This 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing sold for $308,000, including buyer’s premium, at RM’s Monterey auction, held on Aug. 13-14, 2004.
The Gullwing has indeed become an icon of 1950s European sports cars, a car totally unlike anything that had appeared before. With its tubular chassis, fuel injection and those famed doors, the 300SL was like something from another planet to enthusiasts raised on ladder chassis, carburetors and conventional coachwork. Even today, Gullwings are part of popular culture-a recent advertisement for the Target department stores featured a 300SL-as a lot of people who aren’t car enthusiasts recognize its truly unique shape. Major collectors almost always have a Gullwing in their stables (and many also have a later 300SL roadster).
Mercedes managed to sell 1,400 Gullwings from 1954 to 1957, 29 of which were built with all-alloy bodies. Most, however, were steel-bodied with aluminum doors, hood, deck lid, rocker panels and belly pans. A large number of the cars were delivered to the U.S., due to our booming postwar economy. Expensive at around $8,000 when new, they were purchased by the wealthy and privileged, whether here or elsewhere around the world. The list of original owners of these cars is a “who’s who” of automotive history.
Fitted with a 3-liter, inline six-cylinder that pumped out 240 hp and 216 lb-ft of torque, the 2,850-pound Gullwing can feel heavy around town; the motor doesn’t really come alive until you hit 3,500 rpm. On the highway, they are wonderful to drive. I took one cross-country in 1986 and did four straight hours in Nevada at 110 mph. With the car singing through its original mild-steel exhaust system, the sound is as unique as the rest of the car.
The Gullwing’s pop-out side windows are stored in a vinyl bag behind the seats and as long as you keep moving, the airflow through the car is pretty good. Though the cars have a reputation for being hot in the cockpit, I have been in Austin-Healeys that were far more uncomfortable. I might advise against taking the Gullwing out on a 90-degree day in Miami, lest you’re wearing a swimsuit, but isn’t that the case with most ’50s sports cars?
Dependable to a fault, Gullwings usually outnumber most other makes at touring events like the Colorado Grand, where organizers often have to limit the number of them allowed to register so it doesn’t become an all-300SL rally.
These cars have never wildly appreciated in value-or crashed to the floor. They’ve gone up at a slow steady rate, and even when the collectible car market tanked in the early ’90s, there were not many fire sales. Like most six-figure collector cars, Gullwings became more difficult to sell, but prices never plummeted like in the Ferrari world.
Unlike most collector cars, Gullwing coupes are worth more than their later roadster siblings, produced from 1957-1963. The rule of thumb for a long time was that the closed 300SL was worth twice the open version, but this has changed in the last five years. Although coupes are generally still worth more, roadsters with desirable Rudge wheels, disc brakes and alloy engines can demand equal money.
The 2004 SCM Price Guide lists Gullwings at $185,000-$290,000, with 1957-1960 drum-brake roadsters between $170k-$210k, and later roadsters through 1963 at $190,000-$250,000. Rudge wheels can add $25k to the price, and factory fitted luggage and the factory hardtop for the roadster are both $5k adds.
Perhaps because of their high original price and exclusivity, there are a relatively high number of low-mileage, one- or two-owner Gullwings around. The 300SL pictured here was just such a car. Its body appeared to be in excellent condition with no evident rust or accident repair. It had been repainted and re-trimmed in incorrect colors and leather, but the car had a nice overall patina. It also had the optional Rudge knock-offs.
With only 36k miles you would expect everything to be okay but you never know for sure. 300SLs have a direct-port fuel injection that tends to dilute the dry sump oil system. Mercedes suggested oil changes every 1,500 miles, and if this was not done and the oil became severely diluted, cylinder wall scoring was common. Another problem with low- mileage cars is that their rings sometimes get stuck from lack of use, leading to low compression.
I sold a ’56 Gullwing (S/N 1980406500269) myself, at the Gooding auction during the same weekend. It was also a low-mileage car (31,000 miles), with one owner until 2004. We first serviced the car at Paul Russell and Company in 1978, and saw the car numerous times over the ensuing years. In 1989 the owner had us strip the car to bare metal and repaint it in its original Graphite Gray. The interior was original red leather in excellent condition, so we just did the carpets and the headliner at the time. When I bought the 300SL Gullwing from the owner’s estate, it only needed a tune-up, fluids changed, and a heavy detailing to come back to show condition. It drove like a new car, tight with no rattles or surprises. It made $418,000, including commission.
Based on that number, I’d say the RM car was properly priced, if the mechanicals are okay and the new owner likes the paint and interior as-is. But, if he decides to strip, repaint and re-trim the car, he’ll approach $400,000 very quickly. Further, it is hard to do just paint and interior without stumbling into the “while I’m at it” mode. The next thing you, know the car is on a rotisserie and you’re babbling incoherently to your restorer wondering how you got there.
As we say in these pages time and time again, it is always best to buy the best car you can afford, prepared the way you want it to be, with documented provenance and/or restoration receipts. This was a market-correct price and both buyer and seller should be satisfied.
(Historical and descriptive information courtesy of the auction company.)