Few cars have reached such iconic status as Mercedes-Benz’s postwar masterpiece, the 300SL. The pure engineering excellence and truly unique style have set the 300SL coupe and its roadster sibling apart from their peers, and it remains one of the most collectible and important automobiles of the 20th century. The 300SL was first conceived by the great driver and engineer Rudolph Uhlenhaut who, among his multiple achievements created the astonishingly powerful W125 grand prix car that ended the Auto Union stranglehold and dominated the 1937 Grand Prix season. During the war, Uhlenhaut maintained a low profile, designing aero engines for Daimler Benz. He left the firm briefly after hostilities ended, only to return in 1948 where he began work on a new racing for Mercedes. Due to budget constraints, the relatively underpowered single overhead cam W186 engine from the “Adenauer” limousines. But the resourceful Uhlenhaut designed an incredibly light tubular space frame clothed in a slippery alloy body. The engine was canted over 50 degrees in the chassis to keep the bonnet low, and a new head with twin Solex carburetors was fitted. The high sides of the space frame meant there was no place for traditional door hinges, so the doors were cleverly hinged from the top of the roof – and the iconic “Gullwing” was born.
The W194 proved to be surprisingly successful despite its relative power deficit, winning the grueling La Carrera Panamericana and the LeMans 24 Hour race in 1952 and scoring a 2nd overall at the Mille Miglia the same year. Meanwhile, Max Hoffman, the influential American importer for Mercedes-Benz, was watching the success of the W194 and felt he could sell a road going example to his customers. Hoffman had tremendous influence in Germany, and he felt a street version could work wonders on improving Mercedes-Benz’s image in the critical American market. His influence worked, and the 300SL was developed for the road.
The 300SL was among most technically advanced automobiles of its day. Working alongside Bosch, Uhlenhaut combined his aviation and diesel experience to develop a new direct mechanical fuel injection system for the SL’s 3.0 liter inline six. With revised cam shaft and dry-sump lubrication, the engine produced upwards of 240 horsepower. The same spaceframe chassis featured independent front and swing-axle rear suspension, with powerful finned drum brakes on all four corners. Even discounting the distinct doors, the 300SL was quite unlike anything enthusiasts had ever seen, and in the prosperous post-war period buyers responded. Ultimately, 1,400 coupes and 1,850 roadsters were built, with the majority of them delivered to America. Max Hoffman, as it turned out, was spot on.
This 1955 300SL Gullwing coupe comes to us from long-term ownership in a large collection and is a generally sound and good running example with the potential to be a capable and enjoyable event car with some sorting. Documents show chassis number 198.040.5500154 was originally delivered in March of 1955 in European specification to Brussels, Belgium. This car is somewhat unusual in that it is equipped with a number of features that were primarily found on the first-year 1954 models, but as the changes were gradual, some 1955 cars were built with earlier features. Most notable for this car are the bolt-on wheel arch “eyebrows” with body color welting, as the later style were welded in place and the seams filled with lead. This car also features the early-type Bendix Treadle-Vac brake booster, and it is optioned with items such as bumper guards, Becker radio, and SWF windscreen washer. Other accessories include fitted luggage and dual Hella reversing lights.
According to the Mercedes-Benz data card and the 300SL Registry, S/N 00154 was originally finished in DB 180 silver-gray over a blue fabric interior. Importantly, it retains its original engine, number 198.980.5500154. Little is known of the car’s earliest history in Belgium, though records appear in the 1970s while it was in the hands of Richard H. Grant of Dayton, Ohio. A copy of Mr. Grant’s title shows he purchased the SL in 1975 from Herbert E. Von Fragstein, also of Dayton. Mr. Grant owned the SL for a number of years, and it is believed that during his tenure, the SL was cosmetically restored and the color changed to DB534 Red, which is a factory offered color. Grant ultimately sold the Gullwing in 1993, when it joined the collection of the next long-term owner, where it has remained until today.
The SL has seen limited use in recent years, and while it presents well overall, it is not without some cosmetic and mechanical needs. The red paintwork is bright and attractive overall, however some minor deficiencies can be found in the bodywork upon close inspection. The visible chassis tubes appear to be in good condition with some minor surface corrosion apparent. Original chrome bumpers wear optional over-riders which, along with the rest of the brightwork, remain in very good order both front and rear. Wheels are the correct factory original bolt-on magnesium/alloy wrapped in Avon Turbosteel tires and fitted with correct color-keyed hubcaps.
The interior was restored some time ago using factory-style natural tan leather and correct-type squareweave carpeting, all of which presents in good driver condition. It includes fitted luggage, a side window storage pouch, original-type Becker radio and correct original ivory Bakelite steering wheel.
Recently out of long term ownership in a large collection, this 300SL remains a good, sound car that runs and drives, though due to a period of disuse, some attention is recommended before it is ready for more active use for touring and rallies. While not without its faults, the body is generally good and attractive as a driver-quality car. Once sorted, however, it would certainly make for a most exciting event car or an excellent basis for a more comprehensive refurbishment. With matching numbers drivetrain and interesting early-production features, this 300SL is an intriguing example of this seminal collector car.