Motoring Trailblazers - Mercedes-Benz 300 SL

Fri 30th Nov 2018

The world of motoring is hurtling headlong into a bright new future of all-electric, automated, connected technology - and Marty McFly is not behind the wheel! But what were the cars that were ‘back to the future’ of years gone by?

There have been many different trailblazing motors which were seen by the critics to be ahead of their time, and in this series, we will investigate and showcase many of the best in class.

Mercedes-Benz 300 SL
‘The sports car of the future has become a reality’, those were the words of American car magazine, Road & Track, describing a car which considering the year was 1954, was years, maybe decades ahead of its time.

The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL made its debut at the New York International Motor Sports Show, and with those famous gullwing doors, there were some who speculated that the German import had flown itself across the Atlantic.

Mercedes’ New York distributor, Max Hoffman, was the inspiration for the 300 SL. He had seen the success of the W194 300 SL racing car and believed that a toned down Grand Prix car would appeal to the post-war American market. Hoffman’s influence on the US market was huge, born in Austria, it was his eye for the European market which could make or break brands in the key market of the United States.

Hoffman’s gamble certainly paid off for Mercedes, of the 1400 300 SL built for the road market, 80% of them were sold in the United States, turning the German company’s reputation from solid to sporty in one fell swoop.

It has to be said that the 300 SL was not an instant success across the pond. A high purchase price put off many admirers, initial prices were $6,400, which compared to the Chevrolet Bel-Air available at $1,700 was a price which earned the sports car the tag of being the first ‘supercar’. Another problem was that the 300 SL had a fuel injection system which very few mechanics had the expertise to deal with should the car experience engine trouble. Some showrooms even took the 300 SL off sale and sent it back to the warehouse as unsellable.

But demand grew for the 300 SL, especially as those brave enough discovered its amazing fuel injected engine could produce speeds of 160mph, making it the fastest production car of its time.

Autocar described the car as ‘astonishing’ on release saying: "For a passenger who has not travelled in the 300 SL before, the effect is electrifying. The occupant receives at first a mild pressing back into the seat and then, as the power comes in between 3500rpm and 400rpm, he feels as though he is being rocketed through space.”

With the 300 SL, Mercedes had launched a legacy that continues today with the SL-Class series of cars. The original 300 SL is regarded as one of the most sought after collectible cars, with prices at auction generally ranging between $1m and $2.5m dependent on the condition.

It’s influence is perhaps best summed up by the Sports Car International magazine ranking it as the number five best sports car of all time.