The 300 SL was the first road-going car developed from the Mercedes-Benz race cars, and it was shown at the International Motor Sports Show at New York in January 1954. It was well-received. For one thing, the car had unique looks for the time, it sported two gullwing doors and the front of the car had a new, simple grille design that used a large Mercedes-Benz star. The grille design has been a Mercedes-Benz SL trademark since then. Production reached only a total of 1,400 units in its three year life span, 1954-1957, yet the effect the car had on the motoring world was phenomenal.
For those who don’t know, SL stands for “Sports Light.”
The 300 SL (the W194) was based on the 300 S production car which came to fruition in the late 1940s. However, to keep costs down, it was decided to use the production based engine in the race car, instead of using a specially designed race engine. Unfortunately, the production based engine was definitely down on power.
To make the car aerodynamic as possible, Mercedes-Benz felt that a hardtop was required. A carefully designed roof would trade some frontal area for a large reduction in the drag coefficient,and that would make the 300 SL more competitive and aerodynamic.
Unlike other cars, the 300 SL used a space-frame for the chassis, instead of a conventional ladder frame. This technique enabled Rudolf Uhlenhaut, the Chief Designer of the 300 SL, to have a frame that was not only strong, but also light – in fact, the chassis of the 300 SL only weighed 110 lbs. The result was a very sleek car, but unfortunately, left no provision for doors!
This presented the designers with two problems. The first was how to get the driver in and out of the car and at the same time, meet the racing rules that stipulated doors that measured a minimum of 16” x 8”. The problem was the side tubes used on the chassis were much higher than normal, which left no room for conventional type doors – unless a major redesign was made.
The solution eventually presented itself. Instead of the doors extending down, they extended upwards into the roof. The doors were hinged the top and held open by a folding prop rod. Depending on the driver’s size, the steering wheel could then be detached to enable entry. Later, some additional changes were also made, but the end result was a car that met all the racing rules, was extremely well suited for the type of racing it was made for, and sported a unique front grille which was dominated by a large Mercedes-Benz star.
In most respects, the streetable 300 SL was very similar to the race versions. But there were differences, too.
The 300 SL (coded W198) featured a front grille with the large Mercedes-Benz star, a hood that was hinged at the front (instead of the rear) and two power hood bulges. More noticeable, were the eyebrows above each wheel arch – these gave some styling pizzazz to the otherwise slab-sided body; in fact, Mercedes-Benz claimed they were aerodynamic additions because they directed the airflow over the top of the car and thus helping to keep the windows clean in inclement weather.
Mercedes-Benz limited the amount of brightwork to a minimum, especially when compared to the cars made in US.
Mechanically, the 300 SL was similar to the race versions which featured a rear swing-axle. A better, low-pivot swing axle had been developed, but as Mercedes-Benz did not feel that it was ready for this system, went with the traditional rear swing axle. The front suspension was conventional with double wishbones with coil springs, shocks and anti-roll bar. Steering was recirculating ball and the chassis used the complex spaceframe system.
The engine used was a 3.0-liter straight inline six cylinder that employed a cast iron block and an alumimum cylinder head. Unique at the time, was the Bosch direct fuel injection system. The following numbers don’t really sound like much, but in the 1950’s parlance, it was. The 3.0-liter engine was rated at 215 hp @ 5,800 with 203 ft.-lb. toque at 4,600 rpm. 0-62 mph in 10.0 seconds and top speed of 161 mph.
The interior was fitted with larger seats, carpeting and leather was optional. Naturally, heating and cooling controls were fitted as was the steering wheel which was made to pivot for easier entry and exit.
It was not possible to raise and lower the door windows; instead, they could be removed and stored in the area behind the seats. And for use behind the seats, a pair of suitcases were available from Mercedes-Benz, as there wasn’t any practical room in the trunk.
Regardless of the car’s good or bad points, the reality is that the 300 SL Gullwing is one of most sought after collector cars of all time, and at the same time, is the inspiration of the current Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG.