Rebuilding after World War II, Daimler-Benz was back on line by 1948, producing the basic 170 and 220 series sedans. In 1951 a more technically advanced 300 series was introduced which represented Mercedes-Benz’s return to the luxury market. The 300 featured all-independent suspension, a four-speed manual gearbox and a three-liter in-line six. With the company now more financially sound, Mercedes decided to return to motor sport competition to regain its image around the world.
Engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut was put in charge of the factory’s postwar racing program. This time around, Uhlenhaut, without government subsidies, did not have a large budget to develop a competitive sports car. Just as Dr. Porsche had done in 1928, developing the SSK from a touring SS, the basis for the new 300SL was the 300 sedan.
In 1951 the prototype 300SL (for Sehr Leicht or Super Light) project was started. Components such as the engine, gearbox, axles and suspension were derived from the 300 sedan and modified. The six-cylinder, SOHC, 2996cc engine, iron block with light alloy cylinder head, had its power increased to 170 hp from 115 hp through additional carburetion (three Solex downdraft 40PBJCs), higher compression, different camshafts, and more.
The most dramatic and important technical features were the tubular space-frame chassis and streamlined body. These allowed lighter weight, strength, rigidity and lower aerodynamic drag. However, the shape of the tube frame prevented conventional door openings. Thus the vertically opening “gullwing” doors were created. This hallmark design was really a matter of necessity, not aesthetics. (The nickname “Gullwing” was never used by Mercedes-Benz, which referred to the cars as 300SL in coupe form and 300SL Roadster in convertible form.)
In 1952, just one year after the 300SL competition coupe was developed, it won four of five major sports car races. The first of these entries was the1952 Mille Miglia, where it finished second to a V12 Ferrari. One month later, racing versions of the 300SL finished one-two at Le Mans. The final race for the 300SLs was the 1952 Carrera Pan-Americana in Mexico, a grueling, 2,000-mile open-road race. The SLs again finished one-two and captured the attention of the North American press and public. Four hundred-plus orders for 300SLs were received within a week of the race, even though the car was not yet in production.
The manufacturer introduced the 300SL coupe at the New York International Motor Show in February, 1954. Of the 166 cars built in the first year, over 125 were sold in the United States.
The car pictured here, resplendent in flawless black paint over a dove gray leather interior, has covered just 40,000 miles from new. Complete with fitted luggage and Rudge wheels, it was fully restored to the highest standards five years ago, and has won many Best of Show and First in Class awards at concours since.