Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing – Defining The Supercar
Friday August 15, 2014
300SL, decode the name and you have figures and letters that denotes an automobile of three liters that is both sporting and light (Sport Leicht). What Mercedes-Benz ended up constructing was a no compromises machine aimed at racing, a showcase of innovative technology, and an inherently flawed car that was dripping with exotic style. Mercedes-Benz had assembled the first supercar.
Defining the term supercar has always been a philosophical debate, and the line between a sports car and supercar can quickly becomes hazy. There has never been an agreed upon single quality that constitutes a true supercar and the definition will always be a combination of many quantitative and qualitative elements. These facets usually fall neatly into two separate buckets of reasoning, a split that creates the core rationalization for the divided and enthusiastic debaters of the subject.
The first bucket of reasoning is bristling with that of a racer’s rationalization; that a supercar should never be as accessible as a sports car. It must transcend not just the meager capabilities of other road going cars, but the capabilities of the driver (no matter how experienced they might be). Impossible to master or tame, a supercar should have absolutely no understanding of practicality or concern for creature comforts. Engineering should drive its development with a culmination of profound technological strengths providing the best solutions to achieve pure performance. No marketing department is needed, because a racer’s supercar does all its talking at the track. This is an uncompromised, yet street legal, racecar.
The flip side of the debate revolves around evoking emotion and how supercars should garner the unbreakable attention of anyone who beholds it. Absurdly powerful, loud and gorgeously designed cars that deliver a sense of occasion; flawed cars that make no apologies for their shortcomings (only adding to their quirky charm). In this rationale, to paraphrase James May, a supercar should give you that fizzing sensation in your pants. An exotic should be dripping with panache.
Supercars following the rubric of either line of reasoning should sit at the top of the manufacture’s product lineup, acting as the halo car or physical embodiment of the brand. A supercar is always bespoke, custom fitted to the owner, exuding a sense of craft and passion. So, how can both sides of the debate get along? A car that can manifest the qualities outlined in both schools of thought is certainly worthy of the supercar classification. Otherwise you are left with just a racecar, or just an exotic. Enter the Mercedes-Benz Gullwing.
3.0L Sport Leicht (sport light), while only the feebleminded would debate the first two claims designated by the 300SL moniker, the third presents a vital reminder that technological advancements are defined and intertwined with a point in time. At 2,888 pounds the 300SL was still considered light in the mid 50s and early 60s, but far from a featherweight even by today’s standards. This relative lightweight holds especially true when compared to the later classic American muscle cars initially labeled “supercar”. Being lightweight may have been a debatable quality of the Gullwing, but its sporting prowess was not. The 300 SL featured direct fuel injection, aluminum body panels, a tubular spaceframe chassis, four-wheel independent suspension, and a 161 mph top speed. Even today, those are rare characteristics to find blended into one car. In 1954, they were nothing short of revolutionary.
These innovations were originally spawned by the desire to go racing. The Mercedes-Benz 300SL W194 was the racing car predecessor of the later road going version that would become internally designated as the W198. In 1952-53 the 300SL W194 racecar experienced phenomenal racing success taking a second and fourth place finish at the Mille Miglia debut. At Le Mans the car delivered a stunning first and second place finish, then a podium sweep (1st, 2nd, 3rd) at the legendary Nürburgring.
Forged in the fires of racing, the production car carried over the same uncompromised design of the W194. It sported a 3.0L inline six-cylinder engine that was canted over at almost 40 degrees; allowing for a stunningly gorgeous and low hood line that was instrumental in increasing aerodynamic efficiency. The trademark gullwing doors were an engineering work around to prevent cutting into the doorsill area and altering the rigid, yet lightweight, tubular chassis underneath. Arguably the most important advancement that the road going 300SL held over the racecar was the introduction of fuel injection; actually direct injection. The Gullwing was the first production car to implement this technology, helping to bump the output of the engine up to around 230 horsepower (vs. 170 in the carbureted racecar). This turned out to be an inherently flawed mechanical injection system that was known to continue to pump fuel during the few cycles it took the engine to come to a complete stop after shutoff. Gasoline would then seep into the engine oil, diluting it. The best solution to this problem . . . drive the car long and hard in order to generate temperatures high enough to burn off, or evaporate, the rogue gasoline. So the car was powerful, light, and brimming with proven racing tech. It was uncompromising with an inherent an unapologetic flaw. It was also drop dead gorgeous. It was a supercar.
The low hood and rearward cab created a striking silhouette that was accentuated by bold fender accents and gills. The bodywork was carefully crafted to achieve the most aerodynamic contourof the time, and in a rare instance of form following function being a good thing, it wasone of the most beautiful cars of all time. Aluminum was heavily used in the construction of the chassis and engine, but a rare 29 cars (of the roughly 1400 sold) were clad in all aluminum body panels. This extensive use of exotic materials was made more impressive by the attention to detail and excellence of craftsmanship. Let’s not forget those doors, those incredible gullwing doors. Sure they were an engineering solution to retain the triangulated tubular alloy chassis, but when opened they generated wonderment in all who witnessed. This was an incredible departure in automotive design that put the 300SL in an orbit all it’s own. Only Ferrari was making cars this stunning.
The 300SL Gullwing is a classic collectors car that will forever embody the merits present on both sides of the debate, a forefather to the modern day supercar. It’s a racing car for the road with a style that commands your attention and inspires awe. It’s the original supercar. Not all will agree, most will argue, and that is the beauty of being a car enthusiast. So, what do you think defines a supercar? What would you pick as the original supercar?
Some manufacturers start as roadcar makers and make racecars, but a select few start as racecar makers and become roadcar makers. Augustus Cesare Bertelli, one of automotive racing history’s only driver, owner and manufacturer combos, was the man that made this transition possible for Aston Martin.
Aston Martin didn’t always make posh exotic cars, they started by making stripped down, single-seat race cars. They had a slow start. Just as founders Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford were finishing their first production car, World War I broke out, and the company’s equipment was sold off to Sopwith Aviation Company when they joined the war effort. They had only made a few racecars up until this point, including the “Razor Blade” seen here.
It wasn’t until 1920 that Aston Martin was refounded with funding Count Louis Zborowski, a racer and engineer himself. For four years they managed to make a few cars and break a few records, but went bankrupt in 1924, was revived once more with nobel money, and then failed yet again in 1925.
Then in 1926 Augustus Bertelli, along with a group of investors, took over. From 1926 to 1937 Bertelli was Aston Martin’s technical director and designer. Also a racer himself, he became one of the few people in racing history to be a driver, owner and manufacturer. The cars made during this era have since been called “Bertelli cars,” because of A.C. Bertelli’s comprehensive influence on the cars’ design and production.
During this time Aston Martin Motors made cars with 1.5 liter engines like the “International”, “T-Type”, “Le Mans”, “MKII”, “Ulster”and a 2 liter racer called the “Super Model”. During this time, road cars became Aston Martin’s focus, and after being financially bailed out a few more times by various English noblemen during the 30′s, this is where their focused remained. That is, until another World War interrupted their production in favor of aircraft parts.
Most of the cars Aston Martin produced during the Bertelli era are considered “Classics” (with a capital “C”) by the Classic Car Club of America (CCCA) because of their exceptional build quality and place in automotive history. Bertelli made true Classic cars, that are still celebrated and raced today. If you’re interested, you can see some of Bertelli’s cars in action at Heacock Classic-sponsored SVRA racing events across the country.
Car companies typically have one flagship performance vehicle, one halo car that far and away tops the rest of their lineup in terms of power and performance. For Toyota it’s the Lexus LFA, Nissan has the GT-R, Volkswagen has the Audi R8, Ford produced the GT and GT40 for limited periods, Chrysler has the Dodge Viper, and GM has the Corvette. Exotic cars that few will buy but many will admire.
This month, Dodge’s Viper was just usurped by with the release of the Dodge Challenger Hellcat. Developing 707 horsepower and 650 lb-ft the Hellcat’s supercharged V8 easily edges out the Viper’s prodigious V-10 that produces “just” 640 horsepower and 600 lb-ft of torque. This got us thinking about other times this might have happened in automotive history, when a souped up muscle car was so unreasonably powerful that it surpassed even the halo car of its brand.
Perhaps most notably, this happened in Chevrolet’s 1970 lineup with the Chevelle LS6. For almost two decades, and for decades after, the Chevrolet Corvette was GM’s pinnacle performance car, with very few exceptions (like in 1983 when the Corvette wasn’t produced at all). However, in 1970 GM only put its mighty LS6 engine in the Chevelle, and for no particularly good reason left it off the Corvette’s option list.
Referred to at the time as “America’s most popular mid-size car,” the Chevelle wasn’t even GM’s second or third most “sporty” car. It was in many ways just a performance trim of the Malibu. But in 1970, none of that mattered, GM had a tuned 454 big-block and they were going to shove it in something. GM claimed it produced only 450 bhp, but most experts agree its actual output was even north of that, closer to 500 bhp. Mind-bending amounts of power could be tacked onto an affordable midsized car for a little over $1,000 in options.
On modern tires, a stock Chevelle LS6 can run the quarter mile in the 12-second range. The insanity of the LS6′s power wasn’t lost on the car critics of the day: Car Life Magazine wrote of the LS6 “Without even raising the specters of insurance and social justice, it’s fair to say that the Supercar as we know it may have gone as far as it’s going.” Which proved to be a fairly accurate forecast for the 70′s and 80′s.
The following year, Chevy returned balance to the universe and made the LS6 an option on the Corvette and quietly dropped it from the Chevelle’s option sheet, perhaps hoping no one would notice. As you can see below and from the ads of the day for the 1970 Chevelle, Chevy doesn’t even mention the LS6 option, perhaps embarrassed by just how much power they had put in it, or more likely, didn’t want to cast a shadow on their halo car, the Corvette. One thing’s for sure, though, car collectors of today have taken notice of this trim. A good-condition 1970 Chevelle LS6 convertible’s value is into the six-figure range these day.
There has been a lot of fanfare about the 50th anniversary of the Ford Mustang this year, but the Mustang wasn’t the only great American classic car introduced in 1964. This was also the year that the Pontiac GTO and Plymouth Barracuda were introduced. Talk about a vintage year!
Before John DeLorean got into the stainless-steel-bodied-gull-winged-kinda-sports-car business, he was Pontiac’s chief engineer and eventually became the division’s head. Perhaps his greatest achievement while he was there was the creation of the GTO, a.k.a. “The Goat,” a.k.a. “The Tiger,” a.k.a “The Judge.”
In 1963 GM completely withdrew from its involvement with auto racing, which had up until that point been a driving force behind Pontiac’s sales success. Determined to nonetheless preserve Pontiac’s performance reputation, DeLorean spearheaded the GTO (stands fo Gran Turismo Omologato in Italian, which means Grand Tourer Homologated in English) through development.
While the name didn’t entirely fit, the GTO was is a seminal figure in the world of muscle cars, and paved the way for a slew of muscle cars that would follow. It was essentially a Pontiac LeMans/Tempest, with most of its important performance bits substantially upgraded.
Very much a car of its time The GTO was only produced for 10 years. By 1974, the idea of a GTO (which could also practically mean Gasoline Total Obliterater) just wasn’t as appealing to the car buying public as it had been before the 1973 energy crisis. The GTO badge was recycled in 2004 onto a captive import from GM’s Australian Holden Division. Unfortunately Pontiac was already in its final death throws, and the modern GTO, while still popular among some enthusiast was too little too late. Based on an old but venerable Holden platform, the GTO was already essentially at the end of its life cycle by the time it made it to the US.
The Barracuda’s origins are very different from the GTO’s, but both models ended up in similar places by 1974 when they coincidentally were both discontinued. Predating the release of the Mustang by two weeks, the Barracuda wasn’t initially envisioned as a brutish muscle car, but a sporty compact car, very much what is described as a “pony car.” It was originally based on the Plymouth Valiant. 10 years of development turned a demure little fastback with a wrap-around rear window into a wide, powerful gran coupe and convertible.
In 1970 Plymouth made a radical departure from the Barracuda’s Valiant-based origins, and moved to the same platform that the Dodge Charger was using at the time (though the Charger’s wheelbase was a bit longer). Once thought of as a compact economy car, Plymouth obliterated this image in 1970 with massive V8′s and carburetors which gleefully poured gas into them.
Today, the Barracuda is a highly sought-after collector’s car, especially the ’70-’74 E-bodies. With only 11 ever built, the 1971 HemiCuda convertibles have done particularly well in auctions recently fetching as much as $2 million.
Both of these American Classics while only seeing 10 years of production, are just the same great pieces of automotive design and history. In the hullabaloo surrounding the birth of the Mustang, we’d be remiss not to mention these other great muscle cars that came from 1964.
This Friday marks the 4th official Collector Car Appreciation Day. With events happening all over the US, this Friday is a great day to take your collector car for a cruise. Heacock Classic encourages everyone who is passionate about the hobby of restoring or collecting automobiles to attend one of these events or at least take their favorite classic car out on the road for the public to enjoy.
According to the US Senate resolution that first officially recognized Collector Car Appreciation Day, the day is all about “recognizing that the collection and restoration of historic and classic cars is an important part of preserving the technological achievements and cultural heritage of the United States.” A cause that we couldn’t possibly agree more with, and one of the many reasons our classic car insurance covers pleasure use of your car.