Mercedes-Benz 300 SL

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Mercedes-Benz 300 SL
Fox Classic Car Collection, 2008 (02).JPG
300 SL Roadster beside the Coupe version
Production1954-1957 (Coupe)
1957–1963 (Roadster)
3,258 built[1]
Coupe: 1,400
Roadster: 1,858
AssemblyWest Germany: Stuttgart-Untertürkheim
Body and chassis
ClassSports car / Grand tourer
Body style2 door Coupe, Roadster
LayoutFR layout
PlatformMercedes-Benz W198
DoorsGull-wing doors
RelatedMercedes-Benz W121 BII (190 SL)
Engine2,996 cc (182.8 cu in) M198 Straight six
Transmission4-speed manual
Wheelbase2,400 mm (94.5 in)
Length4,520 mm (178.0 in)
Width1,790 mm (70.5 in)
Height1,300 mm (51.2 in)
Curb weightCoupe 1,500 kg (3,307 lb), Roadster 1,560 kg (3,439 lb), from 1961 1,660 kg (3,660 lb)
PredecessorMercedes-Benz W194
(racing car)
Successorby name:
Mercedes-Benz W113 (230SL)
Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG

The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL (chassis code W 198) was produced from 1954 to 1963. It was first produced as a Coupe from 1954 to 1957 with gullwing doors and then from 1957 to 1963 as a Roadster.[2] The direct fuel injected production version was based on the company's less powerful carburettor-powered overhead camshaft straight-6 engine 1952 racer, the W194.[3] Mercedes-Benz introduced the 300 SL in February 1954 at the International Motor Sports Show in New York instead of in Europe and was largely the marketing creation of Max Hoffman. It was voted the "sports car of the century" in 1999.[4] The 300 refers to its engine displacement of 300 centilitre or more specifically 2,996 cc (182.8 cu in). SL is the short form for "super-light" in German[5] and refers to the light tubular frame construction.


Previous version (W 194) in Racing[edit]

The 300 SL (also called W 198) goes back to the racing sports car, Mercedes-Benz W194, which had already had the name "300 SL". In 1951, Daimler-Benz had decided to take part in races again in 1952 and to build a sports car for this purpose. To achieve a sufficient performance for racing, Mercedes' largest engine, the M186 shared between the 300 "Adenauer" limousine (W186) and luxurious 300 S two-seat tourer (W188), had to be further developed.[6]

The Mercedes-Benz W194 racing car

In 1952, the W 194 took part in the most important races of the year. The new SL competed at the Mille Miglia at the beginning of May and achieved second place. It won the top three places at the Bern Sports Car Prize 131.04 kilometres (81.42 mi). At the 24-hour race at Le Mans the 300 SL gained the top two places. First place went to Hermann Lang and Fritz Riess with an overall average 155.575 kilometres per hour (96.670 mph), they achieved a new record in Le Mans history. Second place went to Theo Helfrich and Helmut Niedermayr. A race at the Nürburgring ended with a four-fold success. At the Carrera Panamericana in Mexico, the 300 SL again won with Karl Kling and Hans Klenk – despite a vulture flying through the windscreen.[7]

W194 at the Carrera Panamericana-Mexico 1952

These successes, especially those on the high-speed open road races, were rather surprising as the W194 engine was fitted only with carburetors, producing 175 hp (130 kW), which was not only less than the competing cars by Ferrari and Jaguar, but also less than the 300 SL road car developed from it and introduced in 1954. Low weight and low aerodynamic drag made the W194 fast enough to be competitive in endurance races.

Mercedes-Benz developed a new version for the 1953 racing season. Chassis number 0011/52 was called the "Hobel", or carpenter's plane because of its distinctive front end, added fuel injection and 16-inch wheels. The gearbox was installed on the rear axle. Its body was made of Elektron, a magnesium alloy, to reduce the weight by 85 kg (187 lb). However, the car was not used because Mercedes-Benz decided to take part in Formula One from 1954 onwards.[8] Later versions revised the body for lower air resistance and did not adopt the transmission arrangement.

Start of the 300 SL[edit]

Mass production of the 300 SL was initially not planned. The idea of a toned-down Grand Prix car tailored to affluent performance enthusiasts in the booming post-war American market was suggested by Max Hoffman at a director's meeting in Stuttgart, in 1953.[9][3] Mercedes' new General Director Fritz Konecke agreed when Hoffman put an order in for 1000 cars[9] and the new 300 SL was introduced at the 1954 New York Auto Show rather than the Frankfurt or Geneva gatherings where company models made their usual debuts. In addition, the production of a smaller Roadster, the Mercedes-Benz 190 SL was announced[10] after Hoffman put another order in for 1000 of the 190SL's[9]

The two sports cars premiered at the "International Motor Sports Show" in New York, which took place from 6 to 14 February 1954. Mercedes-Benz experienced a very positive visitor response to the 300 SL and the 190 SL at the Motor Show. Serial production began in August 1954 at the Sindelfingen plant. Shortly after the start of production or from the 51st car, the long shift lever, which meshed directly with the transmission, was replaced by a shorter one with a shift linkage.[10] The first W 198 was first sold in Europe in 1954 and in August 1954, the first vehicle was exported to the USA and sold to Briggs Cunningham.[11] Of the 1400 Coupes built in total, the largest part, about 1100, reached the US. More than 80% of the vehicle's total production of approximately 1400 units were sold in the US, making the Coupe the first Mercedes-Benz widely successful outside its home market and thoroughly validating Hoffman's prediction. The 300 SL is credited with changing the company's image in America from a manufacturer of solid but staid luxury automobiles to one capable of rendering high-performance sports cars. The 300 SL's main body was steel, with aluminium hood, doors, dashboard and trunk lid. It could also be ordered with an 80 kg (176 lb) saving all-aluminium body but only 29 were made.[9]

Even with the upward opening doors the Coupe has an unusually high sill, making entry and exit from the car's cockpit problematic.

High door threshold for Coupe

Cost of car and options[edit]

The price for the Coupe in Germany was DM 29,000 and $6,820 in the US.[9]

The Roadster was DM 32,500 in Germany and $10,950 in the US.[12]

Some options available at different times were:[13]

Option Price (USD)
Color other than metallic silver 65
Bumper guards (4) 40
Windshield washers 18
Becker radio 264
Leather upholstery for Coupe 165
Fitted luggage for Roadster 85
Crated shipment from factory 80
Competition springs (4) 88
Competition front shock absorbers (2) 41
Competition rear shock absorbers (2) 85
Competition camshaft 73
Rudge wheels (5) 350
Optional ring and pinion gears, per set 80
Hardtop for Roadster 178

Sport-Leicht or Super-Leicht[edit]

Mercedes-Benz did not announce what the abbreviation "SL" meant when the car was introduced and various magazines and company officials have gone back and forth between Sport Leicht and Super Leicht (light).[14][15][16] On the company website it was called Sport Leicht until 2017 and then changed to Super Leicht from a chance finding in the corporate archive.[17][18]


Any color other than metallic silver was an extra charge

The car has a tubular frame with the body attached to the frame. The maximum speed of the 300 SL is 260 km/h (162 mph), depending on the rear axle ratio and got 17 L/100 km (17 mpg‑imp; 14 mpg‑US). The Coupe gas tank has a capacity of 130 litres (34 US gal). The enormous fuel tank capacity also caused a considerable difference in handling depending on the quantity of fuel on board. The Roadster, due to its low pivot swing axle and extra trunk space has a smaller 100 litres (26 US gal) fuel tank.


Leather seats were optional in the Coupe

As standard, three checkered patterns seats fabrics were available. The combinations of the basic colors were, gray/green, gray/blue and cream/red.[19] Most customers opted for leather upholstery, which became standard on the Roadster.

Fabric seats, in a distinctive plaid pattern, were standard

To facilitate entry in the Coupe, the steering wheel pivoted on its hub 90 degrees away from the dashboard for ease of access.[20]

300 SL steering wheel tilted down for easy entry
Roadster dashboard (with aftermarket gauge pod on right)

Storage space for luggage is only behind the seats in the Coupe as the trunk only fits a spare wheel and fuel tank. The Roadster could come with two custom fitted leather suitcases for the larger trunk.

Luggage capacity was limited in the coupe

The side windows in the Coupe are fixed, but roll down normally in the Roadster.


The body consists mainly of sheet steel, the hood, the boot lid, dashboard, the sill and door skin, however, are made of aluminium. Silver gray was the standard color. Other colors were available on request.[21]

Detail of a restored coupe

The objective of the body design was to make the vehicle as streamlined as possible. In order to keep the frontal area small, the bodywork was slightly retracted from the window line. Only after the construction of the frame, which went far to the top, was noticeable that conventional doors could not be used because of this frame construction on the vehicle flanks. The eye-catching Gull-wing doors were therefore necessary because of the vehicle design which is why the car got its "Gullwing" name. A discreet rod swung out of the door as a handle to unlock the doors, unlocking the lock and swing the door supported by two telescopic springs.

The iconic "gullwing" pose

The eyebrows were not for aerodynamic purposes,[citation needed] the front ones deflected rainwater from the upper part of the wings, and the designers added the rear ones for aesthetics.


The car has a water cooled 3.0 L; 182.8 cu in (2,996 cc) overhead cam straight-six Mercedes-Benz M198 engine. Like the W194, the 300 SL borrowed the basic 2 valve per cylinder M186 engine from the regular four-door 300 (W186 "Adenauer") luxury tourer introduced in 1951.[3] It featured an innovative diagonal aluminium head that allowed for larger intake and exhaust valves.

To improve performance, the M198 added Bosch mechanical direct fuel injection and dry sump lubrication, which both ensured good oil lubrication at high-speed cornering and reduced engine height by eliminating a traditional oil pan. Compression was set at 8.55: 1 for the Coupe and 9.5:1 for the Roadster.[9] Power was 220 hp (164 kW).

A free optional Sports cam shaft could be ordered for the Coupe to deliver 240 hp (179 kW). The Roadster was delivered with this Sports camshaft only.

The M198 engine, with its distinctive massive sand-cast intake manifold

In order for the engine to be installed in the low profile car, the engine was tilted 50 degrees to the left or to driver side.[24][23]

The engine transmits the power via a single-disc dry clutch to the transmission input shaft. The car has a four-speed gearbox. Five different rear axle ratios were available. The stock rear axle ratio at the beginning of the construction period was 1:3.42; From the 41st vehicle, it was changed to give better acceleration in 1:3.64. It allows a top speed of 235 km/h (146 mph) and acceleration from 0 to 100 km/h (62 mph) in 9.3 seconds. Even better acceleration was provided with ratios of 1:3.89 and 1:4.11. The highest speed of 260 km/h (162 mph) is achieved with 1:3.25. The first gear however, is relatively long, so that the car is hard to drive in city traffic.[10] Reverse gear is 2.73:1[9] Clutch operation was initially very heavy, remedied by an improved clutch arm helper spring which reduced pedal force.

From March 1963 to the end of production later that year, a light alloy crankcase was installed in 209 vehicles.[25]

Fuel injection[edit]

In place of the W194's triple two-barrel Solex carburetors, a groundbreaking Bosch mechanical direct fuel injection was installed, boosting power almost 25% over the Gran Prix car's.[3] Derived from the DB 601 V12 used on the Messerschmitt Bf 109E fighter of World War II, it raised output from 130 kW (175 hp) to 160 kW (215 hp), almost double that of the original Type 300 sedan's 86 kW (115 hp). An optional, even more powerful version, with radical camshaft developed 240 hp (179 kW) at 6100 rpm and a maximum torque of 294 N⋅m (217 lb⋅ft; 30 kg⋅m) at 4800 rpm,[26][27] but was rough for city use. The result was a top speed of up to 260 km/h (160 mph) depending on gear ratio and drag, making the 300 SL the fastest production car of its time.[3]

However, unlike today's electrically powered fuel injection systems, the 300 SL's 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. Exacerbating the problem was the engine's large racing-oriented oil cooler and enormous 15 litres (4.0 US gal) oil capacity, which virtually guaranteed the oil would not get hot enough. In practice, many owners would block off airflow through the oil cooler and stick rigidly to the appropriately low 1,600 km (1,000 mi) recommended oil change interval. An auxiliary fuel pump provided additional fuel for extended high-speed operation or cold starts; overuse would also lead to dilution of the oil.,[28][29]


Explosion model without doors and roof

As is the case with contemporary racing cars, the 300 SL has a tubular frame designed by Mercedes' head engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut. This ensured high stability with low vehicle mass. Thin straight chrome-molybdenum tubes were assembled as several triangles and the finished frame weighs 82 kg (181 lb). The tubes make a deep side panel so gullwing doors are needed to enter the car.[30] The frame on the Coupe has two side rails with the top tube at the level of the driver's elbow.[9] The centre of gravity is almost exactly in the middle of the vehicle.

Tubular frame

The chassis was a regular Mercedes-Benz W186 but with a sportier tuning. Unlike many cars of the 1950s, recirculating ball steering was relatively precise and the four-wheel independent suspension allowed for a reasonably comfortable ride and markedly better overall handling. Front suspension was double wishbones, coil springs, stabilizing bar. However, the rear swing axle, jointed only at the differential, not at the wheels themselves, could be treacherous at high speeds or on imperfect roads due to extreme changes in camber. The Coupe has a high-pivot swing axle, radius arms, coil springs. This was replaced with a low-pivot swing axle in the Roadster.[9]


The front wheels are hung on double, unequal length wishbones with coil springs and hydraulic telescopic shock absorbers and a torsion bar stabilizer was installed. The Coupe's rear axle was of a two joint design with one joint at each side of the differential at its centre line.[19]

The Coupe's wheels were 5K × 15 inches while the Roadster was slightly larger at 5.5 x 15 inches. The wheels were steel bowl/aluminium rim rivet compound wheels. A valuable option was the Rudge rims 5J × 15 inches. The tires were 6.50-15 inches on the Coupe and 6.70–15 on the Roadster.

Rudge rims and eyebrow

The Coupe has Ø 260 millimetres (10.2 in), power assisted drum brakes. A brake booster was used to reduce the pedal force. The brake booster works by using the negative pressure in the intake manifold. Brake shoes were 90 millimetres (4 in) wide. The front drum brakes were 2 wheel brake cylinders/wheel, rear drum brakes were 1 wheel brake cylinder/wheel. The handbrake was a mechanical parking brake that acts on the rear wheels. The Roadster had the same drum brakes until March 1961 when Ø 290 millimetres (11.4 in) disc brakes were introduced front and rear.[20]


The roadster was produced from 1957 until 1963

In mid-1956 Mercedes was evaluating what to do with the Coupe. Sales had started to fall off and either the car would be discontinued or there would have to be a model change. The board decided to create a Roadster version to meet the needs of the California market. Sales of the Roadster exceeded those of the Coupe but took seven years while the Coupe was only in production for 4 years.[9]

The Roadster at 1,420 kg (3,131 lb) weighs 125 kg (276 lb) more than that of the Coupe, but with 240 hp (179 kW) the Roadster has slightly more power. The tubular frame on the Roadster still supported the body, but was changed to create more space in the trunk. The spare tire was placed under trunk floor and combined with a smaller fuel tank gave room for specially made fitted luggage. The doors have a much more comfortable entry.[31]

The rear axle was changed to a single joint arrangement with its pivot point located 87 mm below the differential centre line.[11] This gave improved handling and increased comfort and less camber change and better handling in corners. Uhlenhaut wanted the new low pivot axle for the Coupe but was voted down by the Board of Directors, reminding him that 3000 manufactured axle units remained at the factory and costs were already getting very high for this car.[9]

In March 1961, the air-cooled drum duplex brakes were replaced by Dunlop disc brakes.[9]

From Autumn 1958 a hardtop was an available option.[9]

Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Roadster with hardtop

Reception and sales[edit]

Initial sales were sluggish. A Chevrolet Bel-Air could be purchased for less than a third of the price of a 300 SL. There were few mechanics, even at the dealers, who understood the fuel injection system enough to do repairs. A 1955 Coupe was removed from the showroom to a warehouse as unsaleable and was finally sold at dealer cost.[9]

The production numbers each year:[32][9]

1954 1955 1956 1957 1958 1959 1960 1961 1962 1963 Total Known to exist in 1994
Coupe 166 856 308 70 1,400 1,200
Roadster 618 267 200 241 256 182 94 1,858 1,458
Total 166 856 308 688 267 200 241 256 182 94 3,258 2,658

Numerous celebrities own 300 SLs. Among them, the Last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, rocketeer Wernher von Braun[33] Formula 1 driver Rob Walker, Juan Manuel Fangio, Juan Peron, Tony Curtis, Pablo Picasso,[34] Sophia Loren, Romy Schneider, Clark Gable, Glenn Ford,[35] race car driver Briggs Cunningham, Ferrari's Luigi Chinetti, John von Neumann,[32] Pierre Trudeau and his son Justin Trudeau,[36] Paul Newman, Yul Brynner, Bernie Ecclestone, Ralph Lauren, Frank Lloyd Wright[37] and Adrian Conan Doyle.[38]


Werner Engel won the 1955 European Rally Championship driving a 300 SL. At the 1955 Mille Miglia, Fitch / Gesell won the class, in addition to the victory of Stirling Moss on the 300 SLR racing car. The marathon rally Liege-Rome-Liege was won in 1955 Olivier Gendebien and won in 1956 by Willy Mairesse. In the United States, Paul O'Shea became a champion in the Class D racing class in 1957 with the Roadster built by the racing department in Stuttgart for use in the United States, ahead of Carroll Shelby by the Sports Car Club of America on a Maserati. The car also had a victory in the Rali Vinho da Madeira in 1960.

The car had a top speed of 160 mph (257 km/h) vs 180 mph (290 km/h) for the Ferraris and Maseratis it competed against. Instead, it was to be the most durable and able to maintain its top speed for over 11 hours in some races.[39]

Bob Sirna, a previous president of the Gull Wing Group International organization beat the Bonneville Speedway F/GT speed record in 2016 in a highly modified 300 SL Gull Wing, establishing a new mark for 3L Sport cars of 190.759 mph. The car was stripped and a large hood scoop was installed.[40]


300 SL beside the SLS AMG

A smaller, slightly heavier, less luxurious and much cheaper 1.9 litre Roadster using the Ponton class 4-cylinder engine was introduced in 1955 as the 190 SL. Both the 300 SL and the 190 SL were followed in the Mercedes line by the 230 SL. The more modern 426 kW (571 hp), nearly 320 km/h (200 mph), gull-winged Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG is regarded as the 300 SL Coupe's spiritual successor.[41]

Today, the 300 SL with its gullwing doors, technological firsts, and low production numbers is considered one of the most collectible Mercedes-Benz models, with prices generally in the US$1,000,000–2,500,000 range.[42] Sports Car International magazine ranked the 300 SL as the number 5 sports car of all time. A pair of 300 SLs for sale in 2009 were offered at over $1.3M USD from the Foxwood Collection. In 2012, an ultra rare 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL with an all-aluminium body was sold for US$4.62 million at the Scottsdale Auctions in Arizona.[42]

300 SL members are supported by the Gull Wing Group International which started in 1961.[43]

Subsequent generations of the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class have been continually produced such as the Mercedes-Benz W113 (1963–71) and the Mercedes-Benz R129 (1989–2001). In the 2000s Mercedes oriented its SL series back towards performance, and included styling nods to the 300 SL. However, the SL has since evolved to become a more autobahn-focused grand tourer due to increasing weight, especially with its optional V12 engine in later iterations.[44] The last two generations of the SL are hardtop convertibles with technological and comfort amenities.[45]

A limited edition, Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, a Mercedes-Benz-McLaren Automotive joint venture that featured a hand-built all-aluminium 5.4 l (330 cu in), 626 PS (460 kW; 617 hp) supercharged V8 was introduced in 2003. A 571 PS (420 kW; 563 hp) 6.2 l (380 cu in) V8 powered Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG made its debut in 2009. Described by Mercedes as a spiritual successor to the 300 SL Coupe,[41] it peaked at 631 PS (464 kW; 622 hp) in the 6,208 cc (378.8 cu in) Coupe Black Series introduced in 2013. SLS AMG production was brought to a close at the end of 2014.[46]

The SLS AMG has now been replaced by a substantially less costly tourer called the AMG GT with traditional doors and a much smaller twin-turbo V8 engine, designed to compete against the Porsche 911 and Audi R8.[47]

As part of a partnership between Mercedes-Benz and Nintendo, the Wii U game Mario Kart 8 features a 300 SL as a playable in-game vehicle, added as part of a post-launch downloadable game update on 27 August 2014.[48]


  • Mercedes 300 SL - The Gullwing. (Alternative title: Auto-Icons, Mercedes 300 SL. ) Documentary, Germany, 2016, 29:44 Min., Director: Tilman Achtnich, Production: SWR , Series: History in the Southwest , Auto-Icons , First broadcast: 27 March 2016 SWR Fernsehen, Inhaltsangabe von ARD und online-Video.
  • Legends of the street. Car treasures in the Mercedes-Benz Museum. Documentary, Germany, 2011, 28:41 Min., Camera: Wolfgang Breuning, Production: SWR , First broadcast: 9 June 2011 by SWR Fernsehen online-Video.
  • Louis Malle film, Lift to the Scaffold where one gets shunted, and eventually left on a Paris bridge with the engine running.



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