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300SL Gullwing

This profile first appeared in the March 2000 issue of Collector Car & Truck Market Guide


The most famous--and important--of all Mercedes-Benz designs since World War II is the 300SL.  Anyone care to disagree? Beyond its distinctive design, the Gullwing served as a reminder to the world of Germany's technical prowess and that its rise from complete devastation of just a few years prior was well on its way.   Developed in the early 1950s for Mercedes factory racing teams for European circuits, this car’s superb design and legendary status makes it one of the most desired objects in the postwar collector car market today.

The original design for the 300SL (300 denotes engine size and SL Sport-Leicht, or lightweight sports) had evolved from the W-194 competition coupe developed for endurance type racing such as the Mille Miglia, Nurburgring, and 24 Hours at Le Mans. In their class, the Mercedes works team was almost unbeatable, with many private entries also posting a number of wins wherever they competed. From its inception, this unique car became the symbol of Mercedes' postwar renaissance.  So successful was the 300SL that in December 1999, a panel of the most prestigious names from the racing world, headed up by former world-champion driver Stirling Moss, declared that this Mercedes design was their selection for “Sports Car of the Century”.
 

Prototype, notice side exhaust! Gullwings always draw a crowd State of the art, early 1950's Folding wheel helped entry/exit

Bowing to public pressure, in 1954 Mercedes-Benz released the 300SL Gullwing coupe to the public, where it won acclaim for its mechanical achievements, outstanding design, and quality of product here and abroad. Credited with bringing the 300SL Gullwing coupe to America (along with most anything with wheels from a rebuilding Germany) was importer Max Hoffman, who, as the legend goes, placed an order for 1,000 of these exquisite vehicles. In fact, it's possible that a full production version of the 300SL might not have seen the light of day without him. Originally projected to cost a whopping $11,000 in its 1954 debut, by the time regular deliveries started in the U.S.A., the price tag had dropped to just under the $7,500 mark.
 

Powered by a 2,996cc in-line six-cylinder engine, it featured a Bosch mechanically driven fuel-injection system--a first--and was rated at 240 SAE horsepower at 5,800 rpm and was mounted at a 45-degree angle to allow for the low profile design.  That's a lot of power for a production engine in that era, easily surpassing 1hp per cubic inch. Sitting on a wheelbase of 94.5" and an overall length of 180", the 300SL was not exactly a compact sports car. A fully synchronized four-speed manual transmission was used, while a ZF-brand rear axle rated at 3.64:1 ratio was used for those units imported in the U.S.A.
 

From Stuttgart, Germany, Mercedes-Benz headquarters, the two men most responsible for the creation of the 300SL, Rudolf Uhlenhaut and Karl Wilfert, were astonished by the success of their design. Based on an open-space tubular frame, each car was hand-crafted starting with hand welding of the chassis, and the careful fitting of suspension and brake components. Bodies were hand built using aluminum for the doors, hood and deck lid, while the rest of the shell was constructed from steel. All aluminum bodies were available for competition units, but just 29 of these cars were built, and they command a very healthy premium on the market today.  In the fall of 1957, Mercedes released a companion for the Gullwing coupe with the 300SL Roadster. Shortly after the convertible’s appearance the coupe was discontinued.

Market

For a while during the great-car rush of the mid to late 1980s, the 300SL models, especially the gull-wing coupes, saw their values rise faster than almost any other collector car. ices starting in the mid to high $20,000 range, Over a period of just a few months auction bids that had been routinely in the $20-30,000 range were easily exceeding $100,000. In short order, prices then continued to well over $300,000, with competition models going as high as $400,000. When the slump in prices came along a decade ago, the 300SLs actually came back closer to the $100,000 level for presentable models, with premiums added for originality, low mileage, or additional accessories such as knock-off wheels, original matching and fitted luggage, or the removable hardtop on roadster models.
In the past couple years interest in the Mercedes-Benz 300SLs has begun to pick up again. In 1999 one auction presented a pair of authentic W194 competition coupes in the United States, with prices coming over the $1.4 million mark, but these were historically significant cars with verified heritages. "Everyday", well-maintained roadsters are regularly approaching the $200,000 mark again, while Gullwing coupes are a bit higher.  Current Gullwing market values

 

There are a few things to be on the lookout for when 300SL shopping. First, ALWAYS keep in mind that these cars are horrendously expensive to fix and maintain and there aren't all that many qualified shops that can repair and maintain these cars correctly. Due to the integral construction of these cars, careful inspection of the body and chassis is a must before purchase. Damage or poor repairs could have an effect on the suspension, or passenger safety.  And remember, aluminum and steel can be a corrosive combination.


Fit and operation of the doors should be checked closely. These were engineered with close tolerances, and as you would suspect don't always work as smoothly as they originally did on an almost 50-year old car. Poor door fit could be an indication that something is amiss. The door design is a novelty and great conversation piece to be sure, but it also makes (along with the wide sills to accommodate the tube frame) getting in and out of the car an exercise in contortionism. Don't try to be graceful about it. At least Mercedes didn't ignore the problem and fitted a hinged steering wheel to assist in entry and egress.
 

Desirable Accessories

Early production models with Rudge-Whitworth brand center-lock wheels can bring an extra $10,000-$15,000, and there are no similar quality reproductions on the market.  Later edition 300SLs with these wheels may find a smaller premium added to their value. Another big plus is for matching and fitted luggage that compliments the interior soft trim. Valued at several thousand dollars per set, they make taking the 300 SL coupe on tour much easier, and they look great.

Unlike many other makes and models, one area that does not seem to affect the value of these cars here in America, are those that were originally sold as new cars in European countries. Recognizable on the later models due to the Euro-approved headlights, and possibly the speedometer measuring velocity and distance in kilometers.
 

Period promo images -- click to enlarge

While it seems like red, silver and black were the most popular colors for the 300SL, a whole variety of blues, grays, greens and even a lavender metallic hue were available. Soft trim is also important to 300SL collectors and owners. Early coupe models used a color-keyed plaid cloth pattern, which was later replaced by full leather seats and other cloth patterns.

The Gullwing is a bona-fide blue chip investment car, and one that is eminently usable as well.  They're sought after by collectors all over the world, and will likely remain that way for a long time to come.  They've got it all: looks, performance, technology, pedigree, competition successes, you name it.  Most 300SL owners know the important place the Gullwing holds in the story of the automobile, and lovingly maintain them.  Consider yourself fortunate indeed if you can join them.

This profile first appeared in the March 2000 issue of Collector Car & Truck Market Guide