By on July 9, 2010

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)

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47 Comments on “Review: 1958 Mercedes 300SL, Factory Restored...”


  • avatar
    mpresley

    Ummm…memo to Ed: next time you have one of these to review, call my private number.

    Back to reality. The new Mercs are at least OK. How could they not be? But the SL and the others like it…an altogether higher plane of aesthetic existence.

  • avatar
    findude

    This was the car that really made me a car nut. I mean, I’d liked cars since I could crawl in a sandbox with a Matchbox toy, but the gullwing really put me over the edge.

    In high school (mid seventies) I used to walk to the bus station to catch a ride home on days I didn’t ride my bike. There was a white gullwing parked in a commercial lot most days, just someone’s 20-year-old daily driver. I remember it had a “Panamericana” sticker in the quarter window–I don’t know if the car was a participant or it was a marketing thing. One day the faded and door-dinged classic had a For Sale sign in the window: $3,500. Remember, minimum wage was about $1.80/hour and I was in high school, so all I could do was lust after it. The poor gullwing languished with the For Sale sign for most of the school year until, finally, I stopped seeing it.

  • avatar
    threeer

    Sajeev, what a glorious way to start my Friday! For all the technology and advancement we’ve seen in the automotive world (some for the better, some not…) I’m not sure any of them can compare stylistically to something as timeless and graceful as the 300SL. Simply stunning. I can’t even imagine being given the chance to pilot one of these, so I thank you from the bottom of my heart for allowing us to go for a ride with you. It would have been an automotive highlight for me (heck, I’d still like to get behind the tiller of a Pagodo-roof SL one of these days, much less the gullwing!). Oh Mercedes, where have you gone??

  • avatar
    SherbornSean

    I’ve only seen an original gullwing once; it was in Tokyo, in shiny gold. I will never forget the beauty and presence, like Grace Kelly walking into the first scene of “Rear Window”.

    Saw the new gullwing on the street last week. Meh.

  • avatar
    Brock_Landers

    Can our modern metal produce a car of this caliber for the year 2062 – I have few suggestions. No1 contender would be Bugatti Veyron – it has all the qualities to be a future iconic classic. 300SL was also crazy expensive when new – you could get few Ferraris for one SL. Second idea – current 911 GT3/RS. Build quality of modern 911 is extremely high, 911 GT3/RS is a single purpouse vehicle designed/built by Porsche with extremely clear vision. And 911 shape will look good and fresh even after 1000 years :)

    • 0 avatar

      The Veyron is a very good choice. Probably even more rarefied air than the 300SL was back in the day, so there’s even more pressure for it to…umm…come up with the goods by then.

    • 0 avatar
      sportyaccordy

      The Veyron represents a lot of things that are wrong with cars today. Needlessly overengineered, too powerful, too neutered, completely abandons form for function, etc. I can’t think of any cars out now that I would call iconic, as the majority of them are derivative or evolutionary. The Benz SLS pays homage to this. Most Ferraris are merely evolutions of prior models, and not necessarily clean sheet or revolutionary designs. The Sonata is influenced by the CC which is influenced by the CLS (which may be one of the few true original and iconic designs of our time).

      All in all, these are poor times for automotive design.

    • 0 avatar
      Bimmer

      The only car I can think of would be McLaren F1. Only 100 were ever made, including pure race versions. Car does not have any tacky spoilers, it doors also open up and it’s a three sitter, powered by naturally aspirated V12.

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    I’m confused … is the car in the pics the one described in the article? Seems like the pics are not of a gullwing (plus the set is missing the obligatory pic showing at least one door being open)…

    Last summer, I bought new tires, and at the classic car shop next door, a gull wing was in for service … in front of the shop with the door up, so my mother (visiting here in Europe) and I spent a little time looking at it until the mechanic came out, started it, and drove it into the bay (nice engine sound) … what I recall, and perhaps my perception is wrong … but the sill was very high and wide (not unlike a BMW Z1) … and (at least from the perspective of these pics) seems to be missing from the photos here.

    BTW, Peron, Loren et al. only had one each? Pikers! I had a neighbor in Detroit, Mr. J—— who had two of these beauties in his garage (along with the contemporary sedan with the same engine) … in his case, he bought them used, he and his wife restored them, and went around the US winning awards wiht them … me thinks this is a nice way to retire!)

    • 0 avatar

      Read the article, Bob: He reviewed the even rarer Roadster version.

      • 0 avatar
        CJinSD

        If the roadster is rarer, it is only because fewer survived. They actually built a third more roadsters than they did gullwing coupes. The roadster replaced the gullwing in 1957 and was meant to be easier to live with and less of an oven than the gullwing. It was also 232 lbs heavier, but eventually it did gain disc brakes that the Gullwing never had.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      Ah…thanks Bertel. Didn’t have time for savoring, so scanned it twice (second time looking for something related to non-gull wing status) and missed this point both times … btw, w.r.t. full disclosure, I read the part about the russian mobster twice and didn’t quite get that either … was a little confusingly worded … was there something more to this point that was left out?

    • 0 avatar

      RE: mobsters…perhaps I should abandon that whole 800 word review thing…the last time this 300SL came back from the Classic Center, the Russian Mob found the whereabouts of it’s crate. They tried to steal it, but the Port Authority somehow figured out the crime before it was too late.

      (FYI: yes, there is an MB Classic Center in California, and this car has spent time there too. Just in case you are wondering…)

      Considering the rarity of the car, the story is absolutely believable. I don’t get to experience metal like this very often at all.

    • 0 avatar

      Minor correction Bertel, the roadster is a tad more common, with ~1800 built compared to the ~1400 coupes. The coupe was built from ’54 through ’57, and the roadster from ’57 through ’61. The roadster is indeed an “improved” version as it has the competition cylinder head and a fixed rear suspension geometry. The last year of the roadster also sported disc brakes (as noted in the article.)

  • avatar
    Mike66Chryslers

    Gorgeous automobiles. It would make my day to spot a 300SL driving on the street. I’m happy just to see the occasional 300SL at a collector car auction. You’re very fortunate to have gotten to drive one.

    A modern car that can stand the test of time as well as this? To borrow a famous quote, the future is not what it used to be.

  • avatar

    Wow, Sajeev. I’d guess that you can die happy now. What a trip it would be to drive one of those.

  • avatar
    educatordan

    It is a gorgeous automobile. There will be cars from our time serving as beautiful pieces of art in 2062, but I dare not postulate what they might be. I could name a few makes and models that I think might still be running and soldiering on in 2062 but I don’t know if they meet high standards of art and for the time advanced technology.

    • 0 avatar
      86er

      Trying to guess is a fool’s errand anyway. What is appealing to our eyes in 2010 won’t necesarily be found appealing by opinion makers in 2062.

      Of course, we might be too busy fighting off aliens or ourselves in a dystopian wasteland by then to notice or care!

    • 0 avatar

      You can make valid guesses when you consider the value of a car’s engineering. Direct injection in the 1950s? Obviously that idea is too good to NOT try again a few decades later…and now America gets them in CamCord-ish vehicles!

    • 0 avatar
      educatordan

      See the thing is that I don’t know enough about engineering to judge. How bout the first Corvettes to have rear mounted transmissions? Was that ground breaking at the time? Have other manufacturers moved toward it? What was the first vehicle to have heated seats? You can get that in a freaking Sonata now a days. How bout some candidates from the people with knowledge?

    • 0 avatar

      I could write about this all day, but this is turning into an Ask the B&B blog.

  • avatar

    One time when my father and I dropped by the MB dealer 15-20 years ago they had an unrestored but very good condition (aside from crazing in the paint) 300 SL Gullwing in the showroom. The asking price was either $78k or $88k. My father briefly towed with the idea of buying the car, but did not. Turns out it would have been a good investment.

  • avatar

    Cars that are designed to be topless from the start do not suffer the usual maladies of conversion to a convertible; cowl shake and chassis flex. In fact it is precisely those wide sills you complain about that provide that torsional rigidity. The original 300SLR was a topless car, and the coupe version is really a conversion of an open design to a closed one, rather than the other way around. America drivers has come to expect cowl shake and bendy convertibles but there really is no reason why they have to be that way. You’re welcome to come drive my E-type and see for yourself Sajeev!

    And in another small-world moment: say “Hi” to David D. from me please. ;)

    • 0 avatar

      Will do. Love this small world we live in, and you make a great point about being designed topless from the git-go. I guess I should give the C5-C6 and the new SL some credit too, but that 300SL just feels tighter on bumps. The tall sidewalls definitely cushion the blow.

      BTW, I really, really, REALLY want to drive an E-type. Oh man, must be so nice! The only thing i want to drive more than that is a Porsche 914 with an LS-swap! (sorry I went there.)

    • 0 avatar

      Then fly on up here… I’ll toss you the keys. ;)

      –chuck

  • avatar

    Awesome review of a true icon. At least until the mentioning of “Hyundai” at the end. Don’t kill my fantasy like that!

    • 0 avatar

      Hey, its not my fault Hyundai is the only company smart enough to introduce GDI engines to a market infested with knuckle-dragging Camrys and Accords.

      Five decades later, the South Koreans do Middle Class America proud. The Truth must be known.

    • 0 avatar

      Hyundai is way behind other automakers in implementation of GDI. Mitsubishi, VW/Audi, and GM have been building direct squirters for years. Does the Ecotec ring a bell?

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gasoline_direct_injection

      “Since 2004, General Motors has released three such direct injected engines: in 2004, a 155 hp (116 kW) version of the 2.2 L Ecotec used in the Opel/Vauxhall Vectra and Signum in 2005, a 2.0 L turbocharged Ecotec for the new Opel GT, Pontiac Solstice GXP, and the Saturn Sky Red Line, in 2007 the same engine was used in the Super Sport versions of the Chevrolet Cobalt and the HHR. Also in 2007, the 3.6 L LLT became available in the redesigned Cadillac CTS and STS. The 3.6 L was added to the 2009 model GMC Acadia, Chevrolet Traverse, Saturn Outlook, Buick Enclave and the 2010 Chevy Camaro. In 2004 Isuzu produced the first GDi engine sold in a mainstream American vehicle, standard on the 2004 Axiom and optional on the 2004 Rodeo.”

  • avatar
    ez3276

    A GullwingROADSTER??? How?

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    Sajeev….If RF is reading this, (and I know he is) he’s be envious of the opportunity you were afforded, and proud of the writing panache you displayed in pulling off this review. Good on ya, mate. Thanks for a nice look-back…

  • avatar
    Buckshot

    Nice car.
    The only chance for me to drive it, is in GrandPrixLegends ;(

  • avatar
    Stingray

    That engine looks so beautifully modern… why you didn’t post more pics.

    I’d really love to see such machinery. It always amaze me what engineers did without CAD/CAE/CAM and a long list of etc…

  • avatar
    50merc

    One of the cars I dreamed of in my youth, poring over those drawings of the valve gear. The remarkable thing for me is that M-B was building such cars only nine years after the end of the war. Perhaps the company didn’t suffer all that much damage from Allied bombing.

    And about that $3,500 SLR. A fellow bought a running Deusenberg for $1,750 in the 50′s. Well, there was a time when van Gogh’s art lacked buyers, too.

  • avatar

    I had the great good fortune a few years ago to stay in the same motel in Grants Pass, Oregon, as the drivers of about a dozen 300SL roadsters and coupes, who were on a 300SL club tour from somewhere in California to Vancouver, BC. It was quite a grand experience the next morning to hang around the upstairs balcony and watch them fire up and head out.

  • avatar
    DrivnEZ

    Some say, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I would add that in this case beauty is intrinsic to the object beholden.

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your article.

  • avatar
    BMWnut

    Thanks for an excellent review.

    Just one question. Why the non-original steering wheel? There must be a reason.

    Better to drive this way? Original one too precious to have a journo paw it? ;-)

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      That lovely Nardi wheel would have been a period accessory, if not a factory option. Probably smaller in diameter than the factory wheel. I have an identical one (other than the MB horn button) in my Alfa Spider – delightful to hold.

    • 0 avatar
      Revver

      Noticed that too, but I’ll need an SL expert to explain why the gullwing needed the special tilt-to-horizontal steering wheel, but the roadster does not.

  • avatar

    Supposedly that Nardi came from a 1970s Mercedes that the owner used to own. It’s a lovely piece, giving the SL more interior space too.

    You’re probably right about the journo/pawing thing too.

  • avatar
    relton

    When I was 14, my rich uncle stopped by with one of these. My parents weren’t home, so he threw me the keys and said, “take it for a ride”. So I did, for half an hour. If my parents had ever found out, there would have been trouble.

    But that’s what rich uncles are for, I guess.
    Bob

  • avatar
    blowfish

    one of the mysteries of Daimler is why they didnt build the C111?
    that was a perfect car, they could re-issue them.

    If u are an audio nut many companies cash in their old laurels by re-issuing the old tube amps, pre-amps. That really bring them tons of mulla.

    I am sure most folks wound not mind the technologies from the late 60s in a C111, or even built one with the famous turbo diesel that cranks out 200 hp.
    At 150 grand a copy i bet they can fly off the shelf literally.

  • avatar
    blowfish

    the pics does kind of pointing towards a Drophead with hard top.

  • avatar
    brapoza

    This may be hard to believe, even I had trouble believing it at the time. When I was 17 yrs old in 1964 and home from my freshman year in college, my girlfriend and I went to a dealership in Seekonk, MA called the Auto Show to look at the Sunbeam Tigers that they had for sale. We borrowed her mother’s wedding ring and pretended to be married. They let us take a Tiger out for an hour or so spin. When we returned I noticed they had a pristine, silver, 1960 300SL for sale as well. They let us take it out and I drove around for a couple hours all over RI. I even had to stop for gas and the attendant offered to check the oil, probably so he could see the engine. I popped the hood but neither of us could find the dipstick. I don’t recall the body having so much as a scratch on it. When we returned they offered to sell it to us for for $5,000. Of course I didn’t have $5.00 never mind $5,000. I thought about taking it home to see if I could convince my dad to buy it. He owned a MB 220 sedan at the time. But he probably would have dropped dead on the spot to see his 17 year old kid pull up in a 300SL. Anyway, it’s one of my fondest automobile memories.

  • avatar
    smallmotorsmakemesad

    I went to look at a gullwing at an auction. I have no hope of affording one, but I have had nothing but Mercedes as daily drivers for 15+ years.. When I sat in the car it smelled exactly like early 70′s mpdels I had owned. I love Mercedes, Every time you driv4e a W108 it feels li,e a special occasion.
    Their latest cars are nothing special. When I have had enough of my W211 E Class I think I will buy an older car., not a new one. i I think my W210 is a better car than t=thee W211. I think I will buy a W140 next. If you get a good one, it will last forever.

  • avatar
    smallmotorsmakemesad

    I went to look at a gullwing at an auction. I have no hope of affording one, but I have had nothing but Mercedes as daily drivers for 15+ years.. When I sat in the car it smelled exactly like early 70′s mpdels I had owned. I love Mercedes, Every time you driv4e a W108 it feels li,e a special occasion.
    Their latest cars are nothing special. When I have had enough of my W211 E Class I think I will buy an older car., not a new one. i I think my W210 is a better car than t=thee W211. I think I will buy a W140 next. If you get a good one, it will last forever.


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