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How on-track successes gave birth to Mercedes-Benz's timeless beauty, the 300 SL Gullwing

2020-07-11 07:30

Ferdi de Vos

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Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing (Getty Images)

• 300 SL Gullwing has its roots in Formula 1.

• Personalities such as Sophia Loren owned a Gullwing.

• Gullwing can easily reach R20-million on auction.

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This past weekend, the Mercedes Formula 1 team celebrated its first race (and first victory) in the F1 Championship nearly seven decades ago by winning the Austrian Grand Prix.

Valtteri Bottas crossed the line first, followed by team mate Lewis Hamilton, but the defending champ was demoted from second to fourth in the general standings due to a penalty.

On the same date 66 years ago, the Mercedes-Benz racing team made its debut in the new F1 series at the 1954 French Grand Prix held at Reims in the Champagne region - precisely 40 years after the triple Mercedes victory in the 1914 French Grand Prix in Lyon.

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Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing (Daimler Benz Classic)

Powerful successor

Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio won the 61-lap race in 1954 with German team mate Karl Kling finishing as runner-up, less than a second behind Fangio, in his first F1 race. It was also the debut race for the Mercedes W196 race car with its straight-8 fuel-injection engine, and so dominant was its performance that the third-placed car finished a lap down.

The powerful successor to the W194, in the hands of Fangio, Hans Herrmann, Kling, Hermann Lang, and later Stirling Moss, won 9 of 12 races entered and captured the only two world championships in which it competed. Interestingly, it still is the only closed-wheel car in F1 history to win championship races, and it also gave birth to the legendary 3.0-litre 300 SLR, built for the 1955 World Sportscar Championship season.

So, what has this to do with the illustrious 300 SL? Well, while derived from the W194 (only ten were built exclusively for racing), it was the combination of technologies used in this model. The next car, the W196, ensured the Mercedes team's dominance in F1 and long-distance races, as well as secured the iconic status of the 300 SL W198 Gullwing road car.

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Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing (Getty Images)

Gullwing wonder

The two-seat sports car, produced from 1954 as a gullwing coupe and roadster, was inspired by Max Hoffman, the authorised Mercedes-Benz importer in the United States at the time, who predicted a massive uptake of such a car in the United States. The 300 SL was launched in February 1954 at the International Motor Sports Show in New York.

With mechanical direct fuel-injection for its 3.0-litre straight-6 overhead cam engine, the SL (it stands for 'super light') was capable of reaching a top speed of over 260km/h. Besides, an exemplary racing record, it was also the fastest production road car of its time.

Auto, Motor und Sport magazine rated it as the "most accomplished and fascinating sports car of our age - a dream of a car", and this assessment has not changed to this day.

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Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing (Daimler Benz Classic)

Most desirable

Besides being adjudged by an international jury as the "Sports Car of the Century" in December 1999, the 300 SL Gullwing was again recognised in the prestigious 2020 Motor Klassik Awards in Germany as the most desirable sports car in the period from 1927 to 1966 – with 29.4% of readers' votes in the category for Classic Sports Cars.

Over 80% of total production (about 1400 vehicles) were sold in the US, and the 300 SL was instrumental in changing the image of Mercedes-Benz in America from a manufacturer of solid, yet staid luxury vehicles to one capable of developing appealing high-performance sports cars. 

Numerous celebrities have owned the desirable coupe, including Juan Manuel Fangio, Pablo Picasso, Romy Schneider, Clark Gable, Paul Newman, Yul Brynner and Bernie Ecclestone. The example owned by one of its most glamorous proprietors, Italian film actress and icon Sophia Loren, is now being refurbished by the renowned German restoration group HK-Engineering.

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Sophia Loren with her 300 SL Gullwing (Daimler Benz Classic)

Timeless car, timeless beauty

Although Loren owned various luxury cars, the numerous images of her with the Gullwing show her great affinity for this car, in which she often coquettishly posed. Loren received the car from her husband, the famous Italian film producer Carlo Ponti, in 1955. He wanted a car that replicated her timeless beauty – and found it in the sleek and elegant 300 SL Coupe. 

To this day the similarities between Loren and the 300 SL is clear to see, from the graceful curves to the strong temperament, and some say even the open gullwing doors are somewhat reminiscent of her characteristic eyebrows. The vehicle previously had owners in Italy and the USA before it was shipped back to Europe and sold to a collector in Sweden.

The car, with the registration 237421-Roma, was transferred to Ponti's company Artisti Tecnici Associati in October 1955. It has survived the past decades well without refurbishment, and while still in good original condition, it is currently undergoing a careful restoration at HK-Engineering. 

Another commonality between Loren and the 300 SL is their legendary style and class. As such, the Gullwing is a much sought-after collector's car and a sound investment; with good examples nowadays trading for more than R20-million. Interestingly, a rare aluminium-bodied example (only 29 were built) was auctioned off for a cool R75-million!

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