With its gorgeous gullwing doors raised, the 300SL looked like it could fly. And with them lowered shut it really could, rocketing beyond 140 mph (225 km/h) and making its contemporary supercar pretenders look ordinary. Derived from the 1952 Le Mans-winning racer, these mighty coupes were early forebears of modern supercars like the Jaguar XJ220 and McLaren F1 in taking racetrack technology on to the streets.
In fact, the 300SL can lay a plausible claim to being the first true postwar supercar. Awkward to enter, and with twitchy high-speed handling, it was sublimely impractical—it is a virtual supercar blueprint. It was a statement, too, that Mercedes had recovered from war-time devastation. Mercedes was back, and at the pinnacle of that three-pointed star was the fabulous 300SL, the company’s first postwar sports car.
Detailed attention to aerodynamics was streets ahead of anything else at the time and helped make the 300SL the undisputed fastest road car of its era. Road cars developed 240 bhp, more than the racing versions of two years earlier.
Some say steel discs were used to keep costs down, but they also look more muscular than wires.
Engine bay could get very hot, so gill-like side vents were more than a mere styling motif.
Mercedes insisted that the “eyebrows” over the wheel arches were aerodynamic aids; it is more likely they were US-aimed styling touches.
Silver was the official German racing color.
The car’s most famous feature was the roof-hinged gullwing doors. With the high and wide sills, they were a functional necessity, rather than a finnicky design flourish. The gullwing doors were made of aluminum and were surprisingly light to lift with help from hydraulic stays.
Rear vision was good but all that glass could turn the cockpit into a greenhouse.
The Gullwing’s smooth styling extended to the clean rear; the trunk lid suggests ample space, but this was not the case. The cockpit became quite hot, but air vents above the rear window helped.
As this sales illustration shows, with the spare tire mounted atop the fuel tank there was very little room for luggage in the Gullwing’s trunk.
The engine was originally derived from the 300-Series 3-liter sedans, then developed for the 1952 300SL racer, and two years later let loose in the road-going Gullwing, with fuel injection in place of carburetors.
One hood bulge was for air intakes, the other for aesthetic balance.
The massive three-pointed star dominated the frontal aspect and was repeated in enamel on the hood edge.
On some cars, mostly for the US, the wheel tilted to ease access.
As Gullwing production wound down, Mercedes introduced the 300SL Roadster, which from 1957 to 1963 sold 1,858, compared to the Gullwing’s 1,400. From 1955 to 1963 the 190SL Roadster served as the “poor man’s” 300SL.
The engine was canted at 50 degrees to give a low hood-line. It was also the first application of fuel injection in a production car.
S P E C I F I C A T I O N S
MODEL Mercedes-Benz 300SL (1954–57)
BODY STYLE Two-door, two-seat coupe.
CONSTRUCTION Multitubular space-frame with steel and alloy body.
ENGINE Inline six-cylinder overhead camshaft, 2996cc.
POWER OUTPUT 240 bhp at 6100 rpm.
TRANSMISSION Four-speed all synchromesh gearbox.
SUSPENSION Coil springs all around, with double wishbones at front, swinging halfaxles at rear.
BRAKES Finned alloy drums.
MAXIMUM SPEED 135–165 mph (217–265 km/h), depending on gearing.
0–60 MPH (0–96 KM/H) 8.8 sec
0–100 MPH (0–161 KM/H) 21.0 sec
A.F.C. 18 mpg (6.4 km/l)