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1954 Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing review, test drive

31st May 2013 3:53 pm

To compete with larger-engined Ferraris and Maseratis, Merc borrowed heavily from the aviation industry to make the 300 SL. We get behind the wheel.


It sounds like something straight out of a dream. Drive from the Mercedes-Benz Centre in Brooklands, outside London, to the Goodwood Festival of Speed; meet up with the Mercedes-Benz Heritage transporter; pull the 300 SL out; climb in through the gull-wing doors and take it for a nice, long, leaf-scattering howl along some traffic-free English country roads.In fact, so surreal is the plan, I fully expect to be woken up at any moment, crows cawing outside my window in Mumbai. Then it gets even worse, even more dream-like. No special instructions are issued about driving the car, no restrictions are imposed; we just pull open the gull-wing doors and are helped in. Are they mad?

The drama actually starts as soon as you begin to climb into the car. You don’t just open the door and get in; you lift up one of the hatch-like gull-wing doors, contort and twist your body, place one foot across the very wide sill and only then lower yourself onto the seat, making full use of the grab handle provided. More than a bit of gymnastics is called upon here. More than getting into a car, this feels like clambering into the cockpit of a fighter jet; a fitter at hand to help you with the helmet and harness. And once you are in you feel just as encapsulated as in a cockpit.The references to high-performance, weapons-grade machinery aren’t exaggerated. The aircraft canopy-like compact cabin of the 300 SL was actually designed to offer the least aerodynamic resistance possible, and conventional doors were ruled out because, as in a single-seat aircraft with a massive engine in the nose, the area behind the heavy engine plays a crucial part in keeping the structure stiff. So Mercedes’ legendary engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut placed stout tubes where you would normally have doors. And thus was born the Gullwing.


But why was Uhlenhaut so obsessed with aerodynamics and chassis stiffness? To fully understand this you have to go back to this car’s predecessor, the W194, a similar looking racing car from which this car, the production W198 road car, was evolved. Mercedes at the time only had a 174bhp, 3.0-litre straight six and a four-speed gearbox to go racing with. So Uhlenhaut had to wring out every other advantage available.And this brings us to the next bit of high tech – fuel injection – borrowed yet again from the aviation department at Daimler Benz.

Now fuel injection may not seem like high tech today, but remember, in the early fifties an injection system was still future tech. In fact, the only place the Bosch system had been used before was on WWII aircraft like the Messerschmitt Bf 109, which used an upside-down V12 known as the DB601.To fire up the 300 SL you need to flick on a pair of pumps, one before you start and one for sustained high speeds. The starter whines, a couple of cylinders of the straight six catch, the starter disengages and soon the motor ticks over as smoothly as only a straight six can. This W198 might have been evolved from a pure racing machine, but it’s still a road-going Mercedes, so refinement, smooth running and ease of operation are all first rate. Because of the direct injection, the straight six pulls lustily from low engine speeds, you need only around 2500 or 3000rpm to really get going. The gearing is so long, my eyes begin to widen at the speeds this car can achieve, even at low engine speeds.

Using the heavy unassisted steering at low speeds takes some acclimatisation, the SL shifts around quite a bit on its cross-ply tyres and, as with any 58-year-old car, getting into the groove takes a bit of time. The recirculating-ball steering seems only partially connected initially and there’s more than a bit of play in the straight-ahead. But though the car rolls just a bit, the stiff chassis deals with the loads so well that there’s plenty of grip in corners despite the supple springs.There are some slightly wider roads ahead and so, repeating the words ‘drum brakes’ in my head, I decide to press on. Past 3,500rpm the character of the straight six engine changes completely. Now effortless urge is replaced by a hard-edged on-cam snarl, and I hold my breath as the old girl gathers road speed rapidly. 130 is swept past effortlessly, the English countryside flashes past at an increased rate and, strangely, only now does the 300 SL feel like it is entering its comfort zone. The slight hopping motion of the car at low speeds is gone, the suspension seems to have a lot more grip when loaded up, and there’s more feel in the steering away from the centre line. And is it a surprise that it feels far more comfortable and well balanced when taking corners at high speed?

This car’s predecessor, the W194, was designed for flat-out running on long-distance endurance events like the Carrera Panamericana in Mexico and the Mille Miglia, and this road car shares a majority of its components. It shares its love of high-speed corners, high-speed stability and tenacious grip as well. What it must have been like to drive a long spell in this car’s predecessor at speeds over 200kph across the barren Mexican landscape (Karl Kling averaged 204kph over 3300km in 1952), scything through corners and dodging vultures, I can only imagine!I have no desire to test this car’s Achilles’ heel, however. Another bit carried over is the swing axle at the rear, and while that was fine on the racing car, this car has a softer, more comfortable setup, which at times leads to snap oversteer and the rear coming around suddenly; not something I want to experience. So despite the fact that it feels really comfortable driving hard, I’m a bit wary of the car’s reputation. Oh, did I mention, a mint 300 SL like this one costs approximately Rs 5.5 crore? That may have been a factor as well.   

All too soon the drive through the English countryside is over. We drive back and park the 300 SL close to the transporter, open the hatches and allow the cool summer air in. This car has no real windows (unless you are prepared to take them out completely) so heat from the motor has soaked the cabin, the floor of the car feels frying-pan hot and the smell of oil, grease and rubber are on the air. Unlike other carburettor-equipped cars of this era, however, there is no smell of petrol – that’s fuel injection for you.It’s only after clambering out that I realise just how gorgeous this car looks close up. Whereas the racing version has a sea-smoothed look, this car’s gently protruding headlights, twin ridges on the bonnet, canopy-like passenger cabin and gently arched rear make it stand out in any crowd. The bits I truly love, however, are the ridges above the wheel arches. They look stunning when they catch the sunlight.Attractive, at home at high speeds, the fastest car in the world in 1954 left such an imprint on popular imagination, nothing Mercedes has built since has truly replaced it. Don’t think I’m likely to forget it either. Ever.

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