Article by Roger C. Johnson
Since Mercedes-Benz is credited with producing the very first automobile, it should be no surprise that the company also created the gold standard in collectible sports cars with their always-coveted 1955 300SL gullwing coupe.
To fully appreciate this amazing machine, the mid-‘50s, a magical period for the auto industry, should be taken into account. Consider the sparked enthusiasm of engineers and designers who were finally given the chance to create peacetime products based on the staggering manufacturing knowledge gained over the previous decade and a half. As a result, world-class automotive power and style were suddenly available.
Iconic cars such as the Chevrolet Corvette, the Ford Thunderbird and the Chrysler 300 all debuted during this period. Each left indelible marks on the industry. Yet the 300SL Mercedes gullwing coupe has maintained a status that continues to outshine the rest of the best.
It boils down to design and attention to detail. While those other three brands showed great promise for the future, the Mercedes 300SL coupe already was the future. It offered a timeless design, with a lively 3 Liter Inline overhead cam six cylinder engine (slanted 45 degrees, by the way) breathing through a beautiful long-runner, cast aluminum intake manifold.
The direct port fuel injection system it used was 60 years ahead of its time, since only now are we beginning to see this type of fuel delivery on modern production vehicles. Not surprisingly, the unit’s designer, Bosch, is still at the forefront of that technology.
Every good sports car needs a well-engineered transmission to properly complete the link between driver and machine — the 300SL orchestrates all the mechanical excellence of this direct injection engine with a 4-speed manual transmission.
Initially conceived as a race car, this coupe’s lines reflect lessons learned in the aviation sector as they relate to aerodynamics. Its smooth, rounded surfaces made it a natural for virtually sneaking past the wind as it motored down the highway. Mercedes designers pushed the aero envelope even further by capturing wind flow and making it do what they wanted. That’s the reason for their air extractor vents at the rear edge of the rooftop. They actually exhaust fresh air through the cabin with those outlets. The same principle applies to the side vents, which dispel the radiating engine heat up front.
The only element on this car’s exterior that is not the direct offspring of the form-follows- function philosophy is one of those two long and narrow hood bulges. One of them clears the fuel injection apparatus underneath. The other is purely for visual balance.
A completely modern and fully independent suspension system on a rigid tubular space-frame chassis provided supreme handling characteristics. This is another reason this beautiful machine sails past its competition.
The use of lightweight materials is a hallmark in the exotic car- building world. Lighter and stronger is always better, and that’s exactly why this 1955 coupe used aluminum wherever possible, including its trend-setting gullwing doors.
This entry arrangement had nothing to do with showmanship and everything to do with occupant safety. In order to build the chassis that would produce the protective results the designers were striving for, the finished product had to incorporate a rather high side structure. This alone actually necessitated the imaginative door solution. More lightweight aluminum was used for the car’s hood and trunk lid. In fact, the car’s SL nomenclature actually means “sport light.”
Even though the 300SL was conceived as a road-race threat, those wind-cheating lines made it ideal for top-speed runs at places like Bonneville, the Autobahn or Highway 401. Claimed tops speeds for these cars in 1955 were in the 160 mph range. Large finned, alloy drum brakes at all four corners were the leading edge method of the day to generate a sufficient “whoa factor” for the 300SL’s greedy eager personality.
This made the 300SL the fastest car in America the moment it was introduced. And that was even before the German home market could purchase one. That’s how important it was for this car to make a positive impression on potential U.S. buyers, so it was first unveiled at the New York Auto Show in 1954. It left an impression all right — one that still lingers today. Actually, the majority of the 1,400 gullwing coupes produced between 1953 and 1957 were sold in the United States.
This particular car was purchased new at Mercedes- Benz of Hollywood in Southern California and stayed in that general area all of its life. This wonderfully documented Mercedes was traded back to that same dealership only eighteen months later. When the third and final owner purchased this car it would turn into a long term relationship – five decades and counting. Despite the owner’s long love affair with this gullwing, he only drove it about 6,000 miles during that time.
A meticulous restoration was undertaken on this car approximately three years ago. Only original factory parts and components were used and they were sourced at Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Irvine. It is equipped with all matching numbers (engine, chassis, body, transmission, rear end and front axles) and its original 3-piece belly pans.
Such perfect design, performance, style and prestige means this machine will likely forever remain the ultimate expression of two passenger transportation in a sports car package. That just might make this Mercedes 300SL coupe the ultimate automotive investment.
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