Sophia Loren’s 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL ‘Gullwing’ W198
This Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing belonged to none other than film legend Sophia Loren. Massimo Delbò delves into its stellar history. Colour photography courtesy of HK Engineering Archive Getty Images.
SOPHIA LOREN’S GULLWING
Drives TODAY delves into a 300 SL’s stellar history
When two stars collide
It is difficult to imagine the extent of destruction and poverty that Italy had suffered by the end of the Second World War. With so little available for the family dining table, survival was all. Yet there was an admirable willingness to work hard and an unstoppable hope for a better future. In Germany, the situation was similar. Its industry had been obliterated and many of its cities flattened by years of bombing; meanwhile, the whole country faced close inspection to make sure its past didn’t become part of its future.
Amid the rubble and debris was one of Germany’s greatest symbols of pre-war power: Daimler-Benz, with its Mercedes commercial brand. Instead of buildings full of Kompressor cars and racing Silver Arrows, its workers returned from the war to Sindelfingen and found piles of bricks. Most surviving machinery was gone, headed east on trains to Russia. While management worked on a recovery plan, workers cleaned up the premises with bare hands, shovels and wheelbarrows. Then they offered their mechanical expertise to the US Army and, in the less damaged warehouses, started servicing military trucks.
‘Ms Loren finished some way behind. Judging by her smiles, she didn’t seem to have cared too much’
Even the most optimistic observer would have been astonished to see, only five years later, those same works producing a world-beating car that today, 70 years on, is still considered one of the greatest symbols of style and advanced technology.
‘It was widely used by one of the most beautiful women who ever existed’
Meanwhile, in equally unlikely circumstances, another legend was in the making in Italy. Sofia Costanza Brigida Villani Scicolone was born in Rome in 1934 and grew up in the down-at-heel outskirts of Naples. Aged 15, she entered the Regina del Mare (Queen of the Sea) beauty contest in Chiaia, on the city’s waterfront, though she didn’t win. Instead, she won the ‘Miss Cinema’ trophy and used her prize money to go to Rome – where she became far better known as Sophia Loren.
Her dreams of becoming an actress began with beauty contests and small roles, but within a year she’d established herself and appeared in 15 movies. In 1951 came the encounter that would change her life: during a beauty contest, film producer Carlo Ponti, 22 years her elder, spotted the young lady and, after a short meeting the following day, offered her a seven-year contract. Their love story began shortly after and in 1957 they got married, before spending the rest of their lives together. In 1953 she played the role of Cleopatra in the Italian production Two nights with Cleopatra; in 1954 came her first movie under the direction of Vittorio De Sica, L’oro di Napoli (‘The Gold of Naples’); and in 1955 La Bella Mugnaia (‘The Miller’s Beautiful Wife’), her first Alongside Marcello Mastroianni, who would become one of her preferred partners on screen and a friend in her private life. She was a star, with her 21-year-old face on the cover of Life magazine in 1955, the first of many as she embarked on a career in Hollywood, where she would act with Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne and William Holden. In 1960, for her role in Two Women, she secured the cover of Time magazine and 22 international awards, including the Cannes Film Festival Best Performance prize, an Academy Award for Best Actress, and the Oscar for Best Leading Actress. Sophia Loren had arrived.
In 1955, Sophia Loren received a special present from her boyfriend Carlo. ‘He presented me with a new car in our garden at home,’ remembers Ms Loren. ‘It was a Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing – with the doors open.’
The W198 300 SL can be seen as the symbol of German post-war resurrection. After its tentative re-start, Mercedes-Benz gradually regained its position as the leading marque in car manufacturing. As early as May 1946 it had begun assembling utilitarian vehicles, with 214 built by the end of the year, all derived from the prewar W136 170 V series. The manufacture of passenger cars began again in July 1947, with 1045 cars leaving the production line in the following six months and output building in scale over the next six years.
This new-found revenue, and the desire to fulfil the needs of an emerging business class, led to the 1951 launch of the W186 300 ‘Adenauer’ – the equivalent of today’s S-class. The 300 was equipped with a brand-new 115bhp overhead-cam straight-six with an aluminium head, fuelled by twin downdraught Solex carburettors and paired with a full-synchromesh four-speed gearbox.
The M186 engine was built for durability and reliability, with deep water jackets, thermostatically controlled oil cooling, copper-lead bearings, a hardened crankshaft and an innovative diagonal head-to-block joint that allowed for larger intake and exhaust valves.
Even more ambitiously, it was during this period that Mercedes-Benz decided to get back into motor racing, too, hoping to replicate its pre-war success.Chief engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut, already considered the technical father of the pre-war Mercedes Grand Prix cars, had led passenger car development since 1949 and was known for being as fast as the racing drivers of the works team. However, he was too precious to the company for his life to be risked in competition and, confined to the drawing office, he penned its new racing weapon: the 300 SL, internal code number W194.
This sleek coupé, which made its debut in the 1952 Sports Car Championship, sported several innovative solutions, most notably a welded tubular aluminium alloy spaceframe atop a steel platform, two small ‘gullwing’ doors (necessary because the sides of the spaceframe were too deep to accommodate conventional doors), and independent suspension all-round. Power came from the 3.0-litre engine of the Adenauer, fuelled by three two-barrel Solex carburettors, and tilted at 50° in order to squeeze under the low bonnet of the new bodywork.
Success obviously beckoned: the new racer won almost everything it entered, most famously the 24 Hours of Le Mans and Carrera Panamericana. Its career was short, though: the eight-cylinder, fuel-injected 300 SLR made its debut in 1954. When the 300 SL was retired in 1953, a new version was designed with fuel injection and rear mounted transaxle gearbox, though it was never intended to enter production. Its fate changed, however, when one of the ten W194s built was lent to American importer Max Hoffman for some promotional activity.
Public reaction was phenomenal. Hoffman, a man with enormous influence inside Mercedes thanks to his success in selling its cars into the American market, pushed the board to approve series production of the 300 SL – and backed his request with an order for 1000 of them! The roadgoing version, codenamed W198, became the last Mercedes design to use a separate body (even if it was some way removed from traditional coachbuilding techniques), and was equipped with the fuel-injected 3.0-litre engine. It arrived in 1954 and was an immediate success, with 1400 built in coupé form.
Its bonnet, doors, dashboard and bootlid were made of aluminium and, to make getting in and out easier, its gullwing doors – which characterised the car, lent it its name, and made it one of the most iconic of Mercedes – were wider and longer than the racer’s. The most prolific year of 300 SL production was 1955, with 855 built.
Among those, the one gifted to Sophia Loren was chassis 198.040.5500789, body number A198.040.5500768, and engine number 198.980.5500823, delivered on 11 October 1955 to M Marescalchi SpA, the Italian Mercedes-Benz importer and dealer for Rome and Lazio. Its certificate of conformity (the official document required to register a car in Italy) was released by the manufacturer on 15 October, in order that the 300 SL could be registered in the name of its first owner, and the Roma 237421 numberplate released on 28 October. The car was finished in Silver Metallic DB 180 with blue leather (Type 333) upholstery.
This is what was waiting, with its doors open, in Ms Loren’s garden. Her car was formally registered in the name of Società ATA Artisti Tecnici Associati (Produzione Cinematografica SrL), the snappily named film production company owned by Ms Loren’s husband Carlo Ponti, but, as plenty of period photos (including those in this feature) and films testify, it was widely used by one of the most important actresses – and one of the most beautiful women – who ever existed. It had a declared value of 5,400,000 Italian lira, about €82,000 (£74,000) in today’s money. The average salary in Italy then was around 45,000 Lire per month, so this sum represents ten years of a typical income and would have bought a large apartment in central Rome.
The most famous moments of Ms Loren’s ownership were publicised by Mercedes-Benz’s own PR department, including her participation in the III Rallye del Cinema, a three-day, 1000km regularity trial starting from Rome on 13 April 1956. The first stint took the drivers – all famous stars in the movies or on television – through Siena via Montecatini Terme and Varese to finish in Sanremo, with a glamorous gala dinner in the winter garden of the city’s famous casino. The overall winner was Italian actor Alberto Sordi (in his Alfa Romeo Giulietta), with Ms Loren finishing quite some way behind. Judging by her smiles at the award ceremony, she didn’t seem to have cared too much.
Ms Loren’s association with the car ended later that year. It was sold on 10 December 1956 to Mr Troa Rolando, a wealthy professional of Tivoli, Rome, for a declared value of 3,000,000 Italian Lire. He sold the car in September 1958 for a declared value of 1,500,000 Lire to a personal company, Sacma di Alvigni & C SAS of Rome. A new numberplate (Mi 612971) was issued when the fourth owner, Mr Pico Giuseppe Maria of Milan, bought the car in December 1961 for a declared sum of 700,000 Lire. He sold it on in April 1962 to New York-born Corradini Viviani Arthur of Milan, for a declared value of 400,000 Lire.
Corradini was a renowned exotic car dealer, buying cars in Europe and shipping them to the USA, and the car passed through several different American owners, all unaware of its early history, before it returned to Europe in the early 2000s. It went first to a Swedish collector before being bought by the Swiss Mercedes-Benz collector Daniel Iseli, in early 2019. He was well aware of the car’s past and asked Gullwing specialist HK Engineering to take care of his new purchase.
‘The early idea was to do a very conservative series of works,’ says Hans Kleiss, the ‘HK’ of HK Engineering. ‘We always prefer to preserve more than to restore. At a quick glance, the car appeared to be in decent condition but, when we started working on it, we realised that the body had already been repaired in several areas, not always with due care, and that during its life the car had suffered at least three accidents, from which the damage at the rear was the worst. To fix it correctly meant detaching the body from the chassis. The interior was not original, having been retrimmed in the 1980s, and the engine and drivetrain needed overhauling, so we agreed with the owner to proceed with a complete restoration.’
The only major issue faced by the HK team was timing, as the car was supposed to go to The Ice event in St Moritz the following February – only four months away at the time. Everything was arranged for this fabled 300 SL Gullwing to be reunited with its first owner. And then Covid hit, depriving us of the pleasure of seeing this amazing meeting more than six decades after their last encounter. It would have been great to find out whether the legend is true that the 300 SL Gullwing’s doors, when open, resemble the eyebrows of Sophia Loren.
THANKS TO HK Engineering, hk-engineering.com.
1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL ‘Gullwing’ W198
- Engine 2996cc OHC straight-six, dry sump, Bosch mechanical fuel injection
- Max Power 222bhp @ 5800rpm
- Max Torque 202lb ft @ 4900rpm
- Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
- Steering Recirculating ball
- Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
- Rear: swing axles, coil springs, telescopic dampers
- Brakes Finned alloy drums
- Weight 1310kg
- Top speed 146mph
- 0-60mph 8.2sec
This page and opposite Following the restoration work, Ms Loren’s Gullwing now looks exactly as it did when it was presented to her in her garden by Carlo Ponti in 1955.
This page and opposite Although the Gullwing looked superficially sound, it was soon found that accident damage meant the body needed to come off the frame and that the non-original interior needed to be retrimmed.
This page and opposite Mercedes-Benz was keen to promote Ms Loren’s life with the Gullwing, including her participation in the III Rallye del Cinema, a regularity rally for film stars held in 1956.
Top left and below: Ms Loren and the late Carlo Ponti – they remained married until his death in 2007; evolution of the Gullwing with, from right, the W194 ‘Uhlenhaut’ Coupé, W198 prototype, production W198, and the eight-cylinder 300 SLR.