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The super-light Mercedes-Benz 300SLR racing car seen at the 1953 24 Hours of LeMans would see production life in a similar form when 1954’s order for 1,000 such cars by charismatic US importer Max Hoffman ensured that the 300SL ‘Gullwing’ would become a production street automobile. Built by Daimler-Benz AG and internally numbered W198, the fuel-injected road version was based (somewhat loosely) on the company’s highly successful competition-only sports car which actually had less power, as it still had carburetors. Introduced at the 1954 New York Auto Show – unlike previous models introduced at either the Frankfurt or Geneva shows – the road model was intended for customers whose preferences were reported to Hoffman by dealers he supplied in the booming, post-war market. In traditional Mercedes-Benz fashion, the “300” referred to the engine’s cylinder displacement, in this case, three liters; the “SL” stood for ‘Sports Leicht’ or ‘Sport Light’.
The 300SL was best known for both its distinctive ‘Gullwing’ doors. Due to the tubular structure, part of the chassis passed through what would be the lower half of a standard door. This tubular chassis was a necessity, as the original car was designed solely for racing and needed to be as light as possible due to the rather underpowered original, carbureted, engine, while still providing a high level of strength. This required the driver and any passengers to do some gymnastics to get in or out of the car, usually by sitting on and sliding across the wide door sill, which was kind of challenging for ladies wearing a skirt. A steering wheel with a tilt-away column made the process considerably easier. The Gullwing doors, hinged at the roof and so named because the open doors resembled a bird’s outstretched wings, were implemented as such to accommodate for this concession and was designed by Daimler-Benz’s chief developing engineer, Rudolf Uhlenhaut.
The unusual car was also revolutionary for being the first-ever gasoline-powered car equipped with fuel injection directly into the combustion chamber. The engine, canted at a fifty-degree angle to the left to allow for a lower hood line, was the same 3.0 liter straight-6 as the regular four-door 300 but with the Bosch mechanical direct fuel injection system that almost doubled its original power of 115 horsepower in the original carbureted trim. This new injection system was a first in any gasoline-powered car produced in mass quantities and it allowed a top speed of up to 161 miles per hour depending on the installed gear ratio and drag (bumpers were optional, and race tires fitted for tests), making the 300SL easily the fastest production car of its time. Maintenance requirements, however, were high; unlike the current electrically powered fuel injection systems, the mechanical fuel pump would continue to inject gasoline into the engine during the interval between shutting off the ignition and the engine’s coming to a stop; this gasoline was of course not burned, and washed the oil from the cylinder walls and ended up diluting the engine’s lubricating oil, particularly if the engine was not driven hard enough nor long enough to reach a temperature high enough to evaporate it out of the oil.
In hindsight, Max Hoffman’s unlikely prediction ended up being accurate. Since more than 80% of the vehicle’s total production of around 1,400 units was sold in the US, the Gullwing was the first Mercedes-Benz that sold in bulk outside its home market. Even though the overall numbers were not staggering, the car was in almost every respect; the 300SL etched a great image for the company in what would become its largest export market. Deservedly, it thus is credited for changing the company’s image in America from a manufacturer of solid, but staid, automobiles to that of a producer of cars with a genuine sporting heritage behind them. In clarifying Daimler-Benz’s long history to its origins, it also did much to smooth over quite a bit of damage done to the reputation of German companies in the United States as well.
Offered here is an exquisite example of a first-year Gullwing. Completed on the 24th of May, 1955 and finished in DB353 Hellblaumetallic over code 333 dunkelblau leather, this first-year Gullwing was imported to Los Angeles and purchased new by J.B. Nethercutt, who among other interests ran Merle Norman Cosmetics and was later the founder of the prestigious Nethercutt Museum. Nicely optioned from new, it now features the correct, special order Becker radio and fitted luggage as detailed on the original MBZ paperwork.
Nethercutt, a racing enthusiast, bought the car to run in California events before he decided to go with Ferrari. After his tenure, the Gullwing Registry shows the second and third owners to have also been California residents. Restored over the last two years and recently completed to original specifications with over $200,000 spent, the paintwork was naturally comprehensive down to bare metal, while 300SL expert Fadel of International Auto in San Marcos, California trimmed the upholstery. The pristinely detailed M198 engine was likewise thoroughly overhauled by Steve Marx of Marx Mercedes in Costa Mesa, CA who also attacked the transmission, clutch and fitted a dramatically improved brake system.
Under the low, sleek hood, the M198 engine is highly detailed along with all ancillary components. Inside, the interior benefits from the same high level of attention to detail. TWO sets of seats are provided to the new owner – one set in the striking blue plaid cloth, and the other full leather in the matching hue of the interior.
An impressive complement of documentation includes a copy of receipt files from Marx, HK – Engineering, MBZ Classic Center and a copy of the current Gullwing Registry showing ownership history, along with the ORIGINAL Zertifikat Folder from Mercedes Benz accompany the purchase.
Whether you’ve always wanted to drive a Gullwing whenever the mood strikes or simply need one to provide the right centerpiece to a high-quality collection, you need look no further than this very special automobile. A stunning driving 300 SL, with fabulous performance of the mechanicals matching the world class aesthetic of the meticulous restoration on truly a “hallmark” collector automobile.