Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Roadster: Responding to American Demand

In the 1950s, the notion of taking a race car and making it street legal was bold, but taking a car whose vertically-opening doors were a symbol of prestige and transforming it into a convertible was pure heresy! And yet, somehow Mercedes-Benz pulled it off with its 300 SL.

After the Second World War, Mercedes-Benz was eyeing a comeback to the auto racing circuit, where it excelled before the conflict began. So, in 1952, it sent its drivers to competition with a rather unique car: the 300 SL (S for Sport and L for Leicht – or, if you prefer, Light). The number 300 refers to its 3.0-litre engine.

The 300 SL was designed in record time around a revolutionary space frame that was ultra-light to offset the heavier engine and transmission. Because of the chassis’ greater width at the doors, the engineers had to get creative, since conventional hinges were not an option. So, they put the hinges on the roof. The result was seagull-type doors and the rest is history. The Gullwing may have become a cautionary tale if it hadn’t proven its worth immediately on the racing circuit. And it did so masterfully, racking up victories and speed records along the way.

Selling a car that doesn’t exist

The 300 SL was regularly winning events when Max Hoffman, the brand’s U.S. importer, decided to sell a road version for rich Americans—the only problem was no road version existed as of yet! Responding to demand, Mercedes concocted what was going to become the first modern super sports car, the road version of the 300 SL. It literally paved the road for supercars like the Ferrari Enzo, Porsche 959 and Jaguar XJ220. Between 1954 and 1957, about 1,400 units of the 300 SL were produced, 80% of which were sold in the United States.

Selling another car that doesn’t exist

In the 1950s, convertibles were very popular, particularly with our neighbours to the south. To satisfy this ultra-rich clientele, Mercedes-Benz—presumably urged by Max Hoffman—decided to create a convertible 300 SL. Imagine what a significant challenge it was to remove the upper section of a car renowned for its roof-mounted doors! The 300 SL Roadster, unveiled at the 1957 Geneva Auto Show, sold 1,858 units between 1957 and 1963. A little more common and less expensive than the Coupe, the convertible remains a monument to grace and prestige.

Perfect for running errands

We recently had the opportunity to examine a 300 SL Roadster at the RM Classic Cars Museum in Chatham, Ontario. This 1957 edition was acquired by Rob Myers, president and founder of the now globally-recognized enterprise. Although not perfect, this car was solid, showed no sign of rust, had been very well maintained and featured a chrome paint job in excellent condition. As soon as the temperature permits, RM Classic Cars uses it as its everyday vehicle, and it’s not uncommon to see Rob or an employee out running errands or picking up a client at the airport in this car. As an everyday means of transportation, we’ve seen worse. Rob lets it loose in different Touring events, like the Colorado Grand in 2011 and 2013.

To create a convertible with conventional doors, the engineers had to modify the chassis to make it lower on the sides. At the same time, they made some changes to the tail end so that they could fit a spare tire under the trunk floor and, more importantly, make several technical modifications to the rear suspension to improve handling. In 1961, the drum brakes were finally replaced by disc brakes on all four wheels. Despite all that, the Roadster remains more of a Grand Touring car than the Coupe. According to the information obtained from RM Classic Cars, production of the Roadster began as soon as Mercedes-Benz stopped producing the Coupe.

Radical techniques

This superb German car features the same engine as the one found in the 300 SL Coupe, namely an overhead cam 3.0-litre six-cylinder (2,996 cc to be exact). In the Roadster, however, it develops 240 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 203 lbs.-ft. of torque at 4,600 rpm. This increase in power offsets the Roadster’s heavier weight (which is due to additions like the roof mechanism and the chassis reinforcements). In an effort to improve aerodynamics, the engineers had to tilt the engine 45 degrees to be able to lower the hood as much as possible. Obviously, the same goes for the Roadster. There’s also a Bosch fuel injection system and a dry sump. It has a four-speed synchronized manual transmission. And all that helped the car reach a maximum speed of 250 km/h—in 1957, don’t forget!

Unfortunately, The Car Guide was unable to drive the superb 300 SL Roadster, but a researcher at RM Classic Cars confirmed that it was comfortable and easy to drive. Having driven several cars from the same era, he even considers it ahead of its time. Unlike a contemporary Corvette also equipped with fuel injection, the Roadster’s power is delivered in linear fashion. In more dynamic driving conditions, it doesn’t necessarily feel light, but it balances itself out easily and its handling is very predictable. It’s perfect for rallies like the Colorado Grand where it benefits from its ever-present power, excellent handling and solid brakes.

On February 8, 1963, the last 300 SL Roadster rolled off the assembly line. The 300 SL series had given Mercedes-Benz an undeniably modern image and technical mastery. However, this prestige came at a price for the Stuttgart-based brand: Mercedes-Benz didn’t get rich off of the profits from the 300 SL!

So what if Mercedes didn’t make a fortune with this car at the time! Things sure are different nowadays. Although most people wouldn’t recognize a 300 SL Roadster in traffic, the unit that we’re discussing in this article is valued at over a million dollars. Not too shabby for an everyday car, huh? What’s more, while the Coupe was much more valuable not so long ago, the Roadster is narrowing the gap. A Roadster sold to Amelia Island by RM Auctions went for a whopping $1,842,500!

I would like to thank RM Classic Cars and especially Katherine McFadden, Don McLellan, Greg Duckloe and the research department.

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