300SL Buyer's Guide

Rubin Howard

BUY GUIDE 01.jpegAny Mercedes-Benz enthusiast will surely recognize the two magical gullwing doors that instantly identify the original sport-leicht supercar. Simply put, the Mercedes-Benz 300SL coupe and roadster are the most memorable Mercedes-Benzes ever made. Regardless of how you choose to denote this revolutionary streamlined masterpiece, it is safe to say that the 300SL has always possessed a sense of prestige and confidence wherever it takes you.

Any Mercedes-Benz enthusiast will surely recognize the two magical gullwing doors that instantly identify the original sport-leicht supercar. Simply put, the Mercedes-Benz 300SL coupe and roadster are the most memorable Mercedes-Benzes ever made. Regardless of how you choose to denote this revolutionary streamlined masterpiece, it is safe to say that the 300SL has always possessed a sense of prestige and confidence wherever it takes you.

By the end of World War II, Mercedes-Benz was left in ruins. The marque’s main factory in Stuttgart was 70% destroyed, while the body assembly in Sindelfingen was 85% destroyed. A 1945 Board of Directors meeting came to the conclusion that “Daimler-Benz has ceased to exist.” Despite disaster, Mercedes-Benz teams began clearing the rubble and sifting for surviving machinery and equipment. By 1946, the marque was once again building vehicles. Starting 1951, Mercedes-Benz introduced the 300 series of luxury sedans, cabriolets, coupes, and roadsters. These vehicles quickly became popular amongst celebrities such as Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper, the King of Jordan, and more. The 300 series rebuilt and reinforced the reputation of Mercedes-Benz.


Reclaiming past glories

Furthermore in 1951, internal discussions and board meetings at Daimler-Benz came to the conclusion that Mercedes-Benz should race once again. On June 15, 1951, two notable executives, Alfred Neubauer and Rudolf Uhlenhaut, both from the former Mercedes-Benz racing division, were invited to a board meeting to express their views on Mercedes-Benz race cars. After much contemplation, it was decided that the quickest way to return to racing was by adapting components from the 300 series to a special sports car with a lightweight body and chassis. In 1952, the 300SL race car was created.

The 300SL body was penned by Friedrich Geiger. The body was very sleek, aerodynamic, and featured a very long bonnet followed by a slowly tapered roofline. Engineered to be as light as possible, this car shared its M186 engine with the 300-series but was heavily altered prior to its application in the race car. The 300SL has a chassis made of a series of steel tubes welded together to create a space frame. One of the main issues engineers faced was the weight and size of the M186 3.0L inline-six cylinder. To fit in the bodywork, the engine was canted 50 degrees to the left. Engineers also faced structural issues relating to the space-frame chassis of the vehicle. The sides of the frame had to be heavily reinforced, which ultimately resulted in a very high and wide door sill. This chassis design was not feasible with conventional doors, thus the 300SL received the gullwing doors that we all love today.


Making a production car

The 300SL became a very successful race car, winning notable races such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans. As success accrued, so did 300SL order inquires. The racing success of the 300SL piqued the interest of Max Hoffman, appointed distributor of Mercedes-Benz for the United States. In 1953, Hoffman attended a Daimler-Benz board meeting and expressed his interest in a production variant of the 300SL. His request was refused due to the fact that the vehicle was built solely to get Mercedes-Benz racing again. After much negotiation, Hoffman placed orders for 500 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwings, on the condition that Mercedes-Benz engineers could correct the flaws in the race car. Additionally, Hoffman suggested that Mercedes-Benz build a smaller-displacement roadster based on the W120 – the 190SL.

Daimler-Benz noted the flaws of the 300SL race car, and refined the production variants. Direct cylinder fuel injection was added to the car, which proved to be more reliable and powerful than the carbureted version. The racecar also faced issues from a service perspective. Spark plugs were very difficult to change due to the location on the left side of the engine. The cylinder heads were redesigned to incorporate the spark plugs into the head for easier access. Larger valves were fitted, which provided more power when combined with the fuel injection.

The M198 3.0L straight-six retained its angled orientation, but an induction pipe was added to the top of the engine to provide better air-flow. This also benefitted the shape of the exhaust, as it could be relocated under the intake manifold, instead of wrapping around the space-frame before. Drivers of the race car complained of excessive heat and noise in the passenger compartment, due to the fact that hot air passed through the drive line tunnel under the car. This flaw was remedied with two horizontal side vents. Fuel capacity was reduced from a massive 45 gallons to a still-large 34-gallon tank. As well, one spare tire was removed from the trunk, which increased cargo capacity. The exterior received subtle changes such as a refreshed grille with two vertical slats, reworked fender arches, side vents as previously noted, as well as larger 15 and 16-inch wheels.


Coming to America

This iconic star came to glamor in February of 1954 at New York City’s International Motor Sports Show. Upon initial release, the W198 300SL took the world by storm. The 300SL and 190SL duo were an impressive sight to be seen. The highly anticipated 300SL Gullwing could be had for a gob-smacking price of $6,800.00 before options. If that was too excessive for the prospective SL driver, the 190SL was available for a more appealing, yet still premium $4000.00 price tag.

There were many reasons which justified the 300SL’s steep price. The 300SL was very much a limited-production race car made for the road, thus many racing technologies made their way to the production vehicle. There were no two cars exactly alike. The Initial 29 300SL Gullwings featured all-aluminum body panels, but this was later replaced by a steel body with aluminum doors, hood, and trunk lid. The car has a very balanced center of gravity, nearly in the center of the vehicle. As well, the 300SL featured precise recirculating ball steering, independent suspension, dry-sump lubrication, and later models featured disc brakes.

The interior of the 300SL gullwing is a wonderful place to be. Despite the difficult entry and exit, the dashboard and steering wheel are a very appealing combo. You are cocooned into bucket seats, with a wonderful view over the long bonnet. You are greeted by an array of gauges that provide the driver with information and confidence. The rearview mirror is dashboard-mounted. To ease entry and exit, the steering wheel of the 300SL is able to fold 90 degrees towards the dashboard. One flaw of the Gullwing door design was that the windows became fixed and were unable to be opened. As well, storage capacity in the coupe is limited to a parcel shelf behind the passengers, since the spare tire sits in the trunk. In all, 1400 Gullwings were produced, the final coupes selling for $8,905.


Not a Gullwing, still a 300SL

In 1957, Mercedes-Benz launched the 300SL roadster. The new roadster was subtly redesigned in the front fascia, included conventional hinged doors, and offered an actual storage solution for long trips. The suspension was modified to reduce roll stiffness, which resulted in better handling. As well, the door sill of the roadster was lowered by 50%, allowing easier entry and exit. As the new car improved, so did the weight and price. The 300SL roadster weighed about 200 pounds more than a Gullwing, tipping the scales at 2920 lbs. The price of the roadster increased to $10,970, and a total of 1,858 cars were built before the 300SL roadster was discontinued in 1964.


The 300SLR race car

It was decided that the initial 300SL race car was to stop racing in 1952, after work was started on a new formula race car. Due to a change in the 1954 rules, Daimler-Benz’s initial plan was no longer possible. In order to achieve the 250 horsepower  desired, they outfitted a straight-eight cylinder engine to a 300SL – dubbed the 300SLR. Only nine such cars were built.


Reasons to buy a 300SL

-One of the most iconic Mercedes-Benz models ever; you are not only buying a car but a significant piece of history as well.

-The 300SL powerplants are very reliable

-There are many experts available to restore, repair, and maintain a 300SL

-It's a guaranteed show stopper

-Gullwing Group International is an excellent resource and support system for 300SL owners


Reasons not to buy

-Extremely high price point for both initial purchase cost and restoration/parts cost

-Inadequate ventilation in the cabin of the 300SL, as well as fixed windows on Gullwing doors.

-Owners may be afraid to drive and enjoy their cars now due to high values, and insurance reasons.

-Swing rear-axle on Gullwing coupe has a tendency to break loose and oversteer.



-Have a specialist inspect the car thoroughly for prior body damage, frame damage, or engine damage

-Engine corrosion can occur when not using proper anti-freeze or coolant

-Ethanol can damage rubber componenets in older fuel injection systems.

-Glycol-based brake fluid must be changed every two years, as the Glycol absorbs water and can corrode braking components.
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