1957 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadster W198 II
If you had to provide a list of the ten most beautiful cars ever made – you would be absolutely spoiled for choice. Hell, pick up any issue of Retromotive and you would be shuffling, salivating, then re-shuffling some more, probably changing your list several times before reluctantly handing over your final cut. Our lists would most likely reflect the motorsport we follow, the posters on our walls as kids, or even the cars our relatives tinkered with on the weekend. Philosopher David Hume once said: “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; each mind perceives a different beauty.”
While subjective beauty is validated daily, there have been a few vehicles over the history of the automobile which has flipped this theory on its head – cars which are so exquisite that their beauty becomes objective, defying the ageing process, and making it onto most people’s “top ten”. One such car is the Mercedes-Benz 300SL W198.
BEAUTY IS NO QUALITY IN THINGS THEMSELVES: IT EXISTS MERELY IN THE MIND WHICH CONTEMPLATES THEM; EACH MIND PERCEIVES A DIFFERENT BEAUTY
The foundation of the project was the extremely successful 1952 race car, the W194; that brought Daimler-Benz’s return to motorsport – following the devastation of World War II. The car had numerous international victories, including Le Mans and the Nürburgring: overcoming the more powerful Jaguars and Ferraris – largely due to its lighter weight and more aerodynamic bodywork. This combination made it the perfect car for high-speed endurance racing, and what American Importer, Max Hoffman – inspirator of the ‘Gullwing’ – thought would also be the perfect basis for a road-going sports car in the booming post-war America. The 300SL (Sport-Leicht or Super-Leicht) made its debut to much fanfare at the 1954 New York Auto Show – controversially, bucking the trend of launching at either Frankfurt or Geneva. Of the initial 1,400 300SL ‘Gullwing’ Coupes, 1,100 found homes in US!
With more power than the W194 race car (thanks to a world-first Bosch fuel-injection system and a future-esque gullwing door design), the 300SL Coupe became an overnight sensation. Bizarrely, the car’s beauty was more a byproduct of the tubular chassis derived from the W194, rather than a pure expression of automotive design. Constructed from various chrome-molybdenum tubes, the frame was extremely strong and light at 181 pounds; but due to the abnormal shape of the structure, gullwing doors were a necessity to enable occupants to navigate the side panels. To continue the super-light ethos, Mercedes used aluminium on the doors, bonnet, and boot lid: resulting in a curbweight of only 3300 pounds. This lightweight streamlined body, coupled with the 240-horsepower 3.0-liter straight-six engine, was enough to propel the 300SL to a then-record 163 miles per hour.
Sales of the car began tapering around mid-1956, so Mercedes decided to look to the west coast for inspiration: and, in 1957, debuted the California-slanted convertible 300SL Roadster. Swapping out the gullwing design for conventional doors, and with a redesigned space-frame chassis: The Roadster became a much more usable daily driver without compromising those stunning aesthetics. Over the next six years, Mercedes-Benz would go on to sell 1,858 300SL Roadsters; with the final 94 cars rolling off the production line in 1963. The Roadster very quickly became the car to own, with the likes of Elvis Presley and Sophia Loren leading a long list of celebrity customers. One celebrity (or celebrity family, rather) was none other than jewelry royalty, Tiffanys. They purchased one of the last 300SL Roadsters, in 1963, with Uni Black paint; and the car now lives out its days in the German countryside.
Pascal Stephan (Head of Sales at the distinguished Mercedes-Benz Specialists, Mechatronik) is one of the lucky ones who sees this car daily – and the privilege is not lost on him. He said: “I can’t tell you that much about our mind-blowing 300SL Roadster, but the fact that this car is still in its full-original condition is insane. The color combination and the way it drives make it the best car I could ever imagine driving (and I drive a lot of cars in my life!). This is simply one of the most beautiful cars ever built and is also beautiful to drive. All the Ferrari 250s may also look very beautiful; but, if you are taller than an Italian of the mid-1950s or 1960s, it is impossible to drive them!”
With prices of both versions of the 300SL now in the millions, this car has resonated with so many people across the world. He said: “The 300SL was simply a milestone in automotive history in my eyes. The technology at the time was years above; the driving performance was outstanding; and, of course, its appearance on the road makes it one of the coolest cars ever built. Also, all the glamour which comes with it because of the famous names who owned one makes it legendary.”
From the finned drum brakes to the elegant eyebrows hovering above the wheel arches, it does not matter which leaf you turn: the 300SL has an abundance of class. Usually, when you start talking to owners of vehicles this age, you begin to uncover design faults or gremlins, but when asked what Pascal would change about his Roadster, he revealed himself to be surprisingly smitten. “On this car, nothing has to be changed – it is simply perfect. Maybe it would be cool to have some more space behind the seat, so you could get a bit more legroom for the driver, in case you are taller than [six foot]. But, apart from that, this is the perfect car.”
It is still difficult to fathom the almost accidental attractiveness of the 300SL. While I would not go as far as to say that the Roadster’s beauty is effortless – there was certainly some fortunate ease about how its elegant body wrapped around what was originally a purposeful race-focused skeleton. For Mercedes-Benz (at least until the Le Mans tragedy of 1955), the 1950s was a golden era. Stirling Moss set a Mille Miglia record in his SLR; Juan Manuel Fangio was devastating in the World Drivers’ Championship; and the company had barely finished re-building its factories before selling out pre-orders here; the 300SL was the Tiffany jewel in its crown. Many enthusiasts still believe that the first supercar was the Lamborghini Miura, but maybe the 300SL deserves that title: it was purely a racer until Max Hoffman convinced Daimler-Benz to create a road-going version for 1954; and, even more remarkably, the roadcar boasted an increase in power over the racer! Therefore, the 300SL unequivocally lives up to the hype, transcends subjectivity, and secures its place among the greatest sports cars of all time.
ON THIS CAR, NOTHING HAS TO BE CHANGED – IT IS SIMPLY PERFECT