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Mercedes Benz 300 SL Gullwing

Shortly after Mercedes Benz recommenced road car production, the German manufacturer set their sights on motorsport in the early 1950s. Of course there were not the means available to continue the company's pre-War Grand Prix program, so instead the focus was on a production based sportscar. Unfortunately, the familiar Mercedes Benz production cars were too heavy to be turned into a race winning machine, so it was not quite straightforward.

The motorsport department sourced as many usuable parts from the new 300 luxury model and fitted them to a new, lightweight spaceframe chassis. The most important ''off-the-shelf'' product was the single overhead camshaft straight six engine, newly designed for the 300. In the development process, it was somewhat modified and eventually equipped with Bosch fuel injection. Suspension was by double wishbones up front and the trademark swing axles.

To make sure the spaceframe chassis was as rigid as it was light, the tubular structure was very high on both sides of the driver's compartment. With these very high sills, fitting conventional doors was next to impossible, so something new was needed. The designers came up with doors hinged in the roof that opened upwards, allowing for ample access to enter and exit the car. When looked at from the from the front with both doors open, the doors resembled wings, which later earned the car the nickname 'Gullwing'.

Soon after the 300 SL, for Sport Leicht (or Sport Light), took to the track in 1952, Mercedes Benz was back to winning form. In that season and the following season major races fell the German's way, highlighted by a victory in the Carrera Panamericana and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In the mean time the company's financial fortunes were also on a rise and a return to Formula 1 was proposed for 1954. This was by no means the end of the line for the 300 SL as work was well under way to turn the race winning design into a road car.

Launched at the New York Motorshow in 1954, the 300 SL road car looked somewhat more civilized than its racing counterpart, but retained the trademark Gullwing doors. It was also the first road car to be equipped with fuel injection. The racing car for the road was generally well accepted although the very poor cockpit ventilation (there were no sliding windows in the doors) did not make it very suitable for long drives. Nevertheless 1400 examples rolled off the production between 1954 and 1957, which was quite exceptional for a sportscar.

This still was not the end of the line for Mercedes Benz' most legendary road car as the engineers went ahead and turned the fixed head 300 SL into a roadster. By further strengthening the lower half of the chassis, the high sills could be abandoned. This increased the weight somewhat, but at least normal doors could be fitted. Chopping off the roof also solved all ventilation problems and instantly made the 300 SL in a practical two seater. The 300 SL Roadster remained in production until 1963 after which 1858 examples were produced.

Today the 300 SL Gullwing Coupe and 300 SL Roadster remain as the most legendary examples ever to bear the Mercedes Benz star on the nose. Few cars can match the combination of racing pedigree, advanced engineering and good looks of the 300 SL.

General specifications
Country of origin Germany
Years of production 1954 - 1957
Introduced at 1954 New York Motorshow
Numbers built 1400 (29 thereof with alloy body)
Body design N/A
Weight 1300 kilo / 2866 lbs
Engine M198 Straight 6
Engine Location Front , longitudinally mounted
Displacement 2.996 litre / 182.8 cu in
Valvetrain 2 valves / cylinder, SOHC
Fuel feed Bosch Direct fuel injection
Aspiration Naturally Aspirated
Gearbox 4 speed Manual
Drive Rear wheel drive
Performance figures
Power 215 bhp / 160 KW @ 5800 rpm
Torque 275 Nm / 203 ft lbs @ 4600 rpm
BHP/Liter 72 bhp / litre
Power to weight ratio 0.17 bhp / kg
Top Speed 245 km/h / 152 mph
0-60 mph Acceleration 8.2 s