Gunning a Mercedes-Benz 300SL 'Gullwing' in the Alps

| 25 Jun 2013

It’s not hard to imagine the reaction to the dazzling Mercedes-Benz 300SL ‘Gullwing’ when it was launched. Just six years after WW2, the resurgent Stuttgart giant was back on top, dominating motor sport and producing the world’s most exotic sports GT.

From the moment the silver sensation was unveiled at the International Motor Sports Show in New York’s Seventh Regiment Armoury on 6 February 1954, everything else just looked plain old-fashioned. With race-bred spaceframe, fuel injection, Alfin drum brakes, canted engine and dry sump, the specification was way ahead of contemporary rivals before the Sindelfingen body works skinned its taut, streamlined form with jet age-style doors and sharp details.

Dial in Mercedes-Benz build quality and it’s little wonder the Gullwing is still the coolest Mercedes ever. With a price tag of £4796 in the UK, this was a car for the super-rich, and customer lists read like a Who’s who of the mid-’50s. Clark Gable, Briggs Cunningham and Prince Ali Khan all drove Gullwings.

Where better to experience this famous GT’s appeal than an Alpine drive over the best passes in Switzerland?

A generous enthusiast offered the keys for such a dream drive, in a superbly restored car with the most desirable spec. Gullwings don’t get sexier than this all-black, red-leather-trimmed beauty. Even the Rudge ‘knock-off’ wheels were painted black for the perfect finishing touch. Silver is just too common and red too brash among the 1400 built.

Getting into the Gullwing is a novel exercise made even stranger if you’ve bothered to release the steering wheel hub to fold it down for more room. Right leg first over the wide sill before dropping your backside into the horsehair-stuffed cushion and then finally hauling the left leg in lands you in the snug and stylish cockpit.

The bland production two-spar wheel has been replaced by a sportier Italian three-spoke with thin wood rim, but this I quickly find annoyingly hides the smaller gauges. Key in, fuel pump running, choke out, clutch down and the rorty six eagerly burbles into life. Instantly everything feels perfectly placed, the controls smooth and well-weighted. Solid, functional and beautifully made, this amazing 52-year old feels as if it could run and run without tiring its crew. In fact many owners kept logs like an aircraft for high-speed blasts across Europe. This is a car – new or old – that you could get fanatical about.

From its Swiss home, the Gullwing devours the motorway loop around Lake Geneva’s shore, thrumming along in the fast lane to Aigle where we divert to find the old Villars hillclimb course. On a sunny day, with the big quarterlights open wide, it’s still warm inside. To tackle the problem, some owners leave off the underpan and even hide aircon in the big sills.

Bordered with steep vineyards, the lush tree-lined road to the ski resort of Villars-sur-Ollon is like an unlimited Prescott as it contorts ever upwards. Higher above the town the scenery is majestic and, as the road opens out, the peaks of Les Diablerets fill the panorama. It’s marvellous working the smooth, precise steering, with fuel-injected 3-litre straight-six on cam and deep exhaust growl trailing behind as snow-capped mountains fill the ’screen.

But just as I’m getting in the Gullwing groove, we have to stop for photographs.

There are few better shapes to study as God’s lightbox dims into the twilight hour. The Gullwing’s brilliant balance between aerodynamic theory and aesthetics is continually captivating. Rudolf Uhlenhaut, claimed art critic Brian Sewell, was an engineer with the sculptural sensibilities of a Brancusi.

While touring Italy in 1955 in a borrowed Vauxhall Velox, Sewell’s first experience with a 300SL was a chance test ride around Milan with an Italian mechanic. Not surprisingly, he still rates that as one of the most exciting drives of his life. Little wonder that Sewell gets more emotive about this German masterpiece than most post-war fine art.

No matter how familiar you are with its iconic shape, it’s almost hypnotic watching the fading rays highlight the body curves – picking out the signature wheelarch eyebrows and subtle chrome mouldings. Unlike the bland, almost dumpy prototype racer, the production car’s revised, leaner style managed to blend that Mercedes aura of strength and solidity with the lightness and grace of a beautiful aircraft. Like all the greatest coupés, the Gullwing looks both aggressive and alluring. No production Mercedes, before or since, has achieved such a balance.

That styling genesis from race to road car was achieved by an in-house team at Sindelfingen led by Walter Häcker. It’s hard to believe that the main body is steel constructed around 60 basic panels welded together, but to save weight the bonnet, bootlid and door skins were aluminium. No Italian coachworks could have produced such symmetry of form with faultless shutlines. Like every aspect of the car, the body features are beautifully made.

I asked respected US specialist Paul Russell why he started with 300SLs. “It just made sense to work with the best,” was his reply. “I can’t imagine a more rewarding car to take apart and discover its workings.” That precision, no-compromise quality pervades every feature from intake casting to switchgear.

The craggy mountains are menacingly dark silhouettes by the time we start stowing the camera gear. The steel body is a snug fit so the boot is dominated by spare wheel, fuel filler and tools yet it’s surprising what can be stashed in gaps and crannies – and we’re now late to meet Mercedes specialist Erich Pichler whose modern dealership is combined with a factory-approved classic centre.

Because the engine hasn’t started for several hours, and the temperature has dropped dramatically with the sun, we sit for several minutes eagerly watching for the oil temperature needle to move. Warming the deep reservoir of lubricant for the Gullwing’s dry sump requires patience but is essential. Short winter shopping trips are not recommended for this ’50s supercar. Thanks to its bright Bosch lights, the sinuous route down the Col de la Croix and through the lower valley forest is no challenge. The only concern is that deer might leap out into this valuable machine’s path.

Great cars are often even more special at night and the Gullwing’s charms are only enhanced as we cut from corner to corner down to Les Diablerets. The glow of the bold VDO gauges adds to the allure of the interior, and there’s no need to tune the prized Becker Mexico radio because that lusty six plays its own strident song. Working the slender mushroom-topped gearlever through the precise gate is a joy, the snick-snack action allowing you to keep in the power band where the engine sounds its magnificent best.

You never tire of that gruff bark which, in the dark, as in a long tunnel, sounds harder and fiercer. In the dark too, an appreciative driver can soak up the coupé’s mechanical feel and sounds. Some owners prefer the later, more refined roadster, but I’m smitten by the Gullwing’s intensity. Like favourite music on long-playing vinyl, it’s richer for hearing the engineering working. At night, the warm, claustrophobic cabin is much more comfortable.

Once in the valley and heading for a night stop at Gstaad, the smoother and wider roads give the confidence to push that damped throttle deeper. The engine feels unburstable and you appreciate the belief Hermann Lang and Karl Kling must have had in endurance road races. The standard Merc doesn’t have the instant pick-up of a tuned Jaguar six but the seamless way the power is delivered is mighty.

Top-gear acceleration from 70mph is strong, so you don’t need to use the gears on these faster stretches other than for extra confidence under braking. On one long straight we easily reach the ton with much in reserve. Let the tacho needle swing to 6000rpm and the Gullwing will sweep along at 130mph with rock-solid poise – but you’ll be sweating about those wide, finned drums. Earlier in the day on the motorway I’d had cause to push hard on the servo-assisted anchors when a truck had slowed suddenly and my heart missed several beats. With such limited stopping power, it pays to know the road if you want to go fast.

After another succession of hairpins down the Col du Pillon, we’re close to the secret underground hideaways of several mega car collections. Ferrari connoisseur Albert O’Brist and Bernie Ecclestone used to store classics in this beautiful valley just south of Gstaad. Thankfully Pichler is patient and happily greets us when the sinister black Gullwing roared on to his forecourt.

As the engine and brakes click and cool, he offers us espressos and talks enthusiastically about his various automotive passions but particularly the Lancia Stratos: “Where you went today on the Col de la Croix is my dream drive. I take the Stratos out at six in the morning when the roads are quiet. It’s fantastic. And the sound...”

His family firm has grown from a small garage set up by his father when he moved from northern Italy to a 32-strong staff. So far Pichler has restored seven Gullwings including one of 29 aluminium lightweights. Stored underneath the showroom is a remarkable collection of cars such as a famous black example first owned by American photographer David Douglas Duncan.

Few Gullwings were driven as much as Duncan’s favourite car and epic trips included Russia, where it caused a stir outside the Kremlin, but he also used it to chauffeur his artist friend Pablo Picasso. “The car was stolen twice,” says Pichler. “In Holland he offered SFr12,000 as a reward and, after five weeks, the mafia contacted him saying he could reclaim the car from the border. It was spotless and even his old trench-coat in the back had been cleaned. It’s never been restored and has done more than 450,000km. The smell inside is unique and all the fitted luggage is original. Duncan gifted it to Picasso’s son Claude.”

Elsewhere in the basement is another special Gullwing. Built by AMG in the early ’70s for the Flick family, this tango red, 380bhp V8 -powered grp-bodied one-off is spectacularly fast. “They were major Mercedes shareholders,” says Pichler, “so no one stopped them building it. I once had lots of fun driving it to Modena and back. It’s comfortable and the noise is great.” In ’54 the factory made a prototype with a glassfibre body.

Concerned that we’ll not find a restaurant open if we stay any longer, Pichler directs us to the Grand Hotel Bellevue in Gstaad. Even after a long day, I never tire of the performance of getting into the Gullwing. The only snag in the dark is the raised door. At forehead level, it’s easy to smack into an ally corner if you’re distracted. There are few more elegant cars in which to arrive at such a stylish hotel, but once we’ve scrambled out over the wide sill, the theatre of our arrival turns to farce. Getting those bulky fitted cases out from behind the seats is a challenge – stylish and valuable they might be, but they’re not practical. Leave them in place and it doesn’t look cool stuffing the jumbled contents into plastic bags to take inside this swish foyer.

Knowing that I’m unlikely to ever wake in a five-star Alpine hotel with Gullwing keys at my bedside again encourages me to rise early and I diligently warm the engine before snapper Baker appears. Rather than retrace our previous day’s drive, I steer the Merc towards Saanen and head west along the beautiful Enhaut valley to Chateau d’Oex, otherwise known as the ballooning capital of the world.

Driving through the low mist via Rougemont, Flenduz and Les Granges feels as if we’ve been shrunk into a fantasy toy-train layout. Coincidentally, there are also plenty of classics on the road as we greet VW camper, Fiat 500 and Morgan. We even have our own race with a local train in an attempt to beat it to the cross gates throughout the valley. At Chateau d’Oex we circle the balloon monument and head south again over the Col des Mosses.

It’s still early and the road is clear, other than a few tractors, so we push on. The precise ZF recirculating-ball steering is a real bonus as the road zigzags up to the ski resort of Mosses. With two turns lock-to-lock it’s weighty like most of the Gullwing’s controls but quickly lightens with speed. Over rougher corners, kick-back is nicely suppressed thanks to a hydraulic damper linked to the centre track rod. Despite the big wheel, the action is responsive enough to catch the rear when it’s agitated by the broken hairpin surfaces. Although the ride is excellent, the infamous swing-axle set-up doesn’t cope.

The key is to drive smoothly and avoid any sudden weight transfer. Lift off sharply and it gets ugly as the rear wheels tuck under Triumph Herald-style before the back swings out. Thankfully the warning signs come early – any drama is immediately telegraphed to your lower back as the wheels skid and hop over the pavé. But respect its limitations with a slow entry, fast out approach to bends and the Gullwing is hugely rewarding to drive. Respectful of the car’s value and beauty, I’m not prepared to find its limits with a ravine on one side and rock faces on the other, but we make good time over the pass. Baker braces himself nervously most of the way, so our pace is pretty spirited. Going up is always more rewarding for me and, knowing the car’s braking limitations, I take it more cautiously going down.

We stop for a last coffee in the mountains and the Merc draws locals and tourists like no other car. Even vans and trucks stop just to admire it. Well wouldn’t you if you saw a black Gullwing parked en route to work? Unlike a modern supercar, there’s no stigma of ownership – people just want to study its beauty. Maybe a Miura rivals it for magnetic appeal but, as we prove over some of the greatest Alpine roads, the Gullwing’s allure is total. Little wonder they’re chasing ’50s Ferraris in value.

This summer I met a Bavarian enthusiast who has built a special ramp up into his living room. After a great drive in his Gullwing he motors up into the house, switches off, opens a good wine and settles down to admire it. It takes a special car to inspire such obsession.

Mercedes-Benz 300SL
Sold/number built 1954-’57/1400
Construction tubular steel spaceframe with steel body and aluminium skins
Engine front-mounted iron-block, alloy-head, chain-driven sohc 2996cc straight-six, with Bosch mechanical fuel injection
Max power 215bhp @ 5800rpm
Max torque 228lb ft @ 5000rpm
Transmission four-speed manual, driving rear wheels
Suspension: front double wishbones, coil springs and anti-roll bar rear swing axle, coil springs; telescopic dampers f/r
Steering recirculating ball
Brakes Alfin drums all round, with servo
Length 15ft (4572mm) Width 5ft 10 in (1791mm) Height 4ft 3 in (1302mm)
Wheelbase 7ft 10 in (2400mm)
Weight 3000lb (1361kg)
0-60mph 8.8 secs
Top speed 146mph Mpg 21
Price new £4393 

Did you know?
1. The Gullwing’s drag coefficient was a high 0.425 even with a full undertray. With a 3.25:1 axle ratio, test engineer Arthur Mischke achieved a two-way maximum of 153.5mph on a closed autobahn in ’54, confirming it as the then fastest production car in the world. Several owners took their cars to the Bonneville Speed Trials including Albert Schmidt. After frustrations in 1955, he returned in ’56 and clocked a two-way average of 152mph. In 1959 he fitted a 6.7-litre Chrysler V8 but only managed a one-way run at 167mph.

2. D-B’s first injection was developed from aircraft designs before WW2 for the Type 80 LSR project. Weber carburetion was planned, and rival teams were set up, but by Christmas ’52 injection had won the day with 214bhp at 5960rpm. The beautifully made Bosch pump is essentially a mini six-cylinder engine driven off the crank by an exposed shaft.

3. During hot summer tests on the Grossglöckner, the fuel-injected car developed restarting problems, so an electric pump operated by a dash switch became standard. This flushed the injector plungers with cool fuel and swept out any vapour pockets. Once started the engine ran on just the mechanical pump but the electric unit was still advised for fast driving in hot weather.

4. The 300SL’s dry sump has a capacity of 10 litres and oil should to be changed every 1500 miles. Unused fuel from the early direct injection eventually mixes with the lubricant: a quick check is to smell for petrol on the dipstick.

5. The car made its New York debut with Dunlop Racing rubber, but for production Continental developed fast-road tyres. Tests were carried out on the autobahn in damp and dry weather with prototype tyres hand-cut by Rudy Uhlenhaut’s engineers to get the behaviour they wanted.

6. US East Coast Merc importer Max Hoffman was convinced there was a market for a civilised version of the 300SL racer. His guarantee to buy 500 meant the project got the green light.

7. The Gullwing door was changed three times before production. The first prototype had a handle with a hole for a finger grip; the second was a simple pushbutton. The final design used a flush handle that popped out by thumb pressure.

This article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images.