Germany 1958: Women are allowed to take a job without asking their husband for permission. Europe makes its first baby steps to an EU. Elvis Presley arrives as a GI in an army barracks in Friedberg. Mercedes is in its fourth year of the gullwinged 300SL, one of the finest automobiles of all times.
The last perhaps was car journo hyperbole, expected from someone who was just handed the keys to a sports car fully restored by the Mercedes Classic Center in Stuttgart. Juan Perón had one, Porfirio Rubirosa had one, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida and Zsa Zsa Gabor had one. Now Sajeev Mehta has one, if only for a day, and if only for the benefit of the readers of Thetruthaboutcars.
This $500,000-ish Mercedes barely escaped the clutches of a Russian mobster who found its shipping container in Europe, en route to Texas. Which further explains why I was neither impressed nor interested in the attention it garnered from bystanders. Unlike the feeling of driving any Lamborghini, the gawkers only took away from the 300SL experience. Because, after 52 years on the road, it’s such a remarkable piece of hardware that it embodies the best of old and new, and defies its age like no other.
Aside from its meager footprint, the 300SL’s style defies the boundaries set by a generation’s worth of design gimmicks: this body is to automobiles what The Great Pyramids are to architecture. While the current Mercedes SLS is a fine ornament in front of the blingy Luxor Hotel, it’s bulldog face, chunky B-pillar and gangsta-wannabe hoops cannot hold a candle to its forefather’s proportional perfection. Which is true for every modern day retro-mobile, so perhaps Old School Über Alles is the only way to fly.
The 300SL’s interior shows its age, only in the best way possible. Everything is beautiful: decadent leather (all original) that’s olfactory ostentatious. Ancillary controls move with a weighted precision not found in today’s plastic craptastic machines. Even the gauge cluster is suitably gorgeous. The SL might be perfect, if not for the gull wing specific doorsill’s compromising entry/exit strategies and a borderline cramped cabin. Safety features (as if) notwithstanding, six footers will survive, provided their BMI is on par with your average Yank from the 1950s. The 300SL isn’t a car for everyone, but certain cars shouldn’t be designed to be all things to all people.
Preach to the choir much? Clock my final complaints: the lack of power steering (paired with a 70’s vintage Nardi tiller) makes parking lot positioning difficult, while the manual drum brakes (discs were standard in 1961) are terrifying in emergency situations. I steered clear of cars with modern stoppers for good reason.
The 300SL’s direct injected motor also lacks the technology of modern GDI powertrains, to keep those revolutionary injectors closed when the motor kicks off: which gives new meaning to Sunday afternoon cruises to blow the carbon out. Clear the straight six’s throat and enjoy the refined powerband of a motor with a flat torque curve and seamless power delivery from idle to 6000 revs and beyond.
Get a few MPHs on the speedometer and the old SL’s honor is restored, with a quick ratio 4-speed manual putting the power down with grace and pace. The (factory re-issued) Dunlop’s tall sidewalls mask rough roads better than most new vehicles, but there’s plenty of steering feel at turn-in. Put another way, the 300SL truly shines once the fuel system knows its place.
And this SL has the power to keep up with modern metal. Handling at modest speeds brings excitement, more than any modern day sports car with the safety nannies turned off. Thanks to the somewhat unpredictable swing axle arrangement, the 300SL happily steers the rear wheels on uneven pavement. But as a Gentleman’s car, it only picks a fight if you throw the first punch. Treat it right, stay in the ideal gear and the rear pushes you out of a corner very hard. Without drama. Which is simply intoxicating.
From boulevardier to back road barnstormer, the 300SL’s true beauty are in its bones: my tester was a roadster, one of 1885 made, but you’d never know from behind the wheel. Chassis flex? Not a chance: torsional loads are dissipated faster than GM bonds in bankruptcy court, while cowl shake is completely non-existent.
Not to belabor the point, but there’s no late model vehicle with a chassis this tight, much less a comfy convertible with a hoon-worthy suspension. No matter how technology progresses, I doubt any Lexus performs this good after five decades, even with a few years of restoration. It possesses gadgets and safety bits, but the driving experience can’t be topped. Dare I admit it, the same applies for any modern Mercedes.
Which makes the 1958 Mercedes 300SL simply heartwarming: it stands the test of time, with engineering relevant to cars like the 2011 Hyundai Sonata. Even without A/C or an AM radio, the 300SL is such a disarming dance partner you simply fall in love. With every turn and any gear change, I was completely taken aback at the 300SL’s timely yet distinctive performance. Which begs the question: can our modern metal produce a car of this caliber for the year 2062? Just don’t bet on it.
(Thanks to Mr. David Duthu for the seat time in his vehicle)