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Thread: Mercedes-Benz SL series (1954-present)

  1. #1
    Vulture of The Western World Eric's Avatar
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    Mercedes-Benz SL series (1954-present)

    Memory Lane: Mercedes-Benz SL series (1954-present)
    By Eric Peters
    for immediate release

    Mercedes SLs, like any other noble line, trace their antecedents back to a single great forbear. That illustrious ancestor was, of course, the 300SL coupe -- known just as well to enthusiasts by its more familiar name, "Gullwing." This car established the ongoing dynasty of SL-series coupes and roadsters, from the 190 and 280-450 SLs to the current generation SLK retractable hardtop.

    The production 1954 300SL (W198) was a road-going version of the purpose-built race car (W194) Mercedes-Benz fielded beginning in 1952); it was both a stunner as well as a runner -- racking up an impressive series of victories in the Carrera Panamericana road race, the Mille Miglia (with Stirling Moss driving), the 24 hours of Le Mans and the Bern Grand Prix, among other highlights. Max Hoffman, Mercedes' U.S. importer, is credited with convincing company managers to offer a street legal version of the race cars to the buying public -- and thus was born the '54-'57 Gullwing coupe.

    The unusual design feature which defined these cars was no gimmick, either. Rather, the upward-raising doors were necessitated by the car's underlying tubular steel space frame -- which was built up much higher toward the beltline than in a conventional stamped/welded steel perimeter frame. The design conferred tremendous rigidity, but conventional doors could not be fitted without cutting into the tubes -- and compromising the whole structure. Engineers came up with the gullwing doors as the solution -- a design as functional as it was beautiful. (The only downside was that getting into and out of the car was sometimes challenging -- but the engineers were more concerned with how the car performed at speed, less with its parking lot manners.)

    Most of the SL's bodywork was stamped steel, but aluminum was used for the hood, trunk lid and some exterior skins. Customers could special order a super-lightweight bodyshell crafted entirely of aluminum -- but few did, and the handful that were built have become even more desirable as collectibles.

    In addition to its tubular frame and signature gullwing doors, the 300SL coupe was powered by a 3-liter in-line six with mechanical fuel injection that delivered 215-hp at 5,800 RPM. Redline was 6,600 RPM.

    With the right gearing, the streamlined, lightweight car was capable of exceeding 150 mph -- an impressive posting even by modern standards. The straight six was itself a work of art to behold -- from its swoopy aluminum manifold runners to the unusual 45 degree tilt of the block in situ (this was necessary to clear the low-profile hood). The canted position of the engine had a functional benefit as well -- putting the car's mass and center of gravity down low and almost exactly in the middle of the car.

    Importer Max Hoffman brought approximately 1,100 of the 1,400 initial crop of Gullwing coupes produced to the United States -- where they quickly became something of a sensation, even though few aspirants could hope to own one. (Unless tthey happened to be movie stars like Clark Gabel, who ordered one.) With a base price of more than $11,000 -- roughly twice the price of a Cadillac Eldorado -- Gullwings were almost as unobtainable then as they have become today. (Current prices are in the $250,000 range.)

    The less expensive and more prolific 190SL (chassis W121) also appeared on U.S. roads during this time. It was a much more conventional (and thus, affordable) design -- no gullwing doors and a smaller, 1.9 liter, 120-hp (carbureted) four cylinder engine -- but it retained much of the glamour of the 300SL and sold remarkably well. It was this car, in fact, that probably assured the continued existence of the entire SL line -- making a strong business case for itself as much as the Gullwing tugged at one's heartstrings.

    The 300SL roadster (W198 II) appeared a few years later, in 1957; it was likewise oriented toward a more practical perspective. The roadster featured a bigger trunk -- and most noticeably, easier access, since it had "normal" outward-opening doors. (The tubular steel spaceframe of the Gullwing was still used, but it was modified to accommodate standard doors.) The300SL roadster also boasted improved, four-wheel-disc brakes -- replacing the oversized finned drums used in the Gullwing. Power was up a bit, too -- reaching 235-hp, courtesy of higher compression pistons and revised camshaft profiles.

    Between 1955 and 1963 (when production of the early SLs ceased) approximately 25,881 190SLs had been built; the more exotic 300SL roadster was produced in much smaller numbers (appx. 1,858 were sold).

    But it was clear the future looked bright ahead -- and that there would be more SLs to come.

    The next generation SL (chassis W113) was unveiled at the 1963 Geneva Motor Show. This car -- the 230SL -- was at first glance an evolutionary design of the outgoing 190, with much of its styling cues similar to that model. However, there were many significant refinements, including a larger, more powerful (150-hp) 2.3 liter SOHC six-cylinder engine, horizontally "stacked" headlights, and an unusual removable hardtop roof that was lower in the center than at the edges -- which earned the car the nickname, "pagoda roof" because of its similarity to oriental temples. In many ways, the 230SL combined the best qualities of the previous 300SL and 190SL into a more user-friendly package that was both elegant and yet still a potent performer.

    In 1967, an updated 250SL bowed; the straight six now displaced 2.5 liters and power increased by 20-hp to 170. Bosch mechanical fuel injection was standard, as were four-wheel-disc brakes. As in previous SLs, a 4-speed ZF manual was the standard gearbox -- but in an interesting departure from sporty car practice, an automatic was available and would quickly become a popular feature.

    Further improvements came in 1968, when the last of the "pagoda113s" appeared in the form of the 280SL. Other than its larger engine (now displacing 2.8 liters), slightly revised steering and other small changes, the 280SLs were mostly carryover models. They ran through '71, when production of the "second generation" SLs culminated with approximately 48,912 examples having been built.

    By this time, SLs had become fixtures in well-heeled neighborhoods; totems of genteel affluence and good taste -- in contrast to the increasingly over-the-top strutting machismo of Italian exotics. They were also superbly well-put-together by precision obsessed workers -- in contrast to the pretty but unreliable Jags of the era.

    A major change in direction came in '71 with the unveiling of the all-new "third generation" cars -- led by the new (W107) 350SL. Though it still carried the "sport" and light" badging, the 350SL was a departure in theme for the SL-series. With a curb weight in excess of 3,000-lbs., it was more a beefy GT than a trim and lithe sports car, as its ancestors had been. The new SOHC V-8 (in 3.5 and, later, 4.5 liter displacements) under the hood was further evidence of the change in philosophy -- as was the S-Class-derived chassis, which was tuned increasingly for boulevard comfort.

    Hard and soft-top versions were available, as before -- with the "pagoda" theme carried over to models with the hardtop. These SLs were effective triple-digit tourers, with top speeds of nearly 130 mph (with the larger 4.5 liter engine). However, the energy crunch of the early '70s hit Mercedes just as it did other automakers -- and by the '74 model year, a less thirsty 2.8 liter six was re-introduced as an option for the efficiency conscious.

    Benz would stick with the basic layout of the W107 through the late 1980s, up to the 1989-1990 model year -- making this the longest-serving SL generation (18 years, in total).

    Approximately 237,287 cars were produced over that time.

    Mercedes would continue the line with the subsequent 500 SL roadster (and the later, V-12 powered SL600), updated and massaged versions of which remain in production today. But arguably, the truest inheritor of the legacy of the '54 300SL and the original 190 SL appeared in 1996 -- when Mercedes brought out the two-seat, retractable hardtop SLK230. Unlike its big-bruiser, modern-day SL stablemates -- none of which could fairly be described as either lightweight or particularly compact -- the SLK was those things in spades. It also had retro Benz styling flourishes, such as the familiar speed bullets on the hood, pontoon fenders, low-slung posture -- and road manners more in tune with its early ancestors. This car remains in production as of this writing -- as do the larger SL500 and SL600.

    While the SL family tree has bifurcated somewhat in the 50-plus years since the original 300SL and 190SL, all these cars share the genes of an ancestor that has rightly been identified as one of the most significant cars ever built.

    The '54-57 Gullwing coupe.


  2. #2

    Re: Mercedes-Benz SL series (1954-present)

    the 300SL coupe was powered by a 3-liter in-line six with mechanical fuel injection that delivered 215-hp at 5,800 RPM. Redline was 6,600 RPM.

    An option was a different cam which upped the HP to 240.

    With a base price of more than $11,000

    Either that price was inflated or was often discounted as the only owner I knw paid just under $9000 for his.

  3. #3
    Vulture of The Western World Eric's Avatar
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    Re: Mercedes-Benz SL series (1954-present)

    Thanks for the word on the cam upgrade - and yes, i've heard the same in re the prices. Hard to know what they were actually selling for given all the conflicting info....!

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