The Birth of a Legend: The Mercedes SL-Class

The Mercedes SL-Class is and will forever be a motoring icon.  It’s also one of my favorite automotive stories of all time.  A car born out of racing pedigree, transformed into road going art-on-wheels and continually re-designed over 5 generations of SL’s with each becoming a benchmark for this segment.  Though it may seem like a flawlessly executed plan, the SL almost didn’t make it into production.  

The story begins in 1951 when a war-shaken Mercedes built a stunningly beautiful racing machine—dubbed the 300SL for the 3.0L, inline 6-cylinder engine it used—with the goal of bringing Mercedes back into the motorsport arena and ultimately winning Le Mans.  Among its most notable characteristics was its breath taking shape and unique gullwing doors, both of which were the results of some incredible engineering.   The light-weight, aluminum built body was designed to have an incredibly low drag coefficient while the doors were a result of a tubular space frame chassis, which gave the car incredible strength and rigidity but made conventional doors impossible.  These characteristics, along its powerful 175hp engine allowed Mercedes-Benz to achieve its goal of winning Le Mans in 1952.  Not only did they take first and second place, but they did so with a record breaking average speed of 155.575 Kph.

Engine mounted at angle to lower center of gravity
1952 Le Mans: First and Second

Thanks to Max Hoffman—an importer who many credit with the early success of European motorcars in USA after WWII—this would not be the end of the SL’s story.  After being invited to attend a meeting with the board of directors of Mercedes in 1953, Max requested that they build a street legal version of the winning Le Mans car, assuring them that it would be a commercial success—especially in the booming post-war American economy.  He further persuaded Daimler AG management by guaranteeing that he alone would purchase a minimum of 1000 units.   Hoffman also suggested an alternate version of the 300SL, which would retain some of the iconic styling and sporty characteristics of the 300 but at a lower cost.  Mercedes agreed and the production 300 and 190SL would be unveiled at the 1954 New York Auto Show with public offerings made available in early 1955.

1954 NY Auto Show

The production 300SL would be a feat of modern engineering and a design that would forever leave its mark on the industry.  Featuring the same iconic ‘gullwing’ doors and profile as the race car on which it was based, Mercedes continued to improve upon the design with the consumer in mind.  The result was a car that was dizzyingly gorgeous.  Moreover, relying on a modified version of the 3.0L racing engine, the 300SL was able to hit a top speed of ~160 MPH, making it the fastest production car at the time.  And, the independent suspension lifted from its racing cousin meant that the beautiful body and all that power could go round corners with relative precision—a characteristic that was not shared by many other cars during this time.  

Anyone looking to buy a 300SL would need quite a sizeable check book as it would set you back roughly $11,000 at its initial offering in 1955, though the price would later be reduced to about $7,500 after achieving production efficiencies (around $95k/$65k in 2012 dollars).  That said, with only about 1400 of these ultra-beautiful automotive specimens produced between 1955 and 1957, they currently fetch anywhere from $700,000-$4,000,000 depending the car and its condition. 

After realizing the somewhat impractical nature of these ‘gullwing’ cars (they were exceptionally toasty while driving due to poor ventilation and difficult to get in and out of), Mercedes ceased production in ‘57 in favor of building a roadster version of the 300SL for the more refined, gentleman motorist.  This roadster maintained the gorgeous shape of the original 300SL but utilized a different chassis structure to allow the fitment of more conventional doors.  There were also improvements made to the engine, braking system and suspension, which gave the car enhanced performance.  This SL’s price once again spiked back up to the $11,000 mark and as a result only about 1858 units were produced between 1958 and 1963.  

Those with slightly less means can thank Max Hoffman for dreaming up the 190SL, which was a fantastic alternative to its pricier big brother.  While it shared a great deal of styling cues with the 300, the rest of the cars underpinnings were changed in order to make it more affordable and drivable on a daily basis.  Its chassis and suspension were transplanted from the 180-series, which enabled the car to have conventional doors and a more comfortable ride.  A new 1.9L engine was developed specifically for this car with an output rating of 120hp.  All of these changes added up to a price of $3,998 for a soft-top only model or $4,295 with the optional hard top when it went on sale in 1955 (about $34,500/$37,000 in 2012 dollars).  With such beautiful styling, sporty ride and such a reasonable price (compared to the 300SL), the 190 sold a staggering 25,881 units during its production from 1955-1963.  

There is so much that I really like about this story.  First and foremost would certainly be how the production car came to be.  It was the vision of an incredible company with one purpose and the mission one man who saw its potential as a production car.  Both parties put a lot on the line, Mercedes for producing a “less than practical” car at a ridiculous price point and Max for agreeing to order 1000 of them before Mercedes even agreed to produce it.   It also shows how great ideas can come from anywhere.  Max had his fingers on the pulse of the market and thus really was able to understand why this car would be such a success.    Lastly, I love how this car was not ruined by the production process.  So often we see breath taking concept cars that captivate the hearts and minds of consumers, only to be destroyed in its transition from concept to production car.  I understand that car companies must make a profit and to some extent consumer products need to have a hint of practicality but sometimes we must be guided by our senses and visceral reactions; we need to build stunningly beautiful, amazing and impractical things.  All in all, I pray nightly that I might one day be graced with the opportunity to drive either a 300 or 190, for they truly are a beautiful part of motoring history.

As I mentioned above, this is only part 1 of the story so check back for part 2: 1963-1971 and the SL Pagoda.


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