In the first of a three-part series about the iconic Mercedes-Benz SL’s 50-year history, CARtoday.com looks at the 17 years that heralded classics such as the Gullwing 300SL and Pagoda roof.
By Mike Fourie, News Ed.
A Benz enthusiast once told me that although it was good to have a three-pointed star on your car’s bonnet, it was even better to have one in its grille. In the first of a three-part series about the iconic Mercedes-Benz SL’s 50-year history, CARtoday.com looks at the 17 years that heralded classics such as the Gullwing 300SL and Pagoda roof.
Formally launched at the New York Motor Show in February 1954, the iconic Mercedes-Benz 300 SL “Gullwing” still epitomises cool. When CAR Magazine’s enthusiasts picked their Top 50 cars in the October edition’s Fantasy Garage feature, Mercedes-Benz was represented by three cars only – the Gullwing, which ranked sixth, its distant cousin the 300SLR Uhlenhaut and the 300SL’s modern-day descendant, the 450 kW twin-turbo V12 SL65 AMG.
For people who were born in the late '60s, '70s and '80s, the W107 series Mercedes-Benz SL crept into the collective consciousness in the early days of South African television. A W107-shape SL was the transport of choice for two characters of the insanely-popular Dallas TV series - Texan oil baron and playboy Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy) and his vivacious wife Pam (Victoria Principal). With the exception of a Maserati Bi-Turbo and Jaguar XJS, Bobby drove only Mercedes SLs from the time the series started in 1978 - including a 450SL, 380SL and 560SL, and the prime time soap ended in 1990 when Bobby parked a 500SL at Southfork… Heck, Pam once dreamt about and was even disfigured in an accident in an SL… That’s why many dub the W107 “Pam”.
In some quarters, the W107-series SL was considered an ageing symbol of '80s corporate greed and excess. At the end of that decade, Mercedes-Benz introduced the somewhat bloated W129 SL series, which, despite its fully-automatic soft top, automatically-deploying rollover bar and other gizmos, was more of a two-tonne boulevard cruiser than a sports car. That would change with the introduction of the current SL in 2002, but more about that later.
1954-63: 300SL Gullwing, 300SL Roadster and 190SL
The origins of the SL dynasty can be found in motor racing. The legendary 300SL race car made its début in 1952 and finished second and fourth in the Mille Miglia, one-two-three in the Bern Grand Prix and first and runner-up in the Le Mans 24 Hours as well as the five-day Carrera Panamericana in Mexico that year.
It was Mercedes-Benz’s US importer, Max Hoffman, who convinced the top brass in Sindelfingen to build a production version of the SL. The road-going version had lengthened “gullwing” doors and the side structures of the spaceframe chassis were redesigned. The bodyshell was made almost entirely of steel, with an aluminium bonnet, door and bootlid, chrome trim, a bolder three-pointed star in the grille, ridges over the wheel arches, more upright headlamps, small side windows and extra cooling vents.
The three-litre engine’s compression was raised to 8.55:1, the redline raised to 6 600 r/min and spark plugs moved to the side of the cylinder head to allow for Bosch-developed direct fuel injection! The 300 SL (only the second production car to have direct injection) produced 160 kW at 5 800 r/min and accelerated from zero to 100 km/h in 8,5 seconds (going on to a top speed of 235 km/h) despite weighing more than a ton. Only 1 400 were made.
Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz's first production SL roadster, the 190, was essentially a two-seater convertible built on a 180 series saloon’s chassis and went into production in 1955. Weighing in at 1,1 tons, the 190SL had an aluminium bonnet, doors and boot lid and a 90 kW 1,9-litre engine with twin Solex carburettors. It stayed in production until 1963 and nearly 26 000 were sold.
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