Yes, 60 years after its introduction it remains technologically advanced, its greatness rooted in unimpeachable racing success. But what everyone remembers about it are those top-hinged “gullwing” doors. The sheer drama produced by these doors have kept the car’s legend at the forefront of the collective automotive consciousness.
Though Mercedes recovered relatively quickly from the devastation of World War II, it was still a hobbled company in the early 1950s, with most of its production consisting of slightly updated pre-war designs. Re-entering motorsports, however, was the company’s way of asserting its vibrancy. And the most vibrant thing to do in racing back then was win the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
In March 1952, Mercedes showed a prototype of the sports car with which it planned to do just that: the 300SL Coupe. (That’s “SL” as in “Sport” and “Light”.)
To keep the 300SL’s weight down, Mercedes eschewed a conventional ladder frame: two long, parallel iron rails along the length of the car upon which the substance of the car was supported. Instead, engineers settled on a latticework of small steel tubes to create a so-called space frame, to which the car’s mechanical elements would be attached.
Because the frame relied on tall and wide elements running along the car’s flanks, accommodating conventional doors without compromising structural integrity would be difficult – hence the advent of top-hinged doors, which required the race drivers who would pilot the 300SL to crawl in over the space frame.
The racing 300SLs relied on a carbureted version of Mercedes’ 3-litre, in-line six-cylinder engine, backed by a four-speed manual transmission. To reduce weight, most of the body was made from aluminium instead of steel.
In June 1952, the racing 300SLs did what they were designed to do, finishing first and second at Le Mans. After that, the car logged wins at Germany’s Nürburgring and Mexico’s Carrera Panamericana open road race. By the end of the year, the 300SL was so successful that Mercedes decided to stop sports-car racing and concentrate instead on Grand Prix events – today’s Formula 1. The racing 300SL was essentially retired before its first birthday.
And that would have been that – except for Max Hoffman, a US importer, being convinced there was a market for a road-going version of the beast. And with Hoffman placing an order for one thousand 300SLs, Mercedes quickly developed a road-going version that went on sale in 1954 with retail deliveries starting in 1955.
The road version of the 300SL featured fine leather upholstery and weighed significantly more than the racecar thanks to sound-deadening material and steel body panels (all-aluminium body work was an expensive option), but it was still very much the racecar in its design. Thanks to the brilliant addition of direct fuel injection – a technology finally becoming part of regular production cars in the 21st century – the engine was more civilised and powerful than in the race machine. A horsepower rating of 212 may not seem like much today, but back then a carbureted version of the same engine was making only 115hp in the 300S sedan.
Bear in mind that those lovely doors may also be the most obnoxious feature of the 300SL. Given the shallow and narrow aperture, entering the 300SL is not easy. With any luck, the driver’s body finishes with a jarring but definitive touchdown in the supple leather seat. Beyond these challenges, the cockpit is notorious for its poor ventilation, creating a hothouse environment suitable for growing tomatoes.
Lucky, then, that the 300SL is an easy car to drive within its limits. Britain’s Motor Sport magazine measured the 300SL coupe zipping from zero to 70mph in just 8.5 seconds, on to a thrilling 146mph top speed. In the US, Motor Trend clocked the 300SL hustling to 60mph in 8.5seconds, with the quarter-mile going by in 16.1 seconds. Steamy speeds for the time, even though many of today’s economy cars are quicker.
But the olive oil-smooth 300SL could also bite. The rear axle experiences significant camber changes at the limits of adhesion, basically tucking in under the car, which can lead to some rather diabolical – and unrecoverable – handling antics. This is a car for anyone to enjoy, but only for experts to push.
If you want one of the 1,400 300SL coupes Mercedes built before replacing it with a less radical open roadster in 1957 carrying the same name, simply bring $1 million to a top-tier classic car auction, though even that might not be enough to land a prime example. In 2012, one of the 29 SLs equipped with an all-aluminium body attracted a record $4.2 million winning bid at a Gooding & Company auction. Back in 1955, the 300SL priced out at around $7,500 – about $2,000 more than a Cadillac Eldorado.
Fortunately, today’s Mercedes-Benz has a more affordable and livable alternative – relatively speaking.
Behold, Mercedes’ SLS AMG GT coupe. Like the old 300SL, it has top-hinged gullwing doors. Unlike the old 300SL, the new car’s wings are equipped with explosive charges so they can be blown off if car and driver find themselves upside down. Also unlike the 300SL, the wings are an affectation.
The art of building a space frame has advanced greatly since the 1950s, so even though the SLS is built around an aluminium one, the gullwings are not there by necessity. The SLS is relatively easy to enter, with ergonomically perfect seats awaiting driver after a reasonable amount of calisthenics. Just sitting in the new car – which weighs in at about 3,800lbs – the driver faces a blizzard of buttons, knobs and screens – a stark contrast to the tidiness of its forbears. And the air conditioning blows cold.
At 6.2 litres, the SLS’ V8 engine displaces more than twice what the 300SL’s six did, and it roars with 583hp of thrust. This is a naturally aspirated engine, in stark contrast to the low-revving twin-turbo 5.5-litre V8 that AMG installs in its tuned versions of regular Mercedes products like the E63 sedan and ML63 SUV. It rips, cackles and barks on its way to its 7,500rpm redline in the most civilised way possible. It is an engine with personality, backed by a seven-speed automatic transmission and a warranty.
The SLS AMG GT is also rather quick. The run for zero to 60mph takes a manufacturer-estimated 3.6 seconds, and the car will top out close to 200mph. It’s exhilarating in a way the 300SL simply cannot be.
That said, the SLS is also nowhere near as good-looking as its inspiration. And for all its buttons and screens, it is not the groundbreaker the 300SL was. Livability makes a great salve, but a buyer should not expect the SLS to become the icon it so wants to be. And the doors are still a pain to close.
But if a buyer cares not for wings, the SLS AMG GT is also available as a convertible with conventional, front-hinged doors – and it’s just as fast.
Prices in the US for the SLS AMG GT coupe start at $200,405 before adding a $2,100 gas-guzzler tax. Add options like $12,500 worth of carbon ceramic brakes and some carbon fibre interior trim for $7,250, and the price can crest above $240,000.
But if you were cross-shopping an original SL, just think of the savings.