First Among Equals – The Briggs Cunningham Gullwing

Stefan Weijola with Gary Anderson
Bought by Briggs Cunningham and driven by Phil Hill, this 1954 300SL was the first Gullwing ever sold.

First Among Equals
Bought by Briggs Cunningham and driven by Phil Hill, this 1954 300SL was the first Gullwing ever sold.

Article Stefan Weijola with Gary Anderson

Images Dan Savinelli
The term “race bred” is often used in advertisements for serial-production cars sold for street use, but we would argue that there really is only one classic car to which that term accurately can be applied: the 300SL Coupe produced by Mercedes-Benz from 1954 into 1957. Truly, the first 300SLs were designed specifically for racing, with no intention of mass production. Only after success on the track did the company decide to modify the design to be produced and sold in a dealer showroom.

The story of the stunning sports car displayed on these pages started with the first customer order for a 300SL Coupe for street use. But before telling that story, we should briefly review the lore of the Gullwing.

Briggs Cunningham leans into the doorway of his 300SL – newly purchased from U.S. distributor Max Hoffman – discussing the new Gullwing with race driver Phil Hill.

The Gullwing today, 61 years later.

The predecessors

Having literally dug itself out of the ruins of World War II, Mercedes-Benz realized early on that it had to rebuild its reputation for excellence at the same time it was developing a lineup of cars that could be sold to customers. The strategy chosen was the same used at the beginning of the century: Win races on track and road courses to showcase the company’s pre-eminence in performance, style, and reliability – attributes that would transfer to the production cars.

With the few resources available – the high-powered engine used in the Mercedes-Benz 300 customer cars and prewar experience in racecar construction – the incomparable team of Alfred Neubauer, Rudolf Uhlenhaut and Fritz Nallinger designed a tube-frame sports coupe sheathed in sleek aluminum panels with the most rudimentary of doors – or, more accurately, hatches in the top – for access, mounted on an adaptation of the 300 limousine’s suspension. The sports racing cars were immediately successful, winning at Le Mans and the Carrera Panamericana in 1952. 

Inspired by this performance, Mercedes-Benz U.S. distributor Max Hoffman proposed to the Daimler management board early in 1953 that the 300SL be put into production to attract customers into his showrooms. The board approved Hoffman’s proposal when he sweetened it by agreeing to buy the first 1,000 cars.

With $2.5 million of Hoffman’s money on the table, prototypes of the adapted 300SL sports coupe and a smaller companion car, the 190SL, were hurriedly constructed for exhibition at the New York International Auto Show in February 1954. Based on the overwhelming reception of the “Gullwing” – as the press called it – at the show, Hoffman knew he had a hit on his hands.

The street version of the 300SL would retain the competition tube frame because the company didn’t expect to sell enough to justify a different chassis.

Retaining this frame meant using the upward-opening doors, but they were strengthened and deepened to allow driver and passengers to enter and exit a bit more gracefully than was the case for racecar drivers. The steering wheel had a complex mechanism that allowed it to be folded down for easier entry. Little did the company expect that the doors alone would make the 300SL an icon of the sports-car world.

As distinctive, the interior could be ordered with the same plaid cloth pattern used in Mercedes-Benz racecars. Although there was almost no trunk space with spare wheel and tool kit onboard, a buyer could order an attractive set of fitted leather luggage to be strapped behind the seats.

The racecar engine would be retained, but for the first time, Mercedes used fuel injection on an automobile engine. The engine produced 240 horsepower (SAE), 40 more than the carbureted racing version. To accommodate the additional height of the intake plenum without interfering with the sleek streamlining, the engine was inclined to the side. The rear suspension, borrowed from the 300 sedan, tended toward oversteer but designers believed buyers would be experienced drivers and appreciate the responsive handling.

The amazing feature was the weight; with the tube frame and panel design, the complete car – with spare tire, tools, and a full fuel tank – weighed only 2,849 pounds. The exceptional power-to-weight ratio allowed acceleration from zero to 60 in 7.2 seconds with a top speed of up to 160 mph, breath-taking numbers for the period.

The Cunningham car

This is where our car’s story begins. Sportsman Briggs Cunningham, an influential figure in the motorsports scene in America, had a reputation for collecting important and rare cars, including the first Ferrari in America and one of six Bugatti Royales ever made. Whether Hoffman convinced him or he convinced Hoffman, Cunningham wanted to be the 300SL Coupe’s first customer.

Factory records indicate that on August 23, 1954, the first Gullwing to leave the factory, listed as 300SL No. 4500003, was shipped to New York. According to the invoice, Cunningham took delivery of the car from Hoffman on September 15, 1954, for a payment of $7,227.50.

While there is a significant amount of documentation on the car, there are still gaps in its production history. This topic was the focus of extensive research by the fourth owner, James C. Hein, a Mercedes-Benz master mechanic who acquired the car jointly with Peter Henning in 1971, and subsequently bought Henning’s share a year later.

Why was 4500003 the first car to be produced? Factory records indicate that No. 4500001 wasn’t produced until September 30 and 4500002 even later; both were eventually delivered to Daimler organization insiders. 

Comparing 4500003 to later cars, including 05, 16, and 22, Hein’s research identified differences that suggest 03 was as much prototype as finished design.
With unbroken provenance from Cunningham’s purchase to ownership by Dennis Nicotra today, the differences are still readily visible. Two are easily explained.

Cunningham specified he didn’t want the pivoting steering wheel, concerned more with safety than graceful entrances and exits. He also didn’t like the gooseneck gearshift; he wanted his gearshift to come straight up from the gear linkage. Both preferences were noted on the order form and the modifications are obvious in the Gullwing as we see it today.

The Gullwings were built in two parts: the tube frame chassis, to which the engine, transmission, rear end and suspension are fastened; and the body, including fenders, doors, hood and trunk lid. On 4500003, both parts are interesting.

Comparing the chassis to the later cars indicates a number of areas that were obviously hand-fabricated or hurriedly produced on 4500003. Welding seams weren’t smoothed off, the structure had different details compared to later cars, and components, such as the muffler and coolant overflow tank were made by hand, instead of the mass-produced vendor-supplied parts on later cars.

The body is even more interesting. Its production number was clearly first stamped as 4500000, using a larger hand punch than on later bodies, but then the last zero was obviously obliterated and the number 3 punched in after it to correspond with the number clearly stamped on the chassis.

Other details, such as the air vents on the cockpit roof, openings in the footwells and firewall, and door openings appear to have been hand-fabricated in one shape on 4500003, but on later cars machine-pressed in a different shape, at least by the time 4500005 was produced.

We can speculate that Hoffman wanted Cunningham to have his 300SL in time for the Watkins Glen International Sports Car Grand Prix, September 17-18, 1954. Given Hoffman’s substantial investment, it seems reasonable that if he asked for the car’s delivery by that time, Daimler would do what had to be done to fulfill his request. Components intended for test cars might have been hurriedly assembled to meet Hoffman’s deadline. Even the service manual was hand-typed in the haste to ship the car. The manual, signed by Cunningham himself, is still with the car today.

After the U.S. debut

Whatever the explanation, the car was displayed to a crowd of 200,000 international spectators at Watkins Glen in September. Then in February 1955, Cunningham’s friend and renowned race driver Phil Hill took the car out on the track for demonstration laps at Daytona Speed Week.

Unfortunately, Hill may have been a bit too enthusiastic or an untested part failed, but the engine seized while he was on the track at Daytona. Mercedes-Benz immediately sent a replacement engine, which is why the engine in the car today is No. 19 rather than No. 7 as indicated in production records. Nevertheless, it won first prize in the Sports Car Class at the Watkins Glen Concours in September 1955.

However, Cunningham’s appreciation for the new car seems to have waned; before the end of 1955, he sold it to Bill Fleming. Fleming in turn drove it and occasionally raced it in amateur events such as the Mount Equinox Hill Climb. Fleming sold it in 1959 to Victor J. Stein, who retained it until 1971 – though driving it infrequently – before selling it to Hein and Henning.

Hein researched the car extensively but seldom drove it. Intrigued by the singular history of this Gullwing, Nicotra purchased the car in 2013. During the next year, it was completely restored by HK-Engineering of Polling, Germany, with instructions to document and retain all of the unusual characteristics that set this car apart.

Since its restoration, 4500003 earned Best in Show at the 2014 Boston Cup concours on the Boston Common, was displayed at the Arizona Concours d’Elegance last January, and  will be in the MBCA Cars & Coffee display and on the concours field at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in March.
1954 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing (No. 198040 4500003)
TYPE: Two-door gullwing-door two-seat coupe
ENGINE: M198 Overhead-cam 2,996cc Inline-6, Bosch fuel injection, dry-sump lubrication
HORSEPOWER: 240 hp (SAE) at 6,100 rpm  TORQUE 217 lb-ft at 4,800 rpm  COMPRESSION RATIO: 8.4:1 TRANSMISSION: 4-speed manual  DIFFERENTIAL RATIO 3.64:1
WHEELBASE: 94.5 in  LENGTH: 176 in  CURB WEIGHT: 2,849 lb
TOP SPEED: 152 mph  ZERO to 60:  8.7  sec  FUEL CONSUMPTION: 15-20 mpg
The world’s first supercar? When introduced in 1954, the 300SL was acclaimed the most advanced car in the world.

The 3-liter overhead cam straight-6 engine was based on the motor in the victorious 1952 300SL racecar, itself derived from the W189 300 Adenauer powerplant.

With the lightweight tube frame, which made conventional doors impossible to fit, advanced independent suspension and careful aerodynamic detailing – such as the “eyebrows” over wheel openings designed to reduce drag – the car was capable of speeds up to 160 miles an hour, making the Gullwing the fastest production car of its era.

Canted at 45 degrees to fit under the sleek car’s streamlined hood and fitted with pioneering Bosch mechanical direct fuel injection, the engine made a stated 240 horsepower.

Because he was concerned with safety, Briggs Cunningham specified that No. 4500003 be delivered with a fixed – rather than pivoting – steering wheel. He also wanted a straight – rather than gooseneck – gearshift lever for more direct linkage to the gearbox.

Even at rest, the Gullwing exudes a graceful sense of streamlined speed; though rushed into production, the car made a dramatic debut at the International Sports Car Grand Prix in 1954.

The 300SL’s trunk was full of spare tire, making the optional luggage a practical necessity for many buyers.