This 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing Coupe sold for $557,225 at the Bonhams Grandes Marques à Monaco auction on May 10, 2008.
The 300SL Gullwing coupe is such an iconic automobile that numerous experts have praised its beauty, advanced technology, efficiency and quality. Rather than rephrasing existing information, I will sum up a few points and go straight to some pricing analysis.
Let’s thank Max Hoffman, North America’s East Coast importer of a number of European marques after WWII, for convincing the Mercedes-Benz board that he could sell hundreds of unique and well-built sport coupes if he was offered the chance.
As a result, the 300SL Gullwing was launched in New York City-rather than in Germany or elsewhere in Europe-at the auto show in February 1954. Hoffman delivered the first 300SL to a customer in March 1955. As promised, North America absorbed 1,100 of the 1,400 SL Gullwings produced. Production numbers were 167 in 1954, 877 in 1955, 311 in 1956 and 79 in 1957. These include the 29 full-alloy cars (26 in 1955, three in 1956), which are today all accounted for, with a current going rate above $1,000,000-if you can find one.
Most desirable options for a 300SL are the Rudge wheels with central locking and a fitted luggage set. Not surprisingly, given the period, air conditioning was never offered, although some cars have been retroactively equipped. Body undertrays have quite often been removed to increase air flow and improve interior cooling.
Gullwings please a range of enthusiasts
Now let’s discuss pricing. When launched, the 300SL was an expensive car, more than twice the price of a Jaguar XK 140/150. Today, it is worth about four times as much. In 1954, it was desirable for a variety of individuals: Gentleman drivers liked the engine, racers the handling and sheer speed, movie stars the “gullwing effect,” and everyone liked the fit and finish. Gullwings still please a wide assortment of enthusiasts.
Analyzing carefully the 41 300SLs in the SCM database sold between 2000 and 2008 (two 1954 models, 24 1955s, 13 1956s, and two 1957s), it is easy to trace the steady increase in value.
A steel car in #2 condition cost roughly $150,000 in 2000, $200,000 in 2001/2002, $300,000 in 2003/2004, $400,000 in 2005/2006, and $550,000 in 2007/2008.
These are average numbers that take into account different options, history, and originality. All in all, this translates to an 18% annual return on the period, compared with about 1% for the Dow-Jones.
By comparison, a similar analysis on the Ferrari 275 GTB/4 indicates an 18% annual return from $400,000 in 2000 to $2,000,000 in 2008; different entry point, same ROI.
Never seen at auction before
Going back to our 1956 Gullwing Coupe, the 2008-published Mercedes 300SL Coupe/Gullwing Register by Eric Le Moine (available for $260 on www.mercedes300slregister.com) indicates this Gullwing left the factory on November 13, 1956 as a black car with natural leather. It confirms the car had been in the hands of its Dutch owner since 1979 and had never been seen at auction.
The 300SL is today silver with dark brown leather and equipped with factory steel wheels. When I personally examined it at the auction, I found it to be tidy cosmetically-straight panels, even shutlines, and good paint, though some minor prep issues were visible. All chrome and glass were perfect, and the non-original leather showed a good patina, with a perfect dash and steering wheel.
Although not mentioned in the catalog, Bonhams issued an addendum before the auction stating the engine was a non-matching numbers unit fitted from a later 1957 roadster, though it had been recently overhauled and ran very well.
The new owner appears to be a French Riviera enthusiast who does not care much about matching numbers but cares a lot about having a fully functional car in a distinguished color combination, ready to be enjoyed. I cannot agree more. And even if it’s not the engine this car came with, it’s no Chevy V8, either. A roadster lump seems close enough.
Prices of ladder-chassis, live-axle, carbureted, prewar designs (1958 Ferrari 250 GT Ellena and her sisters) are in the $550,000 territory today, and I believe there is still room for an increase in Gullwing values, partly because the design is so much more sophisticated and usable.
Gullwings have always been blue-chip collectibles, possessing style, performance, and an impeccable pedigree. This Coupe, given its “driving” condition, and non-numbers-matching engine, brought a fair price in today’s market. It will appreciate along with the Gullwing market at large, but due to its shortcomings, not at the head of it. I don’t believe the new owner cares much at all about that. A decent buy.