Model history: With a seemingly unlimited budget, Mercedes-Benz dominated Grand Prix racing in the second half of the 1930s. A few years later there was little left of the company other than a pile or rubble. In record time the factory was rebuilt and the racing car designers set about developing a brand new flagship model. Powered by a three litre six cylinder engine, the four door saloon was known as the 300. By 1950, the German company was in well enough shape again to consider racing. Two of the 1930s Grand Prix cars were refurbished and entered in a number of Formula Libre races, but with little success. In the summer of 1951 the green light was given for the development of a brand new racing car, be it on a tight budget.
For various reasons Grand Prix racing was not an option. Instead Mercedes-Benz used some parts of the production cars to build a sports racer. What was brand new, was a a ground-breaking tubular spaceframe chassis that combined a low weight with superior rigidity compared to the traditional ladder frame. Suspension was equally advanced with double wishbones and coil springs at the front, and swing axles with coil springs at the rear. The Mercedes-Benz designers decided to break with convention by fitting a coupe body to reduce drag and improve the top speed. They had to overcome the unusual high sides of the spaceframe chassis, which did not allow for normal doors. Instead they fitted doors recessed into the roof with hinges at the top, which were quickly referred to as 'gullwing' doors.
Time and most importantly money was spared by using the six cylinder engine from the 300. A first sign of things to come was the sportier 300 S production car, introduced at the 1951 Paris Auto Salon, which featured a short wheelbase chassis and a three Carburetor 150 bhp engine. In the new racing car, it was mounted in the engine bay slanted at a 50 degree angle to allow for a lower bonnet. The single overhead camshaft engine was further modified with dry sump lubrication and larger Solex downdraught Carburetors. This brought the performance up to a decent 171 bhp. This power was transferred to the rear wheels through an off the shelve four speed gearbox. The completed machine was dubbed the 300 SL for 'Sport Leicht' or Sport Light.
Three examples were readied in time for the 1952 Mille Miglia. Mercedes-Benz' racing successes had not been forgotten and the company's return to motorsport was highly anticipated. The new 'Silver Arrows' were certainly not the lightest or most powerful cars, but the slippery shape, superb reliability and highly experienced team made the 300 SL highly competitive. During its debut at the Mille Miglia, the gullwing coupe was beaten only by a Ferrari. The first victory came a few weeks later at a race in Bern, Switzerland. The new Mercedes' performance had greatly impressed Jaguar and they hastily fitted more aerodynamic bodies to the C-Type for Le Mans. It was a gross mistake as the tight air intake proved too small to cool the cars and all Works C-Types were out very early in the race. This paved the way for a one-two victory for the 300 SL; the first ever for a closed car.
To celebrate the company's and Germany's first Le Mans win, four 300 SLs were entered in a minor race at the Nürburgring. The four racing cars were distinctly different from the Le Mans winners; they sported roadster bodies. With little opposition, the result was an almost routine 1-2-3-4 victory. A bigger challenge, against much stronger opposition, came at the end of the season in the gruelling Carrera PanAmericana in Mexico. The 300 SL's durability saw the new Silver Arrow clinch another 1-2 victory. Despite the success, the 300 SL was not raced again by the factory. For 1953 a lighter, sleeker and more powerful version was developed, but this car was used in testing only.
It was far from the end for the 300 SL project, which was spun off into two directions. The best known is the 300 SL road car, introduced in 1954. While retaining the unique gullwing doors, the production car has a more elegant design. Today it remains as one of the most highly acclaimed Mercedes-Benz ever built. The spaceframe chassis was carried over to the W196 Formula 1 car and the closely related 300 SLR sports racer. Featuring a high-tech straight eight engine, the two racing cars absolutely dominated. Both the 300 SL road car and the W196 / 300 SLR are well known by most car enthusiasts, while the earlier 300 SL competition car is mostly forgotten. As father of these legendary machines and multiple major race winners, it deserves a little more credit.
Chassis: 000 02
One of two 300 SL prototypes built by Rudolph Uhlenhaut, chassis 000 02 is the oldest example in existence today. During its day, it was mainly used for testing purposes and as a result retains the original door-less configuration. Retained by Mercedes-Benz, it was recently subjected to a complete restoration. A complicating factor was that it differed in many details from the subsequent eight 'production' cars built. The project was nevertheless ready in time for the 2012 celebrations of the 300 SL's 60th anniversary. The car is seen here during the Festival of Speed where it was driven by Bernd Schneider and earlier in the year at its Techno Classica public debut.
Chassis: 000 05/52
Chassis 000 05 was one of the eight 300 SLs used by the factory Mercedes-Benz team during the 1952 season. It was raced to fourth by veteran racer Rudolf Caracciola in the Mille Miglia and to a second in the Carrera Panamericana by Hermann Lang. Retained by Mercedes-Benz, the rare racer has been meticulously restored to its spectacular Carrera Panamericana livery. Regularly shown and demonstrated, chassis 05 is seen here in action during the 2011 and 2012 editions of the Goodwod Festival of Speed.
Chassis: 000 06/52
This W194 300 SL was extensively used by the factory throughout the 1952 season. Perhaps its most memorable appearance came at the official test for the 24 Hours of Le Mans where it was fitted with a roof-mounted air-brake. The results of the test were quite disastrous as the pressure created by the wing in upright position caused the support-structure to buckle. Mercedes-Benz later used a more effective application of the air-brake on the 300 SLR. Chassis 06 was recently completely restored by the factory for its American owner. It is seen here at its post-restoration 'debut' on the Hall & Hall stand of the 2009 Retromobile show.
Chassis: 000 07/52
Chassis 07 was built new for the all important 24 Hours of Le Mans. A very consistent drive brought Hermann Lang and Fritz Riess a victory in the legendary endurance race after all the competition had failed. It was subsequently driven to victory at a race on the Nürburgring by Lang. Its final appearance came at the Carrera Panamericana where a sister car won. Fully restored, it is today owned by a prominent American collector. He is a true enthusiast and campaigns his prized machine at various events. The Le Mans winning 300 SL is seen here at the 2005 Monterey Historics, the 2006 Monaco Historic Grand Prix and the 2009 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance
Soon to re-exsist will be serial #000 1/52. The cars whereabouts are unknown and beleived to have been scrapped. I found the correct M188 Motor and I am building this car from scratch using the exact same components Mercedes used to build this car in early 1952. See my website www.ranchomerced.com for progress. I have the engine done as well as all the correct lights, dash parts, knobs, switches, clock, wheels, etc. the nice thing about a project like this it is built entirely from easily and cheaper sedan parts with the exception of the M188 300S block.
Dear Wouter, A good article on the origins of the 300SL, however the suspension was a compromise. Herr Uhlenhaut wanted either a De Dion or single pivot rear axle as fitted to W198/11, however the financial limitations meant that both the front and rear suspension came from the 300 saloon.