The original Mercedes-Benz 300SL is rightly regarded as one of the most brilliant and iconic sports cars of the 20th century. Representing a fusion of competition success with elegance and inspired design, the 300SL, in Coupe or Roadster form, is one of the most coveted automobiles on today's collector car market. So why was this 1954 300SL Gullwing Coupe updated by Mercedes-Benz's own AMG tuning division, to employ the performance and technology of a modern high-performance automobile? According to AMG Project Manager Volker Niewig, the project was a request by the Royal Family of Brunei. This particular car, which was completed in 2006, is based on an original 300SL from 1954 and retains the original steel body and aluminum bonnet and boot lid. Subtle body modifications include the addition of electric mirrors and relocated fuel-filler pipe and door. The exterior package is complemented by green-tinted glass and modern AMG light-alloy wheels. Mechanically, the car features a restored 300SL tubular chassis, modified to accommodate a 6-liter AMG M119 V8 engine. This produces 380 horsepower and is mated to a Mercedes-Benz W4A 4-speed automatic. The 300SL is electronically limited to 155 mph. These bespoke cars cost in excess of ?1m to build. Handling was improved by replacing the original swing-axle rear suspension with a 1989-2001 R129 rear axle. A Bilstein adjustable sports suspension was added, with power disc brakes and power steering. Road grip and steering benefit from low profile, high-performance tires. The car's cockpit displays the original layout, but with adjustable, leather-trimmed Recaro seats, three-point safety belts, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The Nappa leather upholstery extends to the center console and the lower door panels as well as the dashboard and rear luggage shelf. Other subtle interior touches include a steering-column lock and a set of original 300SL AMG Coupe instruments adapted to modern technology and electronic operation. A modern air conditioning and heating system has been fitted, and there's a classic Becker radio, six-disc CD changer, and iPod link. Only eleven 300SLs were modified by AMG between 1996 and 2009, five for the Brunei Royal Family and six for select AMG customers. Of these eleven cars, eight were coupes and four were right-hand drive. According to AMG, no further examples are likely. The AMG alloy wheels and electric mirrors were fitted to this car, but the next owner could fit period-style mirrors and wheels.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1954 Mercedes-Benz 300SL AMG
Number Produced:11 (8 coupes, 3 roadsters)
Original List Price:$1,000,000
Tune Up Cost:$200
Distributor Caps:n/a
Chassis Number Location:Plate on firewall center
Engine Number Location:Rear of engine by bellhousing flange
Club Info:Mercedes-Benz Club of America 1907 Lelaray St. Colorado Springs, CO 80909
Investment Grade:C

This 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300SL AMG Coupe sold for $765,026, including buyer’s premium, at RM’s Automobiles of London Auction in England on October 28, 2009.

What makes this transaction so noteworthy is that it flew in the face of received wisdom. It is axiomatic that the price determinants for any model of collectible automobile are condition, originality, and provenance.

None of these factors are evident in this transaction, yet our 300SL’s hammer price sailed past the norm for Gullwing coupes by $250k. While we can always impugn the buyer’s (and underbidder’s) sanity or taste, it isn’t helpful when trying to formulate an analysis.

The first supercar of modern times

Mercedes-Benz 300SLs are one of the archetypal GT cars of the 1950s. Often described as the first “supercar” of modern times, the 300SL, and especially the Gullwing coupe, is renowned for its performance, styling, and build quality. Against the competition, the Gullwing’s superiority becomes all the more apparent. Perhaps only the Lancia Aurelia was in the same elite league and only as a less expensive, small-bore competitor.

If we were to pick nits, the Gullwing’s poor ventilation and cabin heat are a problem. There was a reason why well-heeled boulevardiers would trickle down the Corniche with both doors rakishly open. The drivers looked dashing as hell with their aviator glasses and Rolexes, but they were also ventilating the cockpit.

Know-it-alls will remind us of the 300SL’s mildly dodgy handling, caused by the rear swing axle, but they miss the point. This was a driver’s car with performance well beyond the norm of the day, but the wizards of Stuttgart also demanded a certain degree of ability from the pilot. Today, virtually every comprehensive collection of post-war sports and GT cars has a 300SL in its inventory.

Which brings us to our subject car. This represents a period body/chassis that has been fitted with modern suspension, modern disc brakes, and a modern drivetrain, which includes an AMG-modified 6-liter, 380-hp V8 engine and a 4-speed automatic. A full suite of “mod cons” is included, including entertainment systems and real air conditioning.

The world’s first million dollar resto-mod?

In all, here is the world’s first million-dollar resto-mod. And this is an important point; it is incredibly expensive to completely re-engineer an obsolescent automobile to make it feel modern. And if you engage a major firm like Daimler-Benz’s AMG division to do it right, there’s no doubt the resulting confection is as bulletproof as the original 300SL AMG Coupe, with the handling of their modern products.

The imprimatur of AMG figures strongly in the auction price. I am aware of no other resto-mods built in a limited series by such an august and respected fabricator. The presence of AMG takes away the anxiety that lies at the bottom of every hot rod: Was it done by bozos or pros?

Our subject car does away with the drawbacks of the original-namely occupant discomfort and challenging handling. At the same time, especially amongst those who aren’t vintage car guys, the Gullwing’s appearance is arresting, the doors intriguing. Among the petro-dollar elite who commissioned this machine, I imagine the avoidance of déjà vu was a prime prerequisite.

With this 300SL AMG Coupe, I think it’s safe to assume that the buyer was motivated by many of the same considerations-looking sharp without having to deal with the reality of a real 300SL. The 25% discount from the original cost of this particular vehicle didn’t hurt either.

Okay, but why?

Now all this conjecture takes us to the heart of the matter: Why would you do this? In the interest of full disclosure, I should reveal that for the last several years I’ve been fooling around with a Cunningham C-3 that has received a similar treatment at my hands with one major exception-the project is totally reversible.

My car can be returned to original specification using all the original bits, which now fill the equivalent of a 20-foot container. No original parts were modified, with the exception of minor frame additions that were designed to be cut off. And we did the project in-house, because that’s the whole point. I would describe the venture as “no harm, no foul.”

There were roughly 1,400 Mercedes Gullwing coupes built in period. AMG’s production run of eleven has eliminated more than 1% of the 900-plus survivors. As evidenced by my confession, I understand the urge to tinker, but this production run puts that concept in a different light. For these eleven cars, there is no going back. The world has lost a significant number of desirable and important cars.

To my eyes, this has been not the gentle application of modern science in the spirit of the original, but the brutal destruction of inherent character in return for a homogenized, unemotional copy. While the car has been remarkably modernized, the buyer is going to miss out on future appreciation, and more significantly, on the real experience of vintage motoring camaraderie which the original 300SLs so abundantly afford. Pity.

Fairly bought, at least in terms of the original cost of the AMG Coupe, and in the long term, even better sold.

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