Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Coupé

The brand presented the super-sportscar in February 1954 – 70 years ago

The upward-opening doors were a striking feature

Spaceframe, outstanding suspension and six-cylinder engine with direct injection

The silver “Gullwing” in the Mercedes-Benz Museum is a most popular photo motif

“Close-up” – the name of this series from the Mercedes-Benz Museum says it all. Each installment tells a surprising, exciting, or behind-the-scenes story, shining a spotlight on the details of a vehicle, an exhibit, or an architectural or design feature.

In the spotlight this time: the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Coupé (W 198) in Legends room 4: Post-war miracle – form and diversity, 1945 to 1960.

No. 1/2024: Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Coupé (W 198)

Star: The silver “Gullwing” with red interior in the Mercedes-Benz Museum is a crowd-puller. Hardly any visitor leaves Legends room 4 without taking at least one picture of this vehicle. Many photograph it from all sides and with all the details. A 300 SL is used to this kind of attention – it has been a dream car since its premiere 70 years ago.

Sensation: New York on 6 February 1954. The International Motor Sports Show opens its doors – and Mercedes-Benz surprises the world public with a completely unexpected car. The brand presents a super-sportscar. Its name: 300 SL. One outstanding feature were the gullwing doors, which were unique in a production vehicle at the time and remain a fascinating detail to this day.

Première: Mercedes-Benz was aware of the significance of the 300 SL, and staged it appropriately. The star stood on a slightly elevated, round pedestal covered with carefully draped fabric. In comparison, the second new product right next to it played a subsidiary role. This was the 190 SL (W 121) – an elegant roadster. Both vehicles were emphatically aimed at the US market. New York was therefore the specifically chosen location for the world premiere.

Racing genes: The basic shape of the 300 SL corresponded to the racing sports car of the same name from 1952, with which Mercedes-Benz made a brilliant return to international motorsport. Mille Miglia, Le Mans 24-hour race, Carrera Panamericana – victories in the world’s most glamorous sports car races were inscribed in the genes of the 1954 production car. The upward-opening doors of the new 300 SL also originated from the racing sports car (W 194). The Coupé variant was given its own model series number, though – it was named the W 198.

Head-turner: The doors were neither a marketing gimmick nor a design fad, but an engineering necessity: like the racing sports car, the 300 SL had a lightweight yet very strong tubular spaceframe under the body. This was comparatively high at the sides, making side apertures with conventional door designs impossible. The upward-opening doors caused a sensation.

Nicknames: The public quickly gave the Coupé a suitable name. The Americans soon called it a “gullwing”, and the French “papillon” (butterfly). Immortal names to this day.

Characteristic feature: The gullwing doors required several detailed design measures. The top-mounted springs were inconspicuous yet essential. They made it easier to swing the doors open, and also held them in the open position – an important comfort feature of the production sports car. The springs were housed in elegant chrome tubes.

Windows: Wind-down windows could not be accommodated. The rectangular windows of the 300 SL were therefore removable and could be transported in the boot. A lever released the retaining mechanism. The fresh air supply was therefore “all or nothing”. There were also small rotating quarterlights to aid ventilation.

Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Coupé

Easy access: Another consequence of the gullwing doors was the steering wheel design – it could be pivoted downwards to allow easier leg access to the footwell. A small lever on the boss unlocked and locked the steering wheel.

Evolution: Despite the pivoting steering wheel, getting into the Coupé was not exactly convenient. This changed when the succeeding model, the 300 SL Roadster, appeared in 1957. This open variant had front-hinged doors. To achieve this, the spaceframe was modified and lowered at the entry points. This frame version can be seen on the “workbench” in Legends room 4.

Clever innovation: The outer door handle was both an attractive and functional detail. Slight pressure on the small protruding part caused the handle to fold out – whereupon a pull made the door swing open. This was both elegant and aerodynamically effective. Today’s Mercedes-Benz models have revisited this principle: they have optional flush-fitting door handles. These extend automatically as soon as the vehicle key is in the immediate vicinity, and retract again as soon as the car is locked or drives off.

Technology: Naturally the W 198 had numerous other features. For example, the outstanding suspension, the almost ideal weight distribution and the innovative six-cylinder engine made it a super-sportscar. It was the world’s first production passenger car to feature a four-stroke injection engine with direct injection.

This innovative mixture formation increased the engine output by around 25 per cent, from the 125 kW (170 hp) of the racing sports car to 158 kW (215 hp). This was good for a top speed of up to 250 km/h – absolutely extraordinary performance in the mid-1950s. Another new feature was the front design with a large centre star.

Enthusiastic reception: The coup succeeded. The “Gullwing” effortlessly attracted customers all over the world in the highly exclusive super-sportscar segment. 1,400 examples of the 300 SL Coupé were produced from 1954 to 1957, followed by the Roadster with a further 1,858 built. Every single 300 SL was already an icon back then – and continues to fascinate to this day.

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