By on June 25, 2009

Summer 2005. My plans for a Vintage Car Rally Vacation evaporate. Rebuilding a very poorly rebuilt engine vacuums funds allocated for the purpose out of my wallet. What started as an odd knock became a horror show. My fussy ex-pat Yorkshireman mechanic in Chilliwack, British Columbia, removed the head and found the forensic remains of a car-related massacre not seen since Pol Pot rode around in his ’73 Mercedes. Just when I had given up on my dreams of a vintage vacation, the phone rang with an offer to co-drive an event in what many have called the world’s first supercar: the Mercedes-Benz 300SL. I accepted the offer faster than Mr. Fangio could frustrate Mr. Ferrari.

The 300SL was a race car adapted to the street—the creation of Daimler-Benz’s US importer Max Hoffman. Hoffman convinced Stuttgart that he could sell a street-legal version of their W194 race chassis to wealthy Americans. In 1954, at the New York Motor Show, Mercedes unveiled what they billed as the world’s fastest production car. The feature that captured the imagination: doors hinged at the top. The shape made when open became so synonymous with the 300SL that it retains the nickname “Gullwing Mercedes” to this day. It’s an instantly recognizable icon. Oddly however, the 300SL drop-top becomes just a nice old Mercedes; “Joe Average would fail to recognize the model without those “funny doors.”

The 300SL brought another innovation that changed the automotive industry: Direkteinspritzung mit mechanisch geregelter Einspritzpumpe a.k.a. direct (mechanical) fuel injection. Otherwise, the 300SL was Teutonically undramatic. It sported the 3.0-liter straight six found across the Benz lineup of the day, recirculating ball steering, swing axle rear suspension and drum brakes all around. Even so, the 300SL sold for a phenomenal $11,000 in 1954, limiting its buyers to the thin upper film of the upper crust. You could buy four Jags and a Corvette with what it cost to buy a 300SL new. Oddly, that exchange rate has been maintained, with interest.

Mercedes built 1400 “Gullwing” coupes. Some were sold to “gentlemen racers” who ordered performance options such as Rudge knock-off wheels, aluminum bodywork, and higher horsepower engines. In 1957, the coupe was phased out and the Roadster introduced. The roadster came standard with the more powerful engine. Mercedes engineers improved he rear suspension by lowering the swing axle’s pivot point, greatly reducing the Gullwing’s notorious tendency to swap ends in tight corners. The automaker created some 1,858 Roadsters to finish the run (3,258 over eight years of production).

The example I drove was one of the first Roadsters built in 1957. The state-of-the-art-for-the-era Mercedes-Benz 300SL handles well—for a mid-50s machine. Having driven both a 300SL and an XK 120 (review coming soon), the 300SL beats the Jaguar hands-down. Although the straight-eight 300SLR that competed with the C-type Jags had less torque, they kept up with, and frequently beat the early racing Jags. The 300SL street version’s inline-six simply doesn’t compare to the massive torque of the XK Jaguar mill, but it has more horsepower. If the mind is willing (and very, very attentive), so is the body.

The 300SL is a quiet car at any speed, until and unless you rev the engine past 4000 rpm. At that point, the six becomes amazingly loud, with a machine-gun note from the mechanical injection. The gearbox is setup for track or autobahn in 4th gear; at street-legal US speeds it revs low and can’t deliver instant “go now” torque for passing. In other words, you must rev it high to wring-out serious performance. Driving the 300SL quickly requires forethought, planning, and timing. The car I drove has a synchro issue in 3rd, which required double clutching and careful throttle blipping to achieve an un-Moss (gearbox, not Stirling) like downshift. Passing was more than a passing problem. Never mind.

In terms of comfort, ergonomics, build-quality, fit and finish and overall driving experience, the 300SL embarrasses even a contemporary Jaguar sports car. The old Merc is an extremely smooth and ergonomically sound machine, with exceptional engineering evident in every aspect. Other than the use of rock hard materials (there is no plastic), you’d think the 300SL is a “new” car. Unlike some modern equivalents (at least in terms of performance), the 300SL can accommodate a driver of almost any height. The leak-proof top is a dream to raise and lower, and stores away in a beautiful, well-engineered cover. The coupes are reputedly not as comfortable as the roadsters, due to poor ventilation.

While an owner could “compete” in vintage track and rally events in a 300SL, the car is best suited for wealthy owners who wish to dress to the nines and attend glamorous functions with a drop-dead gorgeous date. The Mercedes-Benz 300SL is sporting elegance personified.

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22 Comments on “Review: 1957 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadster...”

  • avatar

    To me, the original 300 SL is the most gorgeous car ever…there’s just nothing like it…

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Chuck: I imagine the straight-eight 300SLR that competed with the C-type Jags of the era had more torque

    Undoubtedly not. The more cylinders for a given displacement, the higher (in the rev band) and peakier the torque curve is. Not to mention that the straight-eight was purely a racing engine. And on the race track, horsepower is the name of the game.

    The Jag engine has a significantly greater displacement, and is a long-stroke engine, which means intrinsically much more torque than the smaller high-revving MB 3 liter.

    Lucky you; nice write-up. Thanks.

  • avatar

    A beautiful car, both inside and out.

  • avatar

    Is the car in the pictures the one you drove? The color is stunning.

  • avatar

    Thanks Chuck. I got to sit in a coupe at a car museum in Ireland in the eighties. Can’t wait for the XK 120 review.

  • avatar

    So the car is comfy, well built, fun and humane to drive. Awesone. I thought it was an over hyped fantasy. Which it may be for some. I hope I see and drive one. I’m glad the review was written.

  • avatar

    Hi Chuck
    Are u residing in Lower mainland Bring Cash aka British Columbia?

    I hear the German car meet this Sunday at the N Van Waterfront park. I hope I could attend her too.

    These 300sl are such a gem, our Late PM Pierre Trudeau has one, is passed onto his son now I heard.
    There is suppose to be a very good vintage MB restorer in Victoria, who does the gull wings too.

    In the old days our Historic racing on the Westwood Plateau attracted a few very nice vintages there.
    perhaps someday we can meet for coffee here.

  • avatar

    Great work Chuck – I’m more than a little envious. The 300SL was and always will be a true landmark sports car.

  • avatar

    @blowfish.. I think that Pierre Trudeau’s was a 58
    though I might be wrong.

    In 1979 Pierre Trudeau a liberal found himself as oposition leader to the short Conservitive government of Joe Clark. Former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker another conservitive passed away,during this period. The Right Honourable
    Pierre attended the funeral. Pierre parked his vintage Mercedes with the top down. All convertible owners fear the sudden down pour.

    Well old John got the last word in.During the ceromony The heavens opened up and it poured
    rain. The interior of Trudeau’s Merc got soaked.

    Shortly after, Pierre and the Liberals resumed thier rightfull place as the government of our fair country.

    I can only assume that Pierre had German craftsman restore the interior.

    And yes, Justin Trudeau still owns it.

  • avatar

    I read somewhere, though the 300Sl cost so dearly, it wasn’t the cash cow for Daimler, it was the 300 2dr rag top and the 190sl. Perhaps thats the reason they didnt bother to build that much more later.

    The other good one should be the C111. But Daimler refused to even sell any of them, anybody knew the underlying reason?
    Too expensive no one can afford?

  • avatar

    I’m with tom, extremely gorgeous car.

  • avatar

    I love all the Mercedes Convertibles of that era.

  • avatar

    One of the icons along with the XKE.

    The manager of buildings and grounds where I went to graduate school had a gullwing coupe. Ventilation must have been an issue because he drove around campus with both doors up during hot Kansas summer days. A quick way to separate car people from not-car people was to observe their reaction to this.

    The Kansas Turnpike toll road runs for 130 miles between Wichita and Topeka. In those days, the speed limit was 80 mph and, if the elapsed time between entry and exit was too short, you paid your speeding fine along with your toll. One of the better stories about the gullwing owner is that, during one such trip, he had to take a 45 minute lunch break at one of the rest areas to stay “legal”.

    By the time I met him (early 1970s), he had retired the gullwing to the back of his garage. He told me the the car would be his son’s inheritance.

    The same guy shared an H production, bugeye Sprite with his wife. They each ran three races per year in the SCCA’s midwest division. They were in their late 50s at the time and used to wander around the paddock in matching tee shirts with the logo “Geriatric Racing Team”.

  • avatar

    I was lucky enough to stay at the same motel in Grants Pass, Oregon, a few years ago, as a group of 300SL drivers on a tour from California to B. C. There were about a dozen of the cars, both gullwings and roadsters. Walking around the parking lot and ogling them was great, but the best thing was to hang out on the balcony the next morning and watch them all start up and head out.

    The shape of the gullwing doors meant that the windows couldn’t roll down. The cars had big vent windows and, I understand, interior air ducts that provided lots of wind at speed, but these weren’t much help in town.

    I’ve always had a soft spot for these cars; they appeared at the same time I was becoming interested in cars, and I watched them being raced in SCCA airport races in western Washington along with the Porsche 356’s and 120 Jags.

  • avatar

    One of the most beautiful cars ever built – in coupe form, THE most beautiful ever, I think. You are a lucky man to have experienced such a machine; thanks for sharing a little of that with us.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Thanks again Chuck.

    You mentioned the MB 300 SLR. It was an obsession of mine when I was a boy, and it was the hottest car in the world. The 300 SLR had nothing to do with the 300 SL other than the name. It was basically a two seat version of the MB F-1 car.

    The numbers were staggering. The car had a straight 8 cylinder engine with a desmodromic valve system* so it could be reved up to numbers that were then unthinkable. It made 310 horsepower at 7,400 rpm, and weighed a mere 880 kg. (1940 lbs.).

    *A system that uses positive actuation instead of springs to close the valve. Explanation by Ducati the only current users of the system

    Wikipedia Article on the 300 SLR

  • avatar

    It’s nice to read about a car that perhaps conveys the ultimate driving experience to somebody (me) who appreciates, but can’t afford, a fine roadster.

  • avatar

    Just exquisite.

  • avatar

    Hi guys,

    The pictured car is not the one I drove, though both are red, the one I was in had a tan leather interior, and with the European headlights.

    I’m actually in Victoria BC at the moment for another vintage rally, and my start time is in exactly one hour, so unfortunately I’ve got to run and will be offline for the day running TSD & Monte Carlo segments. Thanks for the kind words!


  • avatar
    Andy D

    Thanks, Chuck, Great piece on a fine car of yesteryear. I can remenber seeing this car around as a kid. I also have a great appreciation for the I6 engine congiguration and have owned flatheads to DOHCs. One barrel carbs to multiports. The “drive” of the SL reminds me much of the 533i. Low end torque and not too much HP. . Passing a bit adventerous , but plenty enough topend. Similar sized mechanics too.

  • avatar

    This is one of the reasons why I own a W116 S-Class and a W124 E-Coupe. So much history and pedigree to the brand that descends down to both of them is the reason why I’ll be a forever MBz loyal fan.

    Andy D, you might like my W116 S-Class. It’s a 280S which has the M110 DOHC 2.8 I6 that has a 4-barrel carb on it. It’s very interesting needless to say.

  • avatar

    Attended the one in North vancouver today, a German car meet.
    I took a few pics.
    How to upload them?
    Plus I dont have any software to block out their lic plate number, not sure is that an invade of privacy?

    If u folks wanna to see these pics can email me.

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