Mercedes-Benz 300SL

From Academic Kids

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1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing Coupe from the Ralph Lauren collection
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1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing Coupe from the Ralph Lauren collection

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The Mercedes-Benz 300SL was available as both a two-seat closed sports car and open roadster built by Daimler-Benz AG and based (somewhat loosely) on the company's highly successful competition-only sports car, the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR. Introduced at the 1954 New York Auto Show - unlike previous models introduced at either the Frankfurt or Geneva shows - the 300SL was best known both for its distinctive gullwing or butterfly wing doors and for being the first-ever gasoline-powered car equipped with fuel injection. The gullwing version was available from March 1955 to 1957. In Mercedes-Benz fashion, the "300" referred to the engine's cylinder displacement; in this case, three liters. The "SL" as applied to a roadster stood for "Sport Leicht" or "Sport Light." More widely produced (25,881 units) and starting a year later was the 190SL, available as a coupe, roadster or both (Coupe Roadster). Production for the 190SL and 300SL ended in 1963.

Contents

A race car for the street

The gullwing doors, hinged at the roof and so named because the open doors resembled a bird's outstretched wings, were implemented as such to accommodate for the car's tubular chassis, designed by DBAG's chief developing engineer, Rudolf Uhlenhaut. Part of the chassis passed through what would be the lower half of a standard door. This tubular chassis was a necessity, as the original car was designed solely for racing and needed to be as light as possible while still providing a high level of strength with as little mass as possible. This required the driver and his/her passengers to do some gymnastics to get in or out of the car, usually by sitting on and sliding across the wide door sill. A steering wheel with a tilt-away column made the process considerably easier.

It was Max Hoffman, Daimler-Benz's official importer in the USA, that convinced DBAG management in Stuttgart that a street version of the 300SL would be a commercial success, especially in the US. Hoffman's prediction was correct since more than eighty percent of the vehicle's total production of approximately 1400 units were sold in the US, making the Gullwing the first Mercedes-Benz which sold in bulk outside its home market. The 300SL is credited for changing the company's image in America from a manufacturer of solid but staid automobiles to that of a producer of sporty, even sexy cars.

Built completely with steel except for the aluminum bonnet (hood), doors and boot (trunk), the 300SL could have been ordered with an all-aluminum outer skin, saving 80 kg (176 lb) but at tremendous added cost.

First with fuel injection

The engine, canted at a fifty-degree angle to the left to allow for a lower hoodline, was the same 3.0 liter inline six-cylinder as the regular four-door 300 but with a Bosch mechanical fuel injection system that more than doubled its power from 86 kW (115 hp) in its original carbureted trim to 180 kW (240 hp) at 6100 rpm. This new induction system, a first in any gasoline-powered car, allowed a theoretical top speed of 235 km/h (146 mph) making the 300SL the fastest production car of its time, but added to the maintenance requirements; as, unlike the current electrically powered fuel injection systems, the mechanical fuel pump would continue to inject gasoline into the engine during the interval between shutting off the ignition and the engine's coming to a stop; this gasoline was of course not burned, and washed the oil from the cylinder walls and ended up diluting the engine's lubricating oil, particularly if the engine was not driven hard enough and long enough to reach a temperature high enough to drive it out of the oil.

Aerodynamics played an important role in the car's speed. Mercedes-Benz engineers even went so far as to place horizontal "eyebrows" over the wheel openings. Given the car's overall styling, it has been suggested that the eyebrows were added to make the car more appealing to American buyers rather than to serve any functional purpose since American cars of the period were rather flamboyant by comparison to the 300SL. Unlike many cars of the 1950s, the steering was rather precise and the four-wheel independent suspension allowed for a reasonably comfortable ride and markedly better overall handling. However, the rear swing axle, jointed only at the differential and not at the wheels themselves could be treacherous at high speeds or on imperfect roads due to extreme changes in camber.

Racing history and the 300SL today

The 300 SL racing history includes overall wins at Le Mans, Berne, Nurburgring, and Mexico's Carrera Panamerica in 1952. It managed 2nd and 4th places at its first outing, the Mille Miglia in 1952.

As a sports racing car, the original Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR won the 1955 Mille Miglia with an average speed of 157.65 km/h in 1,600 km (97.96 mph in 994 miles). The 300 SLR scored additional victories in Germany, Sweden, Ireland and Sicily, and won the world championship for sports cars in the constructors' ranking. The 300 SLR was withdrawn from the 1955 24 hours of Le Mans while leading after a horrific accident involving one of the teams cars killed 82 spectators. [1] (http://www.ewilkins.com/wilko/lemans.htm)

Today, the 300SL with its unique doors and technological firsts is considered one of the most collectable Mercedes-Benzes of all time, with prices reaching well past the US$200,000 mark. In addition, Sports Car International magazine ranked the 300SL as the number 5 sports car of all time.

Dimensions

  • Wheelbase: 2400 mm (94.5 in)
  • Length: 4520 mm (178 in)
  • Width: 1790 mm (70.5 in)
  • Height: 1300 mm (51.1 in)
  • Weight: 1293 kg (2851 lb)

Reference

  • Mercedes Momentum magazine, Fall 2004 edition
  • Sports and Classic Cars, Bonanza Books, New York. 1955, Borgeson G. and Jaderquist E.
  • Mercedes-Benz.com (http://www.mercedes-benz.com/mbcom/international/international_website/en/com/international_home/home/heritage/history.html#mainnav)fr:Mercedes 190 et 300SL papillon

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