Many 1950s American cars still can turn heads, but they do it with such things as flashy paint and tailfins. The 1954-57 Mercedes-Benz 300SL two-seat coupe has a strictly utilitarian design, but still knocks ’em dead if seen on roads, which isn’t often.
Only 1,400 300SL coupes were built, and a really nice one is valued at a cool $698,000. Most are in top shape because this auto is one of the most revered sports cars in history and few owners risk driving on public roads. Even a 300SL coupe in average shape is valued at $515,000, says the NADA Classic, Collectible, Exotic and Muscle Car Appraisal Guide & Directory.
The 300SL coupe’s flip-up doors may seem gimmicky. But the car was derived from a famous early 1950s Mercedes sports/racing car and conventional swing-out, full-height doors would have hurt rigidity of the complex, multitube space-frame chassis — a Sports Light (SL) race design that minimized performance-robbing weight.
The half-height doors, hinged at the roof center to lift upward, led the 300SL to be nicknamed “Gullwing” because the car resembled a gull with its wings raised when the doors were up. Flip-up doors later were copied by the DeLorean and Bricklin sports cars.
The 300SL has never gone out of style. Men’s Journal magazine named it one of the 25 greatest cars ever made and said it “still looks better than most cars on the road.” Automobile magazine’s founder called it one of the “20 most beautiful cars of the last 100 years.”
The Gullwing’s styling is so good that you couldn’t change a body line without causing its appearance to suffer. Beauty was more than skin deep. For instance, this was the first production car to use fuel injection, which most autos wouldn’t offer for decades.
How did a race car not conceived as a road car come to be produced? Thank Max Hoffman, the influential U.S. distributor for many European cars when they were new to America in the 1950s. He convinced Mercedes a road version of its race car would be a hit.
It was a different auto world in the 1950s, when Hoffman also convinced BMW to build the gorgeous 507 sports car and Porsche to build its slick Speedster two-seater for the U.S. market. Both cars now also are high-priced classics.
New York-based Hoffman was a former European operating in an America still dazzled by sports cars. He backed his words to Mercedes by ordering 1,000 of the production 300SL coupes.
That order was enough to convince Mercedes to build the Gullwing. It was suffering from World War II damage and needed money. It also wanted the pre-war glory it had enjoyed.
Few Americans outside of a relative handful of foreign car buffs knew about the winning race cars that led to creation of the 300SL coupe. But the car surely promised to put Mercedes on the map in America, if any car could.
The 300SL coupe debuted at the New York Auto Show in February 1954 and was an instant sensation. It soon became the ultimate auto status symbol, bought by celebrities and prominent movie stars such as Clark Gable. Even the few largely hand-built Ferrari road cars, which really weren’t production autos, couldn’t match its charisma.
Mercedes had no money for major new components, so the Gullwing used a modified 240-horsepower version of its 3-liter inline six-cylinder engine from the fairly new Mercedes 300-series sedan. Other major items taken from the 300-series were a rugged transmission and suspension.
High, wide door sills made it difficult to get in and out of the Gullwing, although a tilt steering wheel allowed easier entry and exit. Windows were snap-in units because there was no room in the doors for roll-down windows. There was a flow-through ventilation system instead of air conditioning, which simply wasn’t considered in an auto derived from a race car.
I nearly fried while driving a friend’s 300SL coupe on a hot summer day with the windows in place, although speeds were high on nearly deserted two-lane roads. The car’s owner said the windows were a pain to remove and put back, and I only drove the car about 75 miles.
The Gullwing wasn’t far removed from the Mercedes race car, which had virtually no sound insulation. The snug, businesslike cockpit thus was full of engine and transmission noise. Steering was quick, and the ride was surprisingly supple. Braking was strong.
The Gullwing was fast partly because it was highly aerodynamic. For example, its engine was tilted 45 degrees to allow an especially low hood line for less wind resistance, which was highly unusual at that time.
The 300SL coupe cost about $7,000, or approximately as much as a Cadillac limousine. It could hit about 160 mph with the right gearing. But most Gullwings sold here were geared to do about 130 mph to allow faster acceleration for under-100 mph American driving conditions.
All-aluminum competition bodies could be ordered, as could handsome custom-fitted luggage for the area directly behind the supportive bucket seats. A big spare tire filled the trunk.
The Gullwing was virtually indestructible — one reason it beat more powerful cars such as Ferraris in races. Rugged and brilliantly engineered, you could drive the 300SL coupe all day at top speed if roads were clear.
The faster I drove the Gullwing, the happier it became. It was docile at low speeds, except for heavy steering that didn’t lighten up until the car reached about 45 mph — typical for high-speed sports cars then.
Sales of the 300SL coupe never were high because it was expensive and impractical for even most sports car buffs. A heavier, more comfortable 300SL convertible was introduced in 1957 with a modified frame that allowed conventional doors with roll-down windows.
Americans more readily accepted the 300SL convertible, which lasted until 1963 and outsold the 300SL coupe, drawing 1,858 buyers. The convertible now is valued at $585,600 if in excellent condition, or $449,600 if in average shape.
In the end, though, there’s no matching the Gullwing for its heritage and sheer excitement.
Dan Jedlicka has been writing about the automotive industry for more than 40 years. To read more of articles, visit: www.danjdelicka.com.
Article Last Updated: May 31, 2013.
- About the Author
- Latest Posts
A sports, travel and business journalist for more than 45 years, James has written the new car review column The Weekly Driver since 2004.
In addition to this site, James writes a Sunday automotive column for The San Jose Mercury and East Bay Times in Walnut Creek, Calif., and a monthly auto review column for Gulfshore Business, a magazine in Southwest Florida.
An author and contributor to many newspapers, magazines and online publications, James has co-hosted The Weekly Driver Podcast since 2017.