The first post-war Mercedes-Benz was a renovated 170S which was unveiled at the Hanover Fair in May 1949. Two years later, at the 1951 Frankfurt Motor Show, Mercedes-Benz presented the 220 and 300 models—the main innovation of which was the new six-cylinder engine with an overhead camshaft.
Using the new 1951 six-cylinder engine as a basis for inspiration, and with iron-clad determination, the brand set to work to recover its previous fame. Within the space of four years and at the 1954 Geneva Motor Show Mercedes-Benz unveiled one of the most revolutionary sports cars of all time—the 300 SL.
Almost unheard of for a true sports car, the 300 SL managed to sell one thousand units by 1955—only one year into its commercial production. Sales of the Mercedes-Benz super sports car also went quite well in Portugal, with the German brand selling 18 cars between February 1955 and December 1959. Many of them were destined for competition. Although the 300 SL was, first and foremost a car for everyday use, it still had at its root, a very strong competition car. This was proven when the competition model won the 1952 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the hands of Hermann Lang and Fritz Rieb, and also the Carrera Panamericana, with Karl Kling at the wheel.
The car’s success started with the engine, internally named M194, which was worked on by the brand’s competition department and equipped with the latest Bosch fuel injection. The engine installation was initially too high and affected the centre of gravity of the car. To get around this problem, Mercedes engineers laid the engine at a 50-degree angle and fitted it with a dry-sump system. This modification earned the engine the nickname “Schräge Otto”, which means “Otto lying down” in English, alluding to Markus Otto, the inventor of the four-stroke internal combustion cycle.
The world’s press at the time were very impressed by the innovative solutions used in the construction of the 300 SL chassis. Inspired by some aeronautical designs, engineers at Mercedes-Benz designed the new sports car with a tubular chassis, consisting of a triangulation of tubes that served as support structures for the mechanical components and bodywork.
One of the most iconic features on the 300SL is the upwards-opening doors. This was necessary due to the excessive height of the chassis at the sides, preventing the use of traditional door mechanisms. The 300 SL immediately became known in Germany as Flügelturen (wing doors), in England as the Gullwing and in France the Papillon (butterfly).
At the beginning of series production, the 300 SL, Mercedes-Benz model W194, could be ordered with several final transmission ratios, and with varying maximum speeds determined by the gearing. With the 3.42: 1 ratio, the car reached a speed of 254 km/h in fourth gear, while for the longest gearing ratio of 3.25: 1, the top speed was 267 km/h. The first cars tested by journalists were equipped with a final ratio of 3.64: 1, providing a lesser top speed of 217 km/h.
The benefit of the lower top speed was that acceleration from 0 to 100 km / h took just eight seconds. All of these figures become even more impressive when we consider that the 300 SL weighed 1233 kg, and was capable of very reasonable fuel consumption of around 15.6 litres for every 100 km travelled.
The brand’s experience in competition allowed it to fit the coupe with suspension geometries very similar to those seen on the track—although in the wrong hands this impacted the car’s drivability. At the rear, Mercedes-Benz equipped the SL with a swing arm geometry which had a central pivot that, in the hands of experienced drivers, allowed the 300 SL to deliver fabulous performance but, in less experienced hands it made the car difficult to drive.