MERCEDES ON THE WINGS

Mercedes 300SL, New York 1954

Never have there been so many different car models on the roads. And although many are soon forgotten some models never lose their lustre, one of the most famous being the gull-wing Mercedes-Benz. 

By Erich Karsholt

In the aftermath of WWII, when money was short and most car manufacturers focused their production on cheap cars, German automaker Mercedes-Benz managed to go against the flow and present a new and exclusive sports car.
A combination of skill, ingenuity, enthusiasm and strong personalities led to the launch in March 1952 of the famous Mercedes 300 SL, with its distinctive gull-wing doors. Mercedes-Benz was ready for its re-entry into the international world of motorsport.
Sports cars were a niche market, but Mercedes-Benz saw the opportunities offered by being represented within motorsport and even today their novel gull-wing model wields great marked influence.

The Americans onboard
The Mercedes 300 SL featured a metal tube frame that provided extra strength during races, but which did not accommodate conventional doors. There was however nothing in motorsport regulations that restricted door design and placement, so Mercedes-Benz came up with the famous gull wings.
Despite competition from Ferrari, Jaguar and Talbot, the new design proved extremely effective, and in 1952 Mercedes 300 SL won the prestigious Le Mans race in France. Later followed a victory at the Nurburg Ring in Germany and in the Mexican open road race La Carrera Panamericana.
Nevertheless, supercar racing and road going sports cars are two worlds apart. But on 2 September 1953 the German automotive group management held a meeting and the U.S. importer of Mercedes-Benz, Max Hoffman, was invited. He was so convinced that the new gull wing sports car would go down well with American consumers that the automotive executives promised him two new sports cars for the New York Auto Show in February 1954 – just five months later.

Hoffman had noted the success of the gull wing design within the world of motorsport and was confident that the car had a great consumer appeal. He committed to selling 1,000 cars in the U.S. on the spot, so an agreement was concluded. And at the premiere in New York, the two new models created sensation and became the basis for the later mass-produced versions of the 300 SL and 190 SL.

ne of the biggest
What gave the car its edge wasn’t just its novel door design. Technically speaking the Mercedes 300 SL was also the world’s first series produced sports car with electronic fuel injection. And consumers love it. By the end of 1955 almost 1,000 cars had been sold – the majority in the U.S. In the following years almost 2,000 were sold in a convertible version. Mercedes-Benz had created a worldwide success.
Today, the gull wing Mercedes-Benz ranks among the greatest automotive icons of the twentieth century. And an estimated 2/3 of the original 300 SL models still exist. Many of them are traded at high prices and are considered solid investments. Since 1995, prices for the Mercedes 300 SL have increased by over 200 percent. And at an auction in early 2001, a newly refurbished Mercedes 300 SL from 1955 sold for U.S. $ 1,375,000, representing more than seven million Danish kroner.

Gull wing today
In 2010, Mercedes AMG launched an entirely new sports model, which is nonetheless inspired by the classic 300 SL from 1950 – and features its hallmark gull-wing doors. Mercedes’ new supercar has been well received by both automotive journalists and car enthusiasts.
And following in the tracks of the original gull-wing model, the new AMG Mercedes SLS 6.3 will be launched as a convertible in the autumn of 2011.
Whichever model your prefer, convertible or fixed-roof, the new gull-wing Mercedes will like its predecessor remain a major automotive player well into the future.