The Mercedes 300SL Gullwing was practically a special piece, so how did it become so successful?



The Mercedes-Benz 300SL is one of Germany’s most iconic sports cars. Whether it’s the gullwing doors, the timeless shape or the racing pedigree, it’s hard to think why such a car could ever be considered a failure, but, as Jason Camissa tells us, there’s more. in history than it seems, and the 300SL could very well have been more of a failure than a success.

Emerging from the ruins of World War II, racing was hardly a priority for German automakers, who prioritized survival over sports cars. But in the 1950s, thanks to a faster-than-expected turnaround, a motorsport program was launched.

Read also: Mercedes takes the successor to the 300SL for a final lap

But the resulting creation, the W194 300SL, was hardly a bespoke creation. The team that built it was forced to use many leftovers from the heavy S-Class. This meant it featured the suspension of a luxury sedan, a low-compression engine, a four-speed gearbox clunky gears and four drum brakes – a far cry from the “best or nothing” philosophy the company practices today.

However, there was a silver lining. Project boss Rudolf Uhlenhaut was not just a member of Mercedes management, he was a fast driver and brilliant engineer. He designed a “Super Light” chassis for the 300SL, inspired by an F3 space structure. It also featured a slippery aero chassis, which was key to hitting the speeds needed for success.

1952 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL W194 pictured above. Behind it is the same model, but with the smaller original butterfly doors

In 1952, Mercedes took the 300SL to the Mille Miglia, where it finished second. With a few tweaks over the span of a few weeks, the 300SL swept the podium at the Swiss Grand Prix. He then scored a 1-2 at Le Mans, before finishing first, second, third and fourth at the Nurburgring, all within three months of the car’s launch.

After yet another Carrera Panamericana win, Mercedes scrapped the program, with little else to gain. That would have been the end of the story had it not been for a certain New York-based car importer named Max Hoffman. Hoffman managed to twist the arm of the three-pointed star into a road version.

The W198 300SL was born with minimal modifications to the racing car it was based on. It featured a nicer interior, door struts and a larger fuel tank. However, the most significant change is under the hood. The road car’s engine was even more powerful, with Mercedes and Bosch working together to bring the world’s first-ever direct-to-petrol engine.

If there was a complaint, it was that it felt too much like a race car for some, with a tendency to oversteer rather than understeer, which the less gifted would fault it for. The convertible helped solve this problem and eventually came with versatile discs. But in terms of pedigree and success, it’s hard to top the 300SL with anything else from its era.

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