The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL was conceived initially as a purpose-built racing car (W 194). Although there were no plans to send the 300 SL into series production, the Daimler-Benz Board had been left with the words of Maximilian (“Maxi”) Hoffman ringing in their ears. The official importer of Mercedes-Benz cars into America campaigned tirelessly for a sports car to offer his well-heeled clientele, and the 300 SL racer fitted the bill perfectly. After lengthy deliberations, the green light was given for series production of the road-trim 300 SL (W 198), as well as a smaller, open-top sports car, the 190 SL (W 121).
The road version of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL was unveiled in February 1954 at the International Motor Sports Show in New York. Series production began in Sindelfingen in August 1954 and the price was fixed at 29,000 Marks – a quite enormous sum at the time, especially when you compared the new model alongside the Mercedes-Benz 170 Vb – on sale at 7,900 Marks.
The body of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL was developed with the primary aim of cutting aerodynamic drag to a minimum. The result was a streamlined form with few adornments. The car’s aluminum skin was stretched over a tubular frame, which – in the interests of stability – rose much further than usual up the sides of the vehicle, making it impossible to fit conventional doors. The response of the engineers was to devise an upwards-opening door concept.
The elegance of the car’s side view remained undisturbed by a door handle, with a discreet pull-out bar disengaging the lock. The door then opened upwards with the help of a telescopic spring. The interior of the 300 SL was more solid than spectacular. The standard fabric seat upholstery was available in a choice of three checked patterns, but most customers opted for leather instead. A shortage of space made getting into the 300 SL something of a challenge. Fortunately, the steering wheel could be folded down.
The tubular frame for the 300 SL, designed by Rudolf Uhlenhaut, reduced weight to a minimum but provided maximum strength. A series of extremely thin tubes were welded together into triangles to produce a frame which boasted impressive torsional stiffness and was only subjected to compression and tensile forces. In the standard SL the frame tipped the scales at only 82 kilograms, whilst the complete car in ready-to-drive condition and including the spare wheel, tools and fuel weighed in at 1,295 kilograms.
The body of the 300 SL was constructed largely out of high-grade sheet steel, although aluminum was used for the engine hood, trunk lid and the skin panels for the door sills and doors. For a relatively small extra charge, customers could choose to have the whole body made from light alloy, which cut 80 kilograms off the car’s total weight. However, only 29 SL customers took up this option and today their cars are highly sought-after rarities. The body paintwork came in silver metallic as standard, although red, dark blue and black also proved popular.
Technically the 300 SL owes much to the Mercedes-Benz 300 (W 186 II) sedan. Its six-cylinder engine featured a number of modifications, among of these the carburetor was replaced by a direction injection system. This new technology boosted output to 158 kW (215 hp) and the car’s maximum speed up as far as 260 km/h, depending on the rear axle ratio. Customers could order their SL with a choice of five different ratios. The 300 SL hit 100 km/h in 10 seconds.
The engine had to be tilted 45 degrees to the left in order to squeeze under the hood, thus reducing the amount of space in the passenger-side footwell. The SL’s center of gravity was almost exactly in the middle of the car, laying the perfect foundations for fast and precise cornering. The chassis was essentially the same as the 300a sedan’s, but with sportier tuning, and the drum brakes were adapted in response to the increased performance of the muscle-bound sports car. Only later, in the 1961 roadster variant, were these replaced by disc brakes all round.
The first units of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL were sold in Europe in 1954, whilst Maxi Hoffman received his first customer car in March 1955. A total of 1,400 Gullwings rolled off the production line. Most of them, some 1,100 cars were sold in the USA.