Mercedes-Benz and parent automaker Daimler did not come out of World War II unscathed. It was the idea of then-Daimler chairman Wilhelm Haspel to bring the Mercedes-Benz division back into motorsports in an effort to start rebuilding the storied company.
First of all, 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 went on to win the Bern Sports Car Award, the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Carrera Panamericana. While the W194 quickly became a decorated machine, it was not the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL.
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 1952 Le Mans 24 Hours
Instead, a prominent New York-based importer of European luxury vehicles named Max Hoffman suggested that Mercedes-Benz needed to create a limited series of cars in the spirit of the W194. One year after the W194 shocked the motorsport world, Mercedes-Benz CEO Fritz Konecke placed an order for 1,000 sports cars. Thus the 300 SL was born.
1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL at the 1954 New York International Auto Show
In 1954, Mercedes-Benz presented the 300 SL of the W198 generation at the New York International Motor Show. While a car debut in New York is not unusual today, it marked a change for Mercedes-Benz. Usually 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 lure American buyers with a New York debut.
They agreed, and suddenly, Mercedes-Benz had a blow on their hands. The 300 SL was tipped as a coupe with a 3.0-liter overhead cam inline 6-cylinder engine. However, the 300 SL was not just a sports car to change perceptions, it was a technological marvel.
1954-1957 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL 3.0-Liter Inline 6-Cylinder
The engine ditched carburetors in favor of a direct fuel injection system developed by Bosch. Remember, fuel injection was rare at the time and higher pressure direct injection would not become standard for decades to come. The system helped increase power well above the W194 to 215 hp at the launch of the 300 SL. The race car settled for 175 hp. An upgraded camshaft option increased output to 240 hp. Top speed could exceed 160 mph, making the 300 SL the fastest production car in the world.
Spatial structure Mercedes-Benz 300 SL 1954-1957
Mercedes built the 300 SL on a spaceframe or “birdcage” chassis. It featured a separately welded steel body, but the firewall, hood, doors, trunk lid, side panels, and floor and underside were all aluminum.
These advances, combined with radical “gull-wing” doors and curvaceous body lines, helped turn the page for Mercedes-Benz. The company not only built majestic luxury vehicles, but was also capable of producing incredible performance machines.
A total of 1,400 300 SL coupes were built between 1954 and 1957, and 29 of them were lightweight models with all-aluminum bodies that helped shed 187 pounds. The 300 SL coupe gave way 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 so many areas of the automotive industry, some of the best things come from motorsports. 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 be no such world-beating lineage of Mercedes-Benz sports cars.
—Senior Editor Kirk Bell contributed to this story