Model history: Shortly after Mercedes-Benz recommenced road car production, the German manufacturer set their sights on motorsport in the early 1950s. Of course there were not the means available to continue the company's pre-War Grand Prix program, so instead the focus was on a production based sportscar. Unfortunately, the familiar Mercedes-Benz production cars were too heavy to be turned into a race winning machine, so it was not quite straightforward.
The motorsport department sourced as many usuable parts from the new 300 luxury model and fitted them to a new, lightweight spaceframe chassis. The most important "off-the-shelf" product was the single overhead camshaft straight six engine, newly designed for the 300. In the development process, it was somewhat modified and eventually equipped with Bosch Fuel Injection. Suspension was by double wishbones up front and the trademark swing axles.
To make sure the spaceframe chassis was as rigid as it was light, the tubular structure was very high on both sides of the driver's compartment. With these very high sills, fitting conventional doors was next to impossible, so something new was needed. The designers came up with doors hinged in the roof that opened upwards, allowing for ample access to enter and exit the car. When looked at from the from the front with both doors open, the doors resembled wings, which later earned the car the nickname 'Gullwing'.
Soon after the 300 SL, for Sport Leicht (or Sport Light), took to the track in 1952, Mercedes-Benz was back to winning form. In that season and the following season major races fell the German's way, highlighted by a victory in the Carrera PanAmericana and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In the mean time the company's financial fortunes were also on a rise and a return to Formula 1 was proposed for 1954. This was by no means the end of the line for the 300 SL as work was well under way to turn the race winning design into a road car.
Launched at the New York Motorshow in 1954, the 300 SL road car looked somewhat more civilised than its racing counterpart, but retained the trademark Gullwing doors. It was also the first road car to be equipped with Fuel Injection. The racing car for the road was generally well accepted although the very poor cockpit ventilation (there were no sliding windows in the doors) did not make it very suitable for long drives. Nevertheless 1400 examples rolled off the production between 1954 and 1957, which was quite exceptional for a sports-car.
Among the numerous options available was a competition inspired alloy body. This shaved a close to 100 kg off the weight of the 'standard' 300 SL. Among the identifying features of this DM 5,000 option were the Rudge knock-off wheels. Due to the considerable premium only 29 alloy 'Gullwings' were built. They were only rarely used in competition as the lightweight body was fragile and expensive to repair. Another option was a higher performance engine, which produced around 15 bhp extra. This was available on both the steel- and alloy-bodied examples.
This still was not the end of the line for Mercedes-Benz' most legendary road car as the engineers went ahead and turned the fixed head 300 SL into a roadster. By further strengthening the lower half of the chassis, the high sills could be abandoned. This increased the weight somewhat, but at least normal doors could be fitted. Chopping off the roof also solved all ventilation problems and instantly made the 300 SL in a practical two seater. The 300 SL Roadster remained in production until 1963 after which 1858 examples were produced.
Today the 300 SL Gullwing Coupe and 300 SL Roadster remain as the most legendary examples ever to bear the Mercedes-Benz star on the nose. Few cars can match the combination of racing pedigree, advanced engineering and good looks of the 300 SL. Values of all 300 SL version have steadily increased with one of the most desirable Alloy recently selling for over $4.5 million.
One of the very first Alloy-bodied 'Gullwings', chassis 5500190 was built to custom order of none other than Juan Manuel Fangio, who was a Mercedes-Benz works driver. 'The Master' had the car fitted with the tallest final drive ratio and Dunlop racing tires and also had the bumpers removed as he intended to use the car for road races in South America. Shortly after taking delivery, he finished second in the gruelling Ciudad de Tres Arroyos. Fangio subsequently sold the car but was reunited with it during the 1970s when he raced it in historic events. Today this very special 300 SL is part of a prominent Mercedes-Benz collection and seen here during the 2012 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance where the SL's 60th anniversary was celebrated.
The 20th of the 29 Alloy 'Gullwings' built, this example was ordered by a Swiss industrialist, who picked the car himself and drove it home in October of 1955. By the 1960s, the 300 SL resurfaced in the United States. It remained here for over two decades passing through the hands of several noted collectors. In 1989 chassis 5500786 was back in Europe after it was acquired by Swedish collector Hans Thulin. He had the car meticulously restored by Kienle Automobiltechnik. It was soon after sold to a German collector and more recently it returned to Swiss hands. On October 31st it will be offered by RM Auctions in their London sale. The estimate is available on request but it should be one of the acution's top sellers.