Max Hoffman knew a thing or two when it came to spotting potential. Born in Austria, the New York-based importer of luxury European cars didn’t just have an eye for all that was elegant in automotive circles. He also had the ear of the most important carmakers of the 1950s. With a penchant for lobbying the likes of BMW and Porsche to make special cars for the US market, his greatest success was undoubtedly the Mercedes 300SL – otherwise known as the legendary ‘Gullwing.’
Bending the ear of the Mercedes-Benz board back in the early 50s, the businessman from the Big Apple suggested it make a toned-down version of its W194 racer for sale in the US. Taking him up on the idea, Mercedes fulfilled his immediate order of more than 500 models – the result debuting at the New York International Auto Show in 1954.
Hoffman’s idea struck a chord with America’s well-heeled post-war population, who craved exotic cars from continental Europe. Picked up by celebrities like racing driver Juan Manuel Fangio, Sophia Loren, Clark Gable and Frank Lloyd Wright, the Gullwing was an instant hit and has gone on to grace the collections of serial car collectors, including Ralph Lauren and Bernie Ecclestone. Of the total 1,400 Gullwing coupés produced, around 80 per cent were sold to the US.
While he must have known he was onto a winner, it’s impossible that Hoffman could have predicted the sort of status the 300SL would go on to achieve. Recently, its super-rare sibling, the 300SLR, fetched a whopping £115m at auction, clearing the record price for a classic car by a country mile. While regular 300SLs are more affordable, by comparison, good condition examples regularly fetch more than £1 million – a far cry from the car’s original £6,000 ticket price.
Unsurprisingly, the key to what makes the 300SL so special lies in the car’s nickname, which references its gull-like doors that gracefully rise upward, rather than outward. While novel door openings have become a way for supercar-makers to set their cars apart in recent times, the 300SL’s unique form was determined purely by performance. Sporting a cutting-edge tubular spaceframe, which was previously reserved only for high-end racing cars, the 300SL’s structure made it incompatible with conventional doors, giving way to a pair of upswinging ones instead.
More than just aesthetics, the structure meant the car’s frame weighed just 50kg, giving way to the SL acronym, meaning ‘Super Light.’ Together, this rich mix of engineering ingenuity and streamline design created one of the most iconic profiles in automotive history – one that still proves irresistible nearly 70 years on.
While there’s no shortage of literature extolling the virtues of the 300SL, there’s no substitute for experiencing the real deal, and although the popular saying warns against meeting your heroes, the 300SL is surely the exception to that rule.
Greeted by a bright ‘Fire Engine Red’ 300SL, basking in the midday sun outside the Hertfordshire showroom of specialist Mercedes restorers Hilton & Moss, my first close-up encounter with a Gullwing is everything I wanted it to be, and more. The car before me is still largely original, with every crack and scuff harbouring a story from its 66 years of service.
Recently, a 300SLR fetched a whopping £115m at auction, clearing the record price for a classic car by a country mile
First imported to the US in 1956, this particular Gullwing was destined for New York, where a Dr Moffett of Denver, Colorado, took ownership of it. Holding on to it for 16 years, the car sold to a second owner in the USA before being brought to the UK in 1989. After that, the car was used for road rallies – the dash-mounted Halda Speed Pilot rally clock a tell-tale sign of its racing past. The car was then sold to overseas royalty, who kept it in the UK. It’s now found its way to Hilton & Moss, through whom it’s currently for sale.
Climbing into the Gullwing is as difficult in reality as you’d expect it to be. With wide and high sills, it’s an exercise in contortion to just get behind the wheel. It has a slender, two-spoke, hinged steering wheel that neatly clips into place once seated. A red lacquer dashboard, sporting silver details, contrasts beautifully with the aged, white leather. Pull the doors down and the full extent of the Gullwing’s glasshouse becomes apparent. Slim pillars and a wraparound windscreen keep the car’s cabin light and airy – something that’s seldom found on modern supercars.
The ignition is centrally mounted and with a crisp click to the right, the 3.0-litre straight six sparks into life. Edging out, the visibility comes in handy when staring down the long bonnet and navigating narrow country lanes. The Gullwing boasts 222 bhp, which might be modest by modern standards, but propels the car to 155 mph – this was the world’s fastest road model back in the day.
The Gullwing was also the first road car to offer direct fuel injection. Indeed, the road-going SL had close to 50 more bhp than the grand prix racing version upon which it was based.
Grabbing hold of the elegant gear stick and shifting down as the road straightens, the pitch of the engine sharpens dramatically as the Gullwing transitions from a leisurely grand tourer to a thoroughbred 1950s supercar. It’s easy to get carried away as the addictive sound of the straight six reverberates through the streamlined body, but do so at your peril.
While so much of the 300SL’s engineering was well ahead of its time, the Gullwing’s brakes are not. Drum brakes all-round make stopping slightly frightening, so it’s worth keeping an eye on stopping distances. Double what you’d usually leave and you’ll be close to stopping in time, just.
Drifting down the sleepy backroads behind the wheel of the Gullwing is an enchanting experience. Despite its age, it’s easy to drive, whether you’re cruising at a leisurely pace or dialling it up on a B-road. Passers-by crane their necks to get a closer look at the gleaming red monument to the golden age of the motorcar.
Everything about the 300SL makes it worthy of its place in the automotive hall of fame. Born in the heady age of post-war America, when optimism was rife and prosperity was on the up, the Gullwing is the embodiment of automotive elegance. A stark contrast to the loud and gaudy design of so many modern supercars.
Of the 2,700 300SLs that were made, more than half took the form of the later roadster model, which sported more conventional doors and a drop-top roof. It is, however, the coupé-bodied Gullwing that will forever be remembered as a design classic, with its novel doors, innovative engineering and racing-car pedigree. Of the many great cars in the world, some have the power to make people stop and stare. Only the Gullwing can charm complete strangers into an irrepressible smile.