Mercedes-Benz 300 SL: The legendary “Gullwing” of the 1950s

Mercedes 300 SL

The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL (W 198) was presented together with the smaller 190 SL in February 1954 at the International Motor Sports Show in New York. It was offered in the years 1954 to 1957 as a coupe with gullwing doors and in the years 1957 to 1963 as a roadster. The 300 stands for the engine capacity measured in cubic centimeters, the additional designation SL is the short form for “super-leicht” (german: super-light). Alternatively, it is claimed that the letters were derived from “sport-leicht”.

Mercedes-Benz 300 SL (W 198)

The original 300 SL, the Mercedes-Benz W 194 racing car, achieved unexpected success in 1952. The even faster road version (W 198) was with a top speed of 230 km/h the fastest sports car of its time.

The Gullwing

The body of the 300 SL was shaped as streamlined as possible. In order to keep the frontal area small, the bodywork was slightly retracted from the window line. Only after the construction of the frame, which went far to the top, it was noticeable that conventional doors could not be used because of the frame construction on the vehicle flanks. Despite the misconception that the doors are mere stylistic affectations, the eye-catching “gullwings” were necessary because of the vehicle design. A total of 1400 gullwing cars were built,  while most of them were exported to the United States.

The body of the 300 SL consisted largely of sheet steel. The hood, the trunk lid, the sill and the doors, however, were made of aluminum. On request and for a relatively small extra charge, the entire body was made of light metal, which made the vehicle 80 kilograms lighter. But only very few customers chose that option, making those versions very rare and sought after today.

Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing

The little brother: Mercedes-Benz 190 SL

Next to the Mercedes 300 SL, Daimler-Benz introduced the Mercedes 190 SL (W 121) in February 1954 at the International Motor Sports Show in New York. By 1963, a total of 25,881 units of the “Tourensportwagen” (engl.: “touring sports car”) had been built, of which almost half were exported to the United States. Many stylistic elements such as front mask, bumpers and headlights have been adopted from the 300 SL. The 190 SL was available either as a convertible or as a coupe with removable roof. Today one would probably call it a convertible with hardtop.

The concept of the open two-seater 190 SL with an easy-to-use weatherproof soft top was so successful that in the following, the 300 SL was modified accordingly. The legendary gullwing was replaced in the spring of 1957 by a roadster variant (W 198 II).

The convertible top of the 300 SL could be stored under a separate flap behind the seats and was easy to operate. The grid frame of the roadster variant needed to be changed in the area of the doors and the rear. Thus, normal fortified doors with much more comfortable entry were able to be installed.


Mercedes-Benz 300 SL (W 198)

The new technology: direct fuel injection

The first automotive direct injection system was produced by Bosch and was developed by Goliath and Gutbrod in 1952. The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL became in 1955 the first production sports car with four-stroke engine to be equipped with a direct fuel injection system. The Bosch fuel injectors were placed into the bores on the cylinder wall,  and the spark plugs were relocated to the cylinder head. The result was a boost in engine output and efficiency and would remain a signature feature of the 300 SL “Gullwing” for a long time.

Mercedes-Benz 300 SL

Replicas

The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL was also very popular among replica manufacturers. Therefore, Mercedes-Benz had the design of the vehicle protected and banned the reproduction of the 300 SL in court. Previously, there were replicas from Germany and Switzerland, which were offered under the name Gullwing and Gullwing Roadster.