Sixty years ago this February, Mercedes Benz unveiled the road going version of its race winning sports car at the International Motor Sports Show in New York. Crowds flocked to the stand and looked on in awe at the 300SL, it's gullwing doors creating an iconic and visually enduring image which other car companies have desperately sought to eclipse ever since, but to no avail.
The gullwing doors were a design necessity as the high-sided chassis rails prevent normally hinged doors being used. Underneath the svelte shape was a three litre six, boasting 158kw, and to get the bonnet low the engine was slanted 45 degrees to the left. Top speed was about 260kph. Zero to 100kph came in 10 seconds through a 4 speed manual gearbox. Drum brakes provided retardation.
The 300 SL was initially conceived in 1952 as a purpose-built racing sports car. It was designed by Rudolf Uhlenhaut who gave it a super light (hence "SL") tubular frame which boasted impressive torsional stiffness and weighed only 1,295 kilograms. Right from the get-go it was a race winner, greeting the chequered flag in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, at the Nurburgring and in the Carrera Panamericana in Mexico.
At the beginning there were no plans to make the 300SL into a road car, but in 1953 the Benz Board was persuaded by its American importer , Max Hoffman, that a luxury, road version of the race car would have instant appeal for his rich and famous American clientele.
Hoffman was right. Despite its jaw dropping $7300 US dollars price tag (by comparison, a fully optioned Cadillac Eldorado convertible went for $4500) the 300 SLs became the must-have car for the jet set and Hollywood's elite including Clark Gable, Kirk Douglas, Alfred Hitchcock and Sophie Loren. Of the 1,400 built, 1,100 went to the USA.
These days a 300SL sells for serious money. Clark Gable's recently went for $1.85million. Production of the Gullwing ceased in 1957 when it was replaced with an updated, more luxurious and more driveable300SL in convertible and removable hard top formats. Mercedes knew that the 300SL had the potential to be a style icon. In 1955 the United States Patent Office granted them a patent on the design (design number 176,278).
David Burrell is the editor of www.retroautos.com.au