The Mercedes-Benz 300SL coupe is never out of the spotlight for long. And for good reason – it remains one of the most acclaimed automobiles ever built. Now, though, marks a special moment for the model – for on 6 February 70 years ago, the 300SL debuted at the New York International Automobile Show.
Now a centrepiece of any car collection fortunate enough to have one, the 300SL was a sports car ahead of its time. Known for its hallmark gullwing doors, extraordinary power, and technological advancement, it remains among the most acclaimed automobiles ever built. And, as is often the case when it comes to European cars of the 1950s, we have Max Hoffman to thank for its existence.
The 300SL was a direct descendant of the Mercedes-Benz W194 race car that won the Carrera Panamericana and 24 hours of Le Mans in 1952. Hoffman, an influential US importer who was responsible for popularising European cars in America, convinced the Stuttgart automaker that the German sports car would be met by an eager American market. He was right – so right, in fact, that seven decades later a 1954–57 300SL coupe has an average value of almost seven figures, even in #4 (Fair) condition. When new, the car sold for £4,393 (equal to about £100,000 today).
When unveiled at the 1954 International Motor Sports Show in New York, the Mercedes-Benz 300SL (W198) was applauded for its elegance and innovation. Powered by a water-cooled 3.0-litre overhead cam straight-six engine, it was the world’s first four-stroke production passenger car to be equipped with output- and efficiency-enhancing direct fuel injection. With 215 horsepower, the 300SL had a top speed of 155 mph, making it the fastest production car of its day.
The 300SL’s unforgettable styling was dictated by its engineering: the lightweight coupe’s rigid 50 kg space frame supported the engine, transmission, and axles, but left no room for conventional doors. That resulted in the 300SL’s most distinctive feature – upswinging doors that hinged at the top and, when open, gave the look of a bird extending its wings. The car almost immediately gained the nickname “Gullwing” throughout the media and with the public, although Mercedes-Benz never calls it that. In fact, the original hand-typed manual referred to the doors as “trap doors.”
While the gullwing doors look impressive when open, getting into the 300SL is a little more difficult than a car with standard doors. The driver and passenger have to sit on the sill and swing their legs inside before sliding onto the seat. Regardless, buyers seemed to consider it a minor inconvenience.
To gain publicity for the new 300SL, Hoffman turned to one of his regular customers, racing driver Briggs Cunningham, to purchase the first one (serial number 198 040 4500003) from his showroom.
The car has changed hands three times since Cunningham bought it, the last time in 2013 when it was purchased by Dennis Nicotra.
“It’s the greatest car, and I love it, and most people that have them love them,” Nicotra says in the above Hagerty video featuring the car. “But it’s about as impractical as you’d ever want it to be. When you see what it takes to get in and out of this car, it’s quite a chore… but driving it, it feels great, it looks great, it performs exceptionally well. They’re just a joy.”
They also draw plenty of attention.
“This is such a great car to own,” Nicotra says. “No matter where I go, people stop and ask about it.”
The market for the 300SL coupes, of which approximately 1400 were built, generally remains strong, although it does fluctuate. Last month, Barrett-Jackson’s annual Scottsdale auction yielded the dramatic sale of a 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SL for $3.41 million, the highest amount ever paid for a 300SL steel-bodied coupe. That sale may have been an outlier though, according to John Wiley, Hagerty manager of valuation analytics.
“Generally, the 300SL market is becoming more sophisticated, as values for cars with great provenance are pulling ahead of those without,” Wiley says. “Oftentimes, that means unrestored and only one or two owners from new. The 300SL Gullwing auctioned by Barrett-Jackson was restored by a model expert, but it only has a partial ownership history. Yes, the 300SL market is improving, but we’ve often seen how Barrett-Jackson’s prime-time audience produces unrepeatable prices, and this concours restoration 300SL is one of the latest examples.”
Though that record sale might not be indicative of the 300SL market as a whole, it’s a shining reminder of how the car always finds its way back into the spotlight.
“The 300SL played an important role … [and] really showed the best of what Mercedes-Benz could offer,” says Michael F. Kunz, manager of Mercedes-Benz Classic Center USA. “… It is Mercedes-Benz.”