Sep 9, 2020
Photo credit: Mercedes-Benz
Who: The role of Maximilian E. Hoffman was pivotal in the development of the production sports car derived from the 300 SL W194 race car. As the official Mercedes-Benz importer for the U.S. market since January 1952, Hoffman sensed the commercial potential of a high-performance road car after the W194’s success at the Carrera Panamericana. Stuttgart took up the challenge, and one of the undisputed icons of automotive history was born: the 300 SL W198, later nicknamed the Gullwing
The stages of perfection: from the W 194 designed for racing in 1952, to the racing prototype 300 SL (W 194 011) which prefigured the Gullwing by adopting the petrol direct injection engine, up to the 300 SL from 1954. In the background, the 300 SLR “Uhlenhaut-Coupé” version from 1955.
Why: Post-war Germany was keen to re-establish its racing dominance, a legacy it had shared with Auto Union in the 1930s. Led by engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut, the technical team worked on the W194 of 1952, which featured a tubular chassis and upward-opening doors, allowing both driver and passenger to easily clear the longitudinal chassis tube. This was the initial building block of a project that would eventually culminate in winning the World Constructors’ and Drivers’ Championships in 1955.
The road-going version of the 300 SL Gullwing, the W198, was unveiled at the 1954 New York Auto Show. The push from Mercedes’ American importer Maximilian E. Hoffman to have a sellable model was decisive.
When: The United States, having emerged victorious from the war and having left behind the long-lasting crisis of 1929, represented the world’s largest and wealthiest market. The unveiling of the road-going 300 SL, designated W198, at the 1954 New York Auto Show left no room for doubt about the soundness of the decision. Both the public and the press were ecstatic: never before had a car so masterfully combined aesthetics and performance.
The distinctive gullwing doors of the 300 SL, from which the name Gullwing is derived, are the car’s defining feature.
Where: Manufactured in Germany at the Stuttgart facilities, the 300 SL W198 was also sold in Europe but truly thrived in the United States. Much like Ferrari, the American market had a strong appetite for compact, sophisticated European sports cars. In contrast to American giants focused on large engines and comfort, European cars offered an authentic racing experience on the road. Hoffman had no difficulty in collecting dozens upon dozens of orders!
In the 1955 Mille Miglia, in addition to the success of Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson in the 300 SLR, Mercedes also excelled in the production car category with the Gullwing W198, driven by John Fitch and Kurt Gessl, who won their class.
How: The excellence of ‘Made in Germany’ is evident in every detail, whether aesthetic, like the tiltable steering wheel that allows the driver to get in, or technical, such as the bold and innovative choice of direct fuel injection for the engine. The 3,000cc, 215-horsepower engine, mounted at a 50-degree angle to lower the center of gravity and reduce the frontal area, is a mechanical masterpiece. The unique gullwing door opening, combined with a design featuring elegant yet dynamic and performance-oriented stylistic solutions, make the 300 SL a timeless masterpiece. And then, for a country with strict speed limits, a car that could reach 260 km/h in 1954 was an utterly irresistible temptation
Engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut, project leader for the 300 SL, stands beside the inline 6-cylinder engine. It was the first to feature direct injection and is uniquely mounted at a 50-degree angle.