The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL solidified its stake in racing after all was lost during the war. But with seductive looks, svelt engineering, and a cadre of internationally popular owners, it became so much more to Germany, the culture of Mercedes, and the automotive universe.
The patriotism that is held within every citizen for their nation is an amalgamation of the symbols a country holds in reverence. Athletes, musicians, military leaders, technological advances, food, cars, and thousands of other cultural icons become like puzzle pieces connected inside someone to generate a belief of what makes their country great. These are especially powerful motivators, and can transcend from merely a spectacle of the decade into a cultural icon, after a great tragedy – to Germany; the Mercedes 300 SL is one of these enduring symbols.
Resurrecting a Racing Team
After World War II, Germany was in a deep state of disorder, reeling from the destruction that six years of war had taken on them. Germany’s history had been stripped away from them, and by 1951 rebuilding their country was still in its infancy. Mercedes-Benz had endured the attrition, but at great expense, with all of their factories laying in varying states of ruination. Despite the destruction, they knew they could help revitalize their beloved country. What the directors at Mercedes saw were that the German people required an engineering icon to help restore one of their proudest cultural ideologies – mechanical engineering.
With resources scarce, but ambition and ingenuity high, they set to work on a race car: the W194. They hoped it would give rise to the same spirit of Mercedes’ racing teams during the 1920s and ’30s. The W194 would be the first car Mercedes took to race tracks after the war and was entirely an in-house operation. This victory was significant because all of the accomplishments would belong to their teams at their Stuttgart factory.
From green light to green flag, the design and testing of the W194 took a mere five months. The decision to produce a lightweight, production-esque racer instead of a dedicated racing car came about from watching Jaguar at Le Mans in 1951. They saw that Jaguar had an unprecedented success (winning the race) with their XK-120C, which was only a lightened version of their production car. At the time, Mercedes’s top-level car was the 300 sedan, and this was chosen to be the engine donor for the new W194 racer.
The team set to work lightening the 585 lbs straight-six block and tuning it to produce 171 horsepower from the 3.0-liter displacement. An entirely new tubular lattice space-frame was constructed and helped cut weight while increasing rigidity. The two most notable features of the W194 though are its low hood line and its gullwing door design. The purpose of that low hood line was to aid aerodynamics, Alfred Neubauer (lead designer) demanded this, and to make it happen Mercedes’ engineers canted the straight-six at 50°. The trademark gullwing doors, however, were more of a necessity out of design as extremely high door sills were a result of the space-frames deep trusses that ran along with the passenger compartment. When seated in the cockpit, the door sills rose nearly shoulder high to occupants. This design inhibited the use of traditional door hinges, so Neubauer devised the gullwing door application famously saying: “Nowhere is it written that a door must open sideways.”
Despite its small power output, the W194 was damn-near unbeatable on the circuit. In 1952, Mercedes took three silver Gullwings to their first race, the Mille Miglia, an Italian race from Brescia to Rome and back. It would be the only race that year that a silver W194 would not receive a gold cup. At the Nurburgring, the Carrera Panamericana, and even Le Mans the silver starred cars went undefeated in 1952. Even after that wildly successful season, though, Mercedes, elected to retire the W194 for 1953; moving on to the more purpose-built W196 platform. However, the W194’s spirit would not die in 1952, thanks to a successful New York businessman who would help cultivate its transformation from a racing icon into a cultural idol.
Spread Your Wings and Soar
Enter Max Hoffman: a successful New York automotive dealer who acted as the director of Mercedes-Benz USA in the 1950’s. He saw the successful racer’s symmetrical design and recognized a strong market in America, which was full of people who would appreciate a road-going version as there were no two-door, sport coupe competitors available in the States at the time. Mercedes was initially reluctant, though; it was only after a flight to Germany that Max able to secure an order for 500 cars to be made. Mercedes once again set to work.
It was this transformation, from racer to road car, that makes the 300 SL such an extraordinary automobile because many of the race car’s mechanical features were transferred over to the road car. However, due to the added weight of becoming a passenger vehicle, Mercedes, wanted to compensate with more power. With the help of Bosch they employed a WWII airplane technology that would increase power by 20%, that would be the first of its kind in a car, and would not be used on another road car for roughly 40 years: Direct Fuel Injection. This one additional advancement increased the power of the W194’s engine from 171 to 212 horsepower!
For those seeking, even more, power, though, Mercedes, made a racing camshaft available as an option that pushed power even higher: 240 hp. To keep weight down, and to stay true to the SL (Super Light) nomenclature, the 300 SL’s motor had a magnesium valve cover, lightweight rocker arms, and even the cooling fan was made of magnesium. A cast aluminum dry sump pump was specially designed to fit the 50° layout of the engine block and held 16 quarts of oil!
As for the styling, Mercedes did not want to put the gullwing doors into production, but the high public appeal for that sleek, aerodynamic look bound them to keep the configuration. They did change the door sills on the street versions to have lower door sills that made ingress & egress much easier. The 300 SL would also become significantly influential to future models as the wide front grille, with a central star, would become the signature for all SL models that followed. This would also be the very last Mercedes to feature a separate body and frame construction. Below all of that intoxicating and beautiful body styling was coil springs and massive aluminum brake drums, the best available during the mid-to-late 1950s.
On February 6th, 1954, beneath the incandescent glow of the New York International Automobile Show’s lights the Mercedes Benz 300 SL was revealed to the public – they were enchanted. To keep production simple, all Gullwings would come in Silver Grey Metallic with vinyl and plaid fabric interior decor. Although, Mercedes would gladly take orders for special interior accouterments or exterior colors. The dashboard trim, with a large speedometer and tachometer (a hallmark SL design), was always painted to match the exterior color. Some other options were competition springs, radio, and fitted luggage.
The Aluminum 29
As another unique option to customers, Mercedes offered, at exceptional cost, an all-aluminum bodied 300 SL. Everything, besides the front windshield, was revisited for weight reduction. Only 29 of these all-aluminum cars, out of 1,400 Gullwings built, would be constructed during the three-year run. As exciting as that diet program sounds, the savings were a modest 187 lbs. This was mainly due to the standard 300 SL’s already had aluminum hoods, decklids, doors, panels, and trim. They did, however, receive a revised camshaft and competition springs as standard.
In 1957, the gullwing went off the market, replacing it was the drastically improved 300 SL Roadster. With it, the suspension roll center was brought down to decrease roll stiffness through the use of helper springs, lighter hub springs, and a low pivot rear axle. A revised frame design was what allowed for the Roadster to even become corporeal by allowing the designers to remove the roof and fix standard doors. To counteract the 200 lbs this transformation required, Mercedes, included the competition camshaft as standard and a higher compression motor (9.5:1) was also available; boosting power to 250 hp! Although it would not be as beloved as its fixed-roof counterpart the Roadster, which was carried on until 1963, was a fitting farewell salute.
The W194 and its evolution, the 300 SL, truly are iconic cars. They would lead Mercedes back into racing and showed the world that they were capable of more than staid, black luxury saloons. What started with the W194 would eventually spawn the W196 that would lead to the infamous 300 SLR, which unfortunately prompted Mercedes to pull entirely out of racing in 1955. The 300 SL and W194 delivered inspirational craftsmanship and racing victories at a time when the citizens who made them were at their worst. Nevertheless, the 300 SL demonstrated to the people of Germany that their future was not so bleak; that they still could take pride in the fact that their work was world-beating. So, when you see a 300 SL know that you are indeed looking at the zeitgeist of Germany during the 1950s.
- Years – W194 (1951-1952) / 300 SL Gullwing & Roadster (1954-1957 & 1957-1963)
- Layout – Front-engine
- Drive – Rear wheel drive
- Body Style – Coupe / Roadster
- Seating – 2
- Motor – SOHC Straight 6
- Displacement – 3.0 liters
- Power (hp) – W194 (171) / 300SL Gullwing & Roadster (212 & 222-250)
- Torque (lbs-ft) – 202
- Transmission – 4-speed manual
- Wheelbase – 2,400 mm (94.5 in)
- Weight – Coupe: 1,555 kg (3,428 lb) / Roadster: 1,560 kg (3,440 lb) to 1,660 kg (3,660 lb)
- 0-60 mph – 9.4 seconds
- Quarter-mile – 15.6 seconds
- Top Speed – 160 mph (260 km/h)