Frozen in Time – This 1955 300SL sat in an aircraft hangar for 40 years

Gary Anderson with Wally Rogers and David Neyens
Gooding & Co.
The small aircraft hangar where Sigurd Nygren kept three old planes and his red sports car with the gullwing doors hadn’t been opened since he passed away in 2013, and the Gullwing hadn't been on the highway in 40 years.

Frozen in Time

This 1955 300SL Coupe sat in an aircraft hangar for 40 years

Article Gary Anderson with Wally Rogers & David Neyens

Images copyright and courtesy of Gooding & Co.

 

The small aircraft hangar where Sigurd Nygren kept three old planes and his red sports car with the gullwing doors hadn’t been opened for many years. But Sig hadn’t been behind the controls of his planes or the car in more than four decades: He passed away in 2013. Three years later, after Sig’s wife Rosalie died of what she called a “broken heart,” her son Wally Rogers knew little about the state of the car or the planes when he slid open those big doors in 2016.

Sure enough, the old light planes sat in the middle of the hanger, the wings protected by plastic sheeting hung from a cable across the space. Between one plane’s wing and its fuselage – wedged in among the mechanical odds and ends collected by the old private pilot and merchant marine sailor – the shape of a car under sheets of oilcloth could barely be discerned. When the detritus was finally cleared away and the fire-engine red car with the red-plaid upholstery could finally be inspected by the specialists Wally had called in from Gooding & Company, the time-capsule condition of this 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL was nothing short of astounding.

The term “barn find” is thrown around with increasing abandon these days; truly original cars that haven’t been altered are becoming increasingly rare and hence more valuable in the collector marketplace. But it isn’t just the cars that are becoming more difficult to find; it’s the connection with the owners and their stories that is also being lost.

How does an example of a car as unusual as the Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing go through the first 20 years of its life in nearly perfect condition – driven only 31,239 miles – then be stored away for another 40 years before reappearing? The answer to that question was found in the stories Sig’s family remembers about a man whose life was as unique as the vehicle and planes stored in that cluttered hangar.

Merchant mariner Sig Nygren

Sigurd Nygren certainly had not been one of the glittering group of celebrities and well-off enthusiasts who were the typical purchasers of this image-building high-speed sports car in 1955. On the contrary, he and his twin brother Albert had grown to manhood in the no-nonsense environment of a local orphanage in the Scandinavian fishing and logging community of Svensen on the Oregon Coast. Near the sea, the twins took one of the few ways out of their environment, joining the United States Merchant Marine service as soon as they were of legal age at 18. During shore leaves, they both earned private pilot licenses; at sea both served as assistant engineers, overseeing the diesel powerplants and other machinery on the ships they crewed.

Despite serving on transport ships in  multiple convoys sailing in harm’s way between the United States and the Pacific theater during World War II, Sigurd and his brother survived the hostilities, but stayed in the merchant marine after the war, living on the West Coast.

An airplane-like sports car

In 1955, according to his stepson, while on shore leave in Los Angeles, Sig saw one of the early 300SL Gullwing coupes at the Mercedes-Benz Distributors of California on Sunset Boulevard, owned by Max Hoffman. All Mercedes-Benz enthusiasts know that Hoffman had been the instigator for production of the Gullwings – road-going adaptations of the W194 long-distance racing cars – and that the earliest production examples of the futuristic sports car were displayed at Hoffman’s distributorship.

Given his mechanical orientation and love of flying, Sig would obviously have been impressed by the quality of the engineering, the dry-sump slanted version of the 300 engine, and the airplane-like style of the top-opening doors. The story he related later was that he wanted something as close as possible to the aircraft he enjoyed flying; he wanted to purchase one of the ultralight alloy-bodied versions he had read about in the car magazines.

Unfortunately, as Sig told the story, the alloy-bodied version had to be special-ordered and would take at least four months for delivery. He wanted to enjoy his shore leave in one of the new 300SLs. As the paperwork found with the car indicates, he made a cash purchase of an eye-catching fire-engine red example (DB534 Feuerwehr Rot) trimmed with contrasting L2 fawn-colored vinyl and striking Mercedes-Benz red-plaid fabric. Factory records held by the Gull Wing Group indicate that the car with that chassis number was special-ordered by the dealer in that color combination, with optional belly pans for aerodynamics, and produced February 23, 1955. As a U.S.-market car, Sig’s Gullwing had English instrument faces and sealed-beam headlamps.

Soon after he bought the car, Sig fitted it with some additional instrumentation that, as a pilot, he thought was necessary, including an aftermarket rearview mirror with an altimeter and thermometer on the dashboard, an aircraft chronometer at the top center of the windshield, and even a windscreen defroster fan similar to those standard on small planes to handle the condensation from the humid weather of fogbound West Coast ports.

In addition to the fog lights on the front bumpers, an auxiliary fog warning and back-up lamp) operated by a toggle switch on the dash, was fitted above the rear bumper. For entertainment during long drives up and down the coast between ports, when eight-track tape players came into fashion in the late 1960s, Sig fitted one to the car with six speakers mounted in the cabin, including two from a 300d Adenauer sedan.

Sig and Albert enjoyed flying as much as they enjoyed driving, so he mounted an Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association badge on the rear license-plate frame. Some years after its introduction in 1949, they managed to test-fly an innovative first-generation Taylor Aerocar designed and built in a batch of just six by Moulton B. Taylor of Longview, Washington. Perhaps like other pilots and driving enthusiasts, they found that the flying car was not very good as a car – especially with the wings on the trailer behind it – or as a plane with its unwieldy nature and slow speed. Whatever the case, the only proof of the flight was a picture of Sig and Albert by one of the flying cars with the red 300SL parked in front of it, found in the family’s collection of photos.

Even though Sig drove the Gullwing as a daily driver when he was in between voyages, he still managed to clock just over 30,000 miles, an average of 1,500 miles for each of the 20 years that the car was actively driven. Service records indicate that the car received regular, if only intermittent, service at Rasmussen Motors, the Portland Mercedes-Benz dealership; a service reminder from 1968 is in the file. Oil service stickers still affixed in the engine compartment and doorframe indicate oil changes in 1968 at 27,477 miles and 1974 at 30,773 miles.

After 1976, perhaps because he was having some trouble with the mechanical fuel injector pump – the only complaint Wally remembers him making about the car – Sig never renewed the Oregon registration: He parked the Gullwing inside his hangar in Svensen and covered it with a fitted Mercedes-Benz 300SL coupe cover.

Neighbors at the airport said that up until about 15 years ago he would take the car out, start it up and drive it around the airfield for 20 minutes or so to keep it in driving condition, but apparently he never took it out on the road again.

And then at some point, he covered the car as usual and wrapped it in waterproof tarps, probably to ward off coastal moisture. Sig died in 2013; a grief-stricken Rosalie died of heart problems three years later, a condition she said was caused by the broken heart she experienced when her husband left on his final voyage.

And what of the future?

When Rosalie passed away in 2016, her son Wally did some research on the car he knew was still parked in Sig’s hangar. Guessing at its possible collector interest, he contacted Gooding & Company to help him remove and inspect the Gullwing. When they opened the hangar doors, they found the car still wrapped in its protective tarps, which had done their job; there was no structural rust apparent anywhere on the steel body. Even the original factory inspection tags are still in place on the oil and fuel tanks and the coolant reservoir. The spare wheel and original tire, tool kit, service records and manuals were still with the car. There was even a 1961 issue of The Star magazine in the trunk, indicating that Sig may have been an early member of the Mercedes-Benz Club of America.

Because of its condition, the car is likely to establish some new benchmarks for production Gullwings when it is sold. But what will its next custodian do with it? Wally hopes the car will find an owner who has respect for the past, someone who will preserve it as a tangible connection with Sigurd Nygren and the Greatest Generation that he represented.

The car is in such good condition that it could be carefully cleaned and repaired without losing any of the glorious patina. This 300SL could be a preservation-class trophy winner at major concours events. Nevertheless, if the car is “sympathetically recommissioned” – as the catalog description suggests – it will be capable of being driven at least occasionally in memory of the merchant seaman and aviator who once drove it with pride and then carefully stored it for a future caretaker’s appreciation.

 Engine number identification plate on the car’s venerable M198 overhead cam straight-6.

The gentle caress of time has left the 300SL in remarkable condition after decades of storage.

Sig Nygren (dark jacket) and twin brother Albert both loved to fly. This black and white image records their test flight of a Taylor Aerocar.

View inside Sig’s hangar after the doors were opened in 2016. The Gullwing, wrapped in protective black tarps, is to the left behind the aircraft’s vertical rear stabilizer.

With gullwing doors, fuel injection and aerodynamic eyebrows over the wheel wells to smooth airflow, the 300SL was the fastest car in the world when pilot and merchant mariner Sigurd Nygren bought this  red example.

Nygren added a rear fog lamp and his Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association badge.

Swinging open the distinctive gullwing doors of Sig Nygren’s fire-engine red 300SL reveals an interior trimmed in contrasting L2 fawn vinyl and original factory-installed red-plaid fabric.

 

As an engineer and pilot, Nygren fitted an aircraft chronometer and small windscreen defroster fan mounted at the top of the windshield, and a rearview mirror with altimeter and thermometer.

The car’s odometer tells the tale. Nygren added eight-track tape system and speakers. Mercedes-Benz coachworks identification tag in cabin. Service sticker dated 1968 on under edge of gullwing door.

After more than 60 years, the M198 overhead cam engine is all original, nestled under the front-hinged hood.

Original factory inspection tags, seals and hose clamps remain on oil and fuel tanks and coolant reservoir.

The spare wheel, original tire, and tool kit (with Sig’s additions) is still in the trunk.

 

 

Specifications

1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing

TYPE: Two-door, two-seat Coupe with top-hinged doors

ENGINE: 2,996cc SOHC Bosch mechanical fuel-injected, with dry-sump lubrication

TRANSMISSION: 4-speed manual gearbox

SUSPENSION: Front – Independent coil-spring double-wishbone suspension;Rear swing-axle suspension; 4-wheel servo-assisted hydraulic drum brakes

HORSEPOWER: 240 at 6,100 rpm  TORQUE: 217 lb-ft at 4,800 rpm

LENGTH: 178 in  CURB WEIGHT: 2,849 lb  FUEL EFFICIENCY: 15-20 mpg

ACCELERATION: Zero-60 mph 8-9 sec  TOP SPEED: 146 mph

 

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