The Mercedes-Benz 300SL
When Christopher Dew got his hands on a barn-find 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL coupe in 1980, he was fulfilling a lifelong dream.
The sports car enthusiast had owned other classics – an Austin-Healey, a ’36 Rolls-Royce, even a 300 SL roadster – but he’d wanted an SL coupe more than anything. And now he had one.
Dew, former president of the Mercedes-Benz Club of America’s Toronto chapter, spent 12 years and thousands of dollars restoring the one-time weekend racecar because he was committed to rebuilding it properly.
He completed the gullwing-doored car in 1992, and when he did, he was careful driving it out his garage.
“I know of restorers who, driving their 300 SL out their garage for the first time, get in the car, close their door, back up—and realize they forgot to close the passenger gullwing door as it’s ripped off by the garage roof,” says Dew.
“That’s a story you hear more often than you want to.”
The gullwing doors: then
In 1953, Maximilian “Maxie” Hoffman, an Austrian keen on importing German cars to the United States, was struck with the idea of bringing to America a Mercedes-Benz sports car.
He was more than a little inspired by the 300 SL W 194 racecar Benz had campaigned in 1952, an aluminum-skinned, inline-six-cylinder coupe topped with a pair of upward-swinging doors.
Rudolf Uhlenhaut, the engineer behind the super-light or “SL” W 194, had opted for the roof-mounted hatches not because they looked attractive, but because the advanced spaceframe the car was designed around took up the body sides, where conventional doors would go.
But they did look attractive, which probably helped Hoffman sell his pitch for a production sports car to the executives in Stuttgart.
When the prototype mass-market 300 SL W 198 debuted at New York’s International Motor Sports Show in 1954, those doors earned it the nickname “gullwing.” In France, they called it the papillon, or “butterfly.”
“Because they were the first of their kind, the doors made the car extremely striking,” says Dew, who sold his gullwing in 1998. “They were an integral part of one of the finest-engineered cars of the post-war period.”
While exotic, the doors weren’t completely practical. The Plexiglas windows had to be popped out and stowed instead of rolled up or down, and entry and exit from the cabin required practice. (In its day, it was apparently thought quite a spectacle watching a woman in a skirt getting into the car.)
But this only served to underline the car’s heritage, and remind you you were essentially driving a street-legal racecar.
“It’s just visceral, it’s loud,” says Rudi Koniczek, a world-renowned 300 SL expert in Victoria, British Columbia who’s restored about 110 gullwing Benzes.
“When you’re in a 300 SL, when you close that door, hear that ‘thunk’ and you start it, there’s this cacophony of sound in the cabin, and it feels like you’re in the cockpit of a fighter plane.”
In 1957, Mercedes-Benz closed down production of the coupe so they could instead build the new roadster version. In three years, they’d built about 1,400 gullwings.
The gullwing doors: now
In 2010, Mercedes-Benz reintroduced the iconic gullwing doors on their SLS AMG supercar, the “spiritual successor” to the 300 SL of the mid-fifties.
“Our aspiration,” said Mercedes-Benz design head Gorden Wagener shortly after the car’s debut, “is to utilise this interpretation to create the classic of tomorrow and roll out the most alluring sports car of the 21st century.”
The SLS AMG’s gullwing doors mimic the 300 SL’s, though on the new car the designers were able to push the door sill lower, and make the openings wider.
The “wings,” mounted on gas-pressure struts near the hinges, open quite easily, through a full 70 degrees. They include power windows and door locks, now, too.
While Mercedes-Benz was taking a risk reimagining a legend, it’s paid off—at least, if enthusiast reception is any indication.
“It’s a good modernization,” says Dew. “They’ve done a decent job of taking the design technology from that era [the fifties] and bringing it forward.”
Koniczek’s praise is a little more reserved. “I think they’ve done everything – the gullwing doors, the ease of entry – really well,” he says. “But the styling’s just a little too chunky, a little too square.”
The future of the SLS and its doors remains up in the air, but the original has cemented itself in automotive history as one of the best sports cars of all time.
“The 300 SL gullwing is probably still the most appealing Mercedes-Benz to many, many people,” says Dew.
Koniczek agrees. “To me, it’s the best car in the world.”