Rome-Liège rally that year with a 300SL, while Paul O’Shea drove one to capture road racing class championships in the U.S. in 1955 and 1956.