Very rarely do beautiful cars like the recently released Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG just appear out of nowhere, rather, they are almost always born out of the desire to create a modern celebration of a legendary car from a bygone era.
In this case, we need to go back to the 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300SL with its distinctive gull-wing doors. Pure unadulterated beauty it was, but it also held the title of the fastest production car of its day, with a top speed of 260km/h.
Another milestone for Mercedes-Benz with the 300SL was that this was the first use of direct petrol injection in a production car with a four-stroke engine.
The road going car was directly inspired by the 1952 racing version called the W194 300SL. This was another glorious looking automobile, which won many endurance races including the third Carrera Panamerica Mexico, with Karl Kling and Hans Klenk at the wheel.
The reason Mercedes-Benz decided to build the road version of the 300SL can be traced back to New York Mercedes-Benz dealer and Daimler-Benz’s official importer in the US, Max Hoffman, who suggested to management in Stuttgart that a production car based on the 300SL, would surely be a commercial success in the United States. He was right, over 80 percent of the total production of 1400 units was sold in the US.
“SL” stood for “Sport Leicht” (Sport Light) and the “300” referred to the engine’s 3-litre displacement. The direct petrol injection meant that power was practically doubled from the original 86 kW of the carburetted car.
As an interesting aside, former American Sportscar racer of the 50s, John Fitch, decided to have a crack at a new land speed record in 2005, for the F/GT Class, driving a 1955 300SL. He was 87 years old. He failed in his attempt due to a faulty fuel pump, which limited his top speed to 240km/h. Fitch was said to have told reporters that he had driven these cars faster at night, in the rain, and on the road with 60 other cars. There was a documentary made about Fitch and his attempt entitled: A Gullwing at Twilight: The Bonneville Ride of John Fitch