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A Blast From The Past – Mercedes SL 300 Gullwing

Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing Coupe

In my opinion, the Mercedes SL 300 is one of the most beautiful cars ever produced along with the Peugeot 607 and the Citroen DS. Built from 1954 to 1957, the Gullwing was a very stylish car that was very fast for the mid 50s and featured some very important technological developments. Add to this the fact that it was very well-crafted and you got one of the most important cars in all automotive history.

Like most of the cars that made history, the SL 300’s roots lie in auto racing. In the following years after WW II, Mercedes wasn’t very present in the automobile world and they were known only for their very luxurious and solid cars. To put the company back on the map and relive the pre-WW II glory, the company brought a new chief development engineer by the name of Rudolf Ulhenhaut. He took a straight-6 3.0-liter engine and stuffed into a very elegant space frame that was made out of hundreds of steel tubs. He rounded up this configuration with a four-wheel independent suspension and a drop-dead gorgeous low-drag aluminum skin. The consequence of his actions? The W194-chassis 300 SL where the “300” stands for 3 liters and “SL” for Sport Leicht (sport light).

They made several W194s in both coupe and roadster configurations. The latter were pretty nice, but the coupes had those imposing vertically swinging doors which made the car a real delight. Mercedes decided to take the car to some serious racing and in ’52 they managed to grab the first and second place of the 24 Hours Le Mans race. They also won the first, second and third place at the 24 Hours of the Nurburgring and the number one spot at the Carrera Panamericana.

W194 Coupe

Due to the fact that it still was a race car it had a rather short life. Why? Because the vast majority of the machines are short-lived and ethereal, designed to be competitive and relevant for a very short period of time and then put to sleep. This is what happened to the W194 as the technology evolved and soon appeared in other race cars.

The production model was launched in 1954 and it wasn’t a W194 as you might have thought. It was a W198 with a tubular chassis and a 3.0-liter engine that produced 220 hp which was inspired from the W194, but some of its key features were completely different.

It had a curb weight of 2,855 pounds and the body of the car was largely made out of steel, with aluminum doors, trunk lid and hood. As an optional feature, the car could have been fitted with an aluminum body but it was very expensive as only 29 customers bought it over the three years of production. With the aluminum body, the car’s weight was lowered by 176 pounds. The engine was linked to a 4-speed manual gearbox and it used Bosch direct-mechanical fuel injection and a dry sump.

The production model got those exciting gullwing doors with fixed windows. What most people don’t know is that the Mercedes 300 SL was the first production car in the world to get direct fuel injection and it injected the gasoline directly into the cylinders, not the throttle bodies or the intake ports. This provided greater power across the rev range and a more efficient burn. With this engine, the 300 SL was able to reach 62 mph (100 km/h) in 10 seconds, onto a top speed of 160 mph which was pretty amazing in the 50s.

Naked Mercedes-Benz W196 Racer

However, the car was far from perfect. First, due to the reason that the fuel pump was driven by the power unit and didn’t have an ignition cutout, it kept injecting gasoline until the engine was shut down and stopped rotating. The fuel wasn’t burned and had the tendency to flow into the power unit’s sump, thus diluting the oil. In other words, the owner of a 300 SL had to change the oil frequently (at 1,000 miles or so). If the oil wasn’t changed, it would have resulted in a premature engine wear.

Second, the oiling system which featured a whopping 2.6-gallon capacity and the industrial-strength oil cooler were designed for high speeds and racing purposes which means that the vast majority of the drivers weren’t able to get the temperature of the oil up to an optimum level. As a consequence, the oil (again) had to be changed on a very regular basis.

Looking at the owner’s manual you would think that the 300 SL was a four-wheel hazard as it had plenty of precautions. One of them was the following: “turn the ignition key to the left while idling. Do not on any account try to stop the engine at a higher speed.” Why? Because of what we just said before, regarding the excess fuel.

Due to the reason that the gullwing doors were curvy and shallow, the windows of the 300 SL did not retract. However, they were removable but you needed to put some serious effort into it. The car didn’t have any air conditioning and the ventilation was almost unnoticeable. For this reason, the owners of the car tended to sweat a lot and drove the car with the doors up.

Mercedes SL 300

How much is such a car worth these days? A lot. A run-of-the mill 300 SL in a good shape with no history of competition or celebrity ownership will set you back around $500,000. The roadsters are a little bit more affordable, but not by much. After you get the car of your dreams, you need to save some money for parts, here is an example – the aluminum brake drums will cost you $2,000 each. To rebuild the gearbox you must pay $35,000 and a full brake job will empty your bank account with another $14,000.

Despite its flaws, the Mercedes 300 SL “Gullwing” made history with its gorgeous design and the direct fuel injection system.

Source: Wired.com


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