Wed. Sep 28th, 2022

Mercedes-Benz and its parent car manufacturer Daimler did not survive World War II unscathed. The idea of ​​then Daimler president Wilhelm Haspel was to bring the Mercedes-Benz division back into the world of motorsport in an attempt to begin rebuilding the legendary company.

First, Mercedes needed a racing car.

Enter the W194. The brand’s first new sports car after the war, the W194 coupe finished second in its first race, the Mille Miglia. He then won the Bern Sports Car Prize, the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Carrera Panamericana. Although the W194 quickly became a decorated car, it was not the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL.

1952 Mercedes-Benz W194 racing car

1952 Mercedes-Benz W194 racing car

1952 Mercedes-Benz W194 racing car at the Nurburgring in 1952

1952 Mercedes-Benz W194 racing car at the Nurburgring in 1952

1952 Mercedes-Benz W194 racing car at the 1952 Le Mans 24 Hours

1952 Mercedes-Benz W194 racing car at the 1952 Le Mans 24 Hours

Instead, a major importer of European luxury vehicles based in New York by the name of Max Hoffman suggested that Mercedes-Benz needed to create a limited series of cars in the spirit of the W194. A year after the W194 took the world in motorsports by surprise, Mercedes-Benz CEO Fritz Konecke ordered 1,000 sports cars. Thus was born the 300 SL.

1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL at the 1954 New York International Motorsports Show

1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL at the 1954 New York International Motorsports Show

In 1954, Mercedes-Benz presented the 300 SL of the W198 generation at the International Motor Sport Show in New York. While an automotive debut in New York isn’t strange today, it marked a change for Mercedes-Benz. Typically, the German company showed its cars at home or at the Geneva motor show. However, Hoffman convinced the luxury automaker that it would be a great idea to woo American buyers with a New York debut.

They agreed and, suddenly, Mercedes-Benz had a hit on their hands. The 300 SL bowed like a coupe with a 3.0-liter overhead cam 6-cylinder engine. Still, the 300 SL wasn’t just a sports car for changing perceptions, it was a technological marvel.

1954-1957 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL 3.0 liter inline-6

1954-1957 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL 3.0 liter inline-6

The engine ditched carburetors in favor of a Bosch-developed direct fuel injection system. Recall, fuel injection was rare at the time and higher pressure direct injection would not become the standard for decades to come. The system helped increase power well beyond the W194 to 215 hp at the launch of the 300 SL. The racing car was satisfied with 175 hp. An upgraded camshaft option increased power to 240hp. Top speed could exceed 160 mph, making the 300 SL the fastest production car in the world.

1954-1957 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL spaceframe

1954-1957 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL spaceframe

Mercedes built the 300 SL on a space chassis or “bird cage” chassis. It featured a separate welded steel body, but the firewall, hood, doors, trunk lid, rocker panels, and floor and cups were aluminum.

These advances, combined with radical “gullwing” doors and sinuous body lines, have helped to turn the page for Mercedes-Benz. The company not only produced majestic luxury vehicles, but was also capable of producing machines with incredible performance.

A total of 1,400 300 SL coupes were built from 1954 to 1957, and 29 of them were lightweight models with all-aluminum bodywork that helped shave 187 pounds. The 300 SL coupe gave rise to the 300 SL roadster in 1957, which remained in production in its first generation until 1963. Its successor still exists today and is now in its seventh generation.

Like many areas of the auto industry, some of the best has come from motorsport. Without a renewed commitment to racing after World War II, we may never have received a car like the 300 SL. And without the 300 SL, there may not be such a sports car lineage to beat the world of Mercedes-Benz.

– Senior Editor Kirk Bell contributed to this story

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