Derived for sport, this aluminum Gullwing did not see competitive use. Completed on April 20, 1955, 5500208 was appropriately finished in metallic silver gray over a blue leather interior. The 300SL was also outfitted with Rudge wheels, the NSL motor and Plexiglas windows per aluminum-build specifications.
On May 27, 1955, the alloy Gullwing was shipped to Veron Holz of Bonita, CA. Although the early history of this Gullwing is not known, there is no apparent race record for 5500208. In March 1980, the 300SL resurfaced in San Diego, and it was sold to Hans Dieter Blatzheim of Germany. The purchase price was an astonishing $57,000 for an unrestored car.
In need of some attention, the alloy Gullwing made its way to the well-known Hill & Vaughn restoration shop in Santa Monica, CA. The car is accompanied by a file of invoices and photographs documenting the work performed, including meticulous fitting of the doors, hood and deck lid. Additionally, the engine and gearbox were sent to AMG for rebuilding. For unknown reasons, Herr Blatzheim then requested that 5500208 be sent to Germany. Further photo documentation shows the restoration and assembly of the chassis and completion of the car in silver with gray leather.
In May 1984, 5500208 was sold to Markus Ahr of Germany. During his ownership, work was performed by Daimler-Benz, including a rebuild of the engine. Ahr kept the car into the 1990s, at which time work was performed by Kienle. Photo documentation shows a rebuilding of the transmission, rear end, brakes and suspension completed in 1998. Not long after, the alloy Gullwing was sold to Friedhelm Loh, a noted German collector.
In 2009, Ken McBride of Seattle acquired 5500208. Although his collection was diverse, McBride had always focused on Mercedes-Benz. Late that year, McBride fell ill, and the newly acquired Mercedes-Benz took a back seat. The Gullwing was sent to noted 300SL restorer Rudi Koniczek for some necessary sorting. McBride wanted certain aspects of the car corrected, predominantly the shade of silver and the interior. The alloy Gullwing was stripped and repainted in its original silver (DB 180). The gray leather interior was removed and the correct blue leather was installed. One deviation from the original was the addition of seat cushions upholstered in plaid.
In mid-2011, Koniczek had finished the restoration but McBride passed away before he could see the final masterpiece. Shortly afterward, McBride’s wife, Patty, and the rest of the family chose to show the alloy Gullwing at the Kirkland Concours d’Elegance, where it won its class.
The finish of the 300SL is of the highest level, and the car retains a very correct appearance. The original engine remains, correctly stamped NSL. Additionally, the Gullwing has belly pans, and its chrome Rudge wheels are original. The luggage is properly finished in natural pigskin, the Becker radio is correct, the grille has the proper “curved star” — the list goes on and on.
Furthermore, this alloy Gullwing is accompanied by a tool kit, knockoff hammer, jack, comprehensive documentation, a Mercedes-Benz Certificate, an owner’s manual, instruction manual, spare parts catalog, service book and Becker radio manuals.
As one of the most iconic motorcars of all time, it can easily be said that the alloy Gullwing is the most significant road-going Mercedes-Benz of the post-war era.
|Vehicle:||1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL alloy Gullwing|
This car, Lot 27, sold for $4,620,000, including buyer’s premium, at Gooding’s Scottsdale auction on January 20, 2012.
Scottsdale and Gullwings seem to mix well.
RM set a record for a steel-bodied car in Arizona last year — a whopping $1.375 million, which most observers put down to an almighty battle of two egos.
Then, just a year later, we witnessed two new world records at Scottsdale 2012: one for a perfectly standard steel Gullwing showing just 4,149 miles at Barrett-Jackson, which sold for $2.2 million, and, of course, $4.6 million for our subject car — a rare aluminum Gullwing at Gooding.
The Gullwing owners’ Internet forum has been ablaze with comments ranging from “What were they thinking?” to “I always believed alloys should be worth as much as a steel Ferrari 250 SWB,” followed by a rather hopeful: “Steelies will be next.”
There has also been much debate, most of it from well-informed sources, about the mechanical variations between steel- and alloy-bodied Gullwings.
Digging back to the start
It appears to me that, as prices of the two grow apart, people come up with new and exotic-sounding technical differences to match. To separate fact from fiction, I flew to Stuttgart to meet Michael Bock, head of Mercedes-Benz Classic, and spend time in the factory archive.
What I discovered is fascinating: The Mercedes-Benz board sanctioned the alloy body option on February 22, 1955, for clients wishing to participate in FIA races where a limited weight saving was allowed compared with the standard car.
The price premium for this “Leichtmetallausführung” was set at $1,000 (5,000 DM for Germany, where the steel car listed at 29,000 DM) — making the final price 34,000 DM, or $6,800. Herr Bock Sr. paid 55,000 DM for a nice town house that same year, by means of comparison. A prototype Gullwing with alloy body, engine and rims was found to weigh 286 pounds (130 kg) less than the standard car. The alloy engine alone saved 97 pounds (44 kg), and a further 15.8 pounds (7.2 kg) could be saved with plexi windows.
In the end, only the alloy body itself was deemed suitable for production, resulting in a total weight of 2,494.8 pounds (1,134 kg) compared with 2,695 pounds (1,225 kg) for the steel body, a 200-pound savings.
And what about the much-debated mechanical differences? Great fuss is made about the NSL engine. The factory confirms that this “Sonderteile” (special parts) engine, which was a popular option available on both steel and alloy cars, consisted of a sportier camshaft (standardized on the roadster), which added about 15 horsepower, paired with a different butterfly throttle valve for the injection pump and an appropriately calibrated distributor.
The 8.55:1 compression ratio remained unchanged, but alloy cars did receive different springs and shock absorbers.
Externally, all 29 alloy cars featured Rudge knockoff wheels (optional on steel Gullwings) and beading between the eyebrows and body (standard on early steel cars), so these are not infallible visual clues.
So, back to our subject Gullwing. Factory records confirm it was the sixth made, and, curiously, show it was supplied with three complete rear axles with differing ratios, which suggests the owner may have planned more than just driving to the shops with it — unless he was a fast shopper.
It had optional bumper overriders and sealed beam headlights, both typical for the U.S. market. It also has the “Sonderteile” engine and Rudge wheels as expected, but no suitcases or radio, so these have been added since (the cases in the car are repro items anyway). The colors were indeed silver with blue leather, as cataloged, with the cloth check seat cushions (which are easily interchangeable) recently added.
So far, so good.
I’ve spoken to various experts who examined this car, and I admired it during the viewing. Everyone agreed it had great visual appeal. In fairness, it had been completely restored recently, but the belly pans that came as standard on all Gullwings seem to have been removed, and the front left corner of the car may have made contact with a solid object at some stage in its life.
The windows appeared to be glass, not plexi, but research suggests this is correct. So, in terms of condition, this car was arguably not a show-stopper, but it was very nicely presented.
As for this car’s history, alloy Gullwings tended to be ordered by sporting drivers. Among the 29 lucky first owners we find names such as Lance Reventlow and Rob Walker. Veron Holz was obviously a fortunate man too, but his ownership won’t give this Gullwing quite the same aura. Overall, therefore, this car probably ranks in the middle of the alloy Gullwing order of merit.
And what of its price? The last alloy to appear at auction made less than $1 million barely five years ago — that’s how rarely they are sold in public.
Our subject car was on the market in 2008 for about $1.2m. Recent, private sales have taken place in the $1.8m–$2.5m range, and an offer of $2.5m was made on this car before the auction.
So how do we get to $4.6m? Buyers like fresh cars, departed vendors often evoke more sympathy than those still with us, and we all know that competitive bidders fueled with auction euphoria sometimes do things they might not do the next day.
Was this car well sold? Yes. How much the next one makes will tell us just how well.