Mercedes-Benz began to introduce a new series of passenger cars in 1950 and 1951, among which was a big and impressive six-cylinder 3-litre car, but they made a sensation when re-entering motor sport in 1952 with the futuristic 300SL sports-racing car. The fact that this car won its very first Le Mans race was startling enough, but that Mercedes were proposing to put it into some sort of quantity production was even more astonishing. Apart from the obvious facts that it was at the same time very fast and very attractive, it was also exceedingly complex, mechanically, and was not really designed for quantity production.
The heart of the car’s performance lay in its engine which had direct fuel injection on production cars (although the Le Mans winner had used an engine with conventional carburetors), but the main interest was in the structure. Mercedes had traversed much time and energy to create what many thought was a level of perfection of a many tubed ‘spaceframe’ structure, whereby all said tubes were slim and absolutely straight to the tee and none had to put up with stress that could lead to distortions in the superstructure whereby stresses of any mechanical types could have effect.
Taken to their ultimate ends, this could have the greatest of perils to both the interior compartment area of the car and its inhabitants along to drive the car or enjoy the speedy and daring ride. To work towards a solving of this apparent mechanical design problem, the engineering design staff made the decisions to construct the frame itself as being very deep along the sills. Next in line the doors themselves were arranged to hinge along their top edge and open upwards in what became the trademark ‘gull-wing’ setup that became the trademark feature of the Mercedes Benz 300SL throughout its lifetime and vehicle production run. Owners just loved the setup.
Others, such as the Delorean sports car copied, or tried to copy this setup. Yet no-one just got it as right and correctly engineered as the Mercedes staff. The car’s only failing, more noticeable at very high speeds than at touring speeds, was that Mercedes management and mechanical design engineers had chosen a swing-axle independent suspension design setup. This allowed large (driven) rear wheel camber changes and produced serious and possibly dangerous oversteer at times.
This was most noticeable at high and even extreme roadways speeds. To handle 300SL at really high speeds required good ‘racing-driver’ reflexes. Far more the 300 SLs were ordered than Mercedes had bargained for and in 1957 the introduced the open-topped 300SL Roadster, which was a little easier to make and handled better by virtue of its low-pivot swing-axle rear suspension. The model continued to be made at Stuttgart until the early 1960s and a total of 3,250 of both types were eventually sold.
There was no doubt that a suitably-geared 300SL, particularly in the more streamlined coupè condition, had a very high maximum speed. The original publicity claims were that the car could accelerate from 15mph to no less than 165mph in top gear (which said a lot for the flexibility of the fuel-injected engine but the higher figure was not attainable by a normally equipped road car. In British tune the cars could certainly beat 130mph, which made supreme; however, with very high gearing it was possible for something like 150mph to be passed.
The 300SL was forecast to start a new trend in sports car design, but even Mercedes Benz themselves did not really want to have a build a spaceframe chassis in quantity and they were not copied by any other serious production-car concern. The multi-tube layout was very expensive and very difficult to build properly, as Mercedes soon found out. Neither did the gull-wing doors find favor elsewhere nor when the Roadster 300SL was announced was it seen to have a modified frame with conventionally hinged doors.
The 300SL’s descendants, truly, were the W196 Grand Prix car, which had many family resemblances, and the 300SLR sports-racing-car (which in unique closed-coupé guise looked astonishingly similar to the 300SL). A car does not have to be a commercial success to be an all-time ‘classic’. In looks, in performance and in the sheer exuberance of its complex engineering, the 300SL stood quite apart from any really fast super car of the 1950s. Not even Ferrari, with exotic V12 engines in more mundane chassis, could match their ambience.
The 300SL’s engine, in less highly tuned form, was a mainstay of the Mercedes production car range until the end of the 1960s, when it was at last replaced by a new 3 ½ –litre/4 ½-litre V8 unit. The direct-injection system in the 300Sl was unique for many years.
For Further Reading:
- Mercedes-Benz 38/250 Designed By Dr. Porsche
- Mercedes-Benz Daimler Logo Origins & History
- Merecdes-Benz “Grosser” 770 Large Luxury Car – Badge of the 1930′s
- The Heritage Of The Mercedes Maybach Zeppelin Luxury Auto Name-Plate
- Bentley Continental “R” – A Solid Platform For A Classic Motorcar
- Aston Martin – Lagonda 4 1/2 Litre Classic Motorcar
- Porsche 911 1960′s Classic Super Sports Car
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