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    Mercedes 300SL Review (1953 - 1957)

    Overall Summary

    Dusty Cars Rating

    The 300 SL is a car that was destined to succeed from the first moment. Its only predecessor was a massively successful racing car marked W194 and it was a seriously capable machine in terms of performance. At its time the 300 SL was the fastest production car in the world.

    It had a number of technological innovations such as being the first road car with direct fuel injection, incredibly distinctive and classy looks which still draw attention, and an unusual Gullwing door arrangement.

    Even though many cars later carried the SL moniker – the 190 SL alongside the 300 SL and W113 after it, followed by many others – the 2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG is the first real successor to the 300 SL in terms of sporty capabilities for its time, technological advancements and design uniqueness. It is safe to say that the current range topping model, the AMG GT, proudly continues the tradition.

    The famous Gullwing doors came from a necessity rather than sheer innovation. The chassis for the racing W194 was made from aluminum in the form of a frame skeleton, in order to reduce weight and increase rigidity. However, it had to surround the cabin from all sides, so traditional doors were impossible to employ. The problem gave birth to one of the most recognizable styling solutions in the industry.

    The 300 SL was the first production car with direct fuel injection. The W194 had the same engine, but it employed Solex carburetors, while the 300 SL made use of a Bosch fuel injection system which resulted in 25% more power from the same inline 6. The hp count went all the way up to 225, which was good enough for 161 mph which propelled the 300 SL to the title of the fastest production car of its time.

    The 300 SL debuted at the New York Auto Show in 1954 and it lasted for 9 years, the last one being produced in 1963. It was magnificent to drive, showing more and more character as the speed was increasing. The Roadster appeared in 1957, bearing several differences compared to the previous car, such as optional power increase from increased compression ratio (thus reaching the mentioned 225 hp), as well as changes to rear suspension and brakes. However, most notable differences lie in its increased weight and a different frame which allowed for conventional doors and windows.

    The 300 SL was discontinued in 1963 when it was replaced by the Mercedes 230 SL, the first version of the W113 lineup. However, the W113 was a successor just by name, while many people feel that its first real follower came almost half a century later in the form of the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG.

    Driving & Performance

    It is difficult to decide if the 300 SL became more popular due to its styling, record-breaking top speed, or the driving feel it produced. The engine was a 3 l, single overhead camshaft, inline 6-cylinder and it was paired with a four-speed manual transmission. The engine produced between 215 hp and 225 hp, depending on the compression ratio, which was enough for the top speeds ranging from about 140 mph to 161 mph, depending on the gearing. Most of the cars were sold with lower top speed since this kind of gear ratios improved acceleration, which was far more useful and fun on the road than several more mph at the top end.

    Initial models had a heavy clutch. This problem was soon solved, although some drivers preferred the heavy clutch since it provided a more rugged feel which went extremely well with the 300 SL’s top class engineering.

    By today’s standards, its steering could be called moderately precise, but at the time it was a work of art and it worked particularly well with the independent suspension, which gave a wonderful mixture of comfort and confidence at higher speeds.

    The car was lightweight, standing at about 2,400 lb, so topping up the huge fuel tank (34.3 US gal on the initial model and 26.4 US gal on the later one) could significantly affect cornering. Furthermore, all-aluminum body was an optional feature which would reduce the weight further, but it was very expensive, so not many of these cars were sold.

    At lower speeds you could feel a bit of weight on the steering wheel, which made driving more involving, while it became significantly lighter as the speed approached about 50 mph.

    The gearbox was a joy. The 4-speed manual with several axle ratios available worked like a charm. It was precise, easy to shift and it made a very reassuring noise.

    Suspension was state of the art for that era. On all models it was double wishbones, coil springs and stabilizing bar for the front, while the Gullwing had high-pivot swing axle, radius arms and coil springs and the Roadster had low-pivot swing axle, transverse compensating spring and coil springs. Any of the setups made the car very nice to drive, although rough roads could cause significant camber variations.

    Brakes also served the car really well. The Gullwing had power assisted 260 mm drums, but they did the job incredibly well. Breaking was hard and precise and it inspired confidence. The Roadster had the same setup up until 1961 when it received an upgrade to all round 290 mm disks which further improved things. However, the roadster was also about 240 lb heavier.

    Most importantly, all parts were extremely well engineered. The 300 SL was based on a race car, which had to endure extreme conditions, so it is no wonder that it was indestructible in regular road conditions. Driving it at top speed was no strain for the car and the speed itself did not depend on the car reaching its maximum power potential, but rather on gearing. You could get the feeling that the car could do much more, so driving at the ratio-limited top speed was a walk in the park for the heavy-duty parts of the 300 SL.

    All in all, the 300 SL was one of the most cherished cars of its time and the unprecedented driving feel was one of the main reasons for this. If you are looking for some driving thrill from the 1950s, the 300 SL might easily be the best choice.

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    Equipment & Comfort

    Top class materials, perfect fitment and finish and of course a classy design – this is what you can expect from Mercedes-Benz creations. Following the same route, from their flagship models you can expect even more and this is what the 300 SL was in the 1950s and 1960s.

    The dashboard was incredibly stylish, with rounded instruments, elegant steering wheel and beautiful chrome knobs and details. The top and bottom of it was covered in soft leather, usually in the same color as the rest of the interior. The main instruments on the cluster were either two rounded ones for speed and rpms, or with a rectangular upright one added between the two used for showing other vitals of the car instead of the four small dials present in the version without the upright instrument. Middle section held loads of knobs, a clock and air vents, while the rear view mirror was placed on top of the dashboard, rather than on the windshield. There were two-, three- or four-spoke steering wheels available for the car and it is really difficult to say which one looks the best.

    The seats were just perfect for the fastest car at the time. Basically, they were simple buckets with very good side support which was needed for turns at high speeds. The buckets had two “cushions”, one for sitting on and one for your back and they were covered in soft and plush leather. Driving the car peacefully, the “cushions” would provide comfort even for the longer runs, whilst side support provided confidence for sharper turns. Moreover, between the seats and doors, there was a wide sill, which created an impression of extra space.

    Between the seats, there was a transmission tunnel which hosted only the transmission stick and, on some models, handbrake, while it was placed on the left of the driver on others.

    Speaking of practicality, rather than comfort or design, we should again emphasize that the 300 SL was heavily based on a racing car. The side sills made it difficult to get inside the car, so wide-opening gullwing doors and the tilting steering wheel helped significantly.

    Similarly, windows on the Gullwing model were snap-in, because the uncommon door design left no room for roll-down ones. The Roadster, however, had roll-down windows and conventional doors.

    Air conditioning was not a part of the plans for the race car, so it is similar with the 300 SL. It did, however, feature a flow-through ventilation system that can’t really compare to proper air conditioning, but did the job reasonably well.

    Lastly, sound insulation was almost non-existent due to the fact that it would be pointless in a race car. This does make the car noisy, but many people consider this a good thing, myself included. The sounds are iconic and they convey the car’s unique character perfectly.

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    Running Costs

    A good 300 SL costs well into seven figures, ranging from about $1,000,000 to about $2,500,000. If you want to get one of the 29 cars with an all-aluminum body, you’ll have to go even further. For example, in 2012 an all-aluminum 1955 300 SL was sold for a whopping $4,620,000.

    Despite the price, selling it shouldn’t be a problem. Whenever a good 300 SL emerges, auction houses are sent into frenzy. This is mostly so due to the fact that, apart from being absolutely superb cars, only 1,400 coupes and 1,858 convertibles were ever built, so they were rare and very expensive even at the time when they were new.

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    History & Development

    Max Hoffman, a New York car distributor, was the guy that we should thank for the 300 SL. No, he had nothing to do with design, or engineering, but he was visionary enough to understand that a uniquely styled, race car derived and record-breaking fast car based on the W194 would be a hit in the USA. And he was so right. Over 80% of 300 SLs were sold in the USA. The W194 had great success in racing and the 300 SL (internally called W198) was very similar for two reasons. First of all, the sheer reputation of the W194 was awesome and therefore understandably exploited and secondly, those were the years soon after the war, so investing loads of money in new parts and development was virtually impossible.

    The first W198 300 SL saw the light of day in New York in 1954, two years after the first W194. It was a mixture of a GT and sports car with a single body shape for the start – coupe. The layout was, expectedly, front engine and rear wheel drive and it made use of the known M198 single overhead cam 3 l inline 6 engine which produced 215 hp in its weakest form. The power boost, compared to the previous uses of the M198, came from a new thing in production cars – direct fuel injection, coming from a mechanical system by Bosch – and it resulted in the 300 SL being the fastest production car at the time.

    However, top speed varied depending on the gear ratio used. The slowest models (but fastest accelerating) reached about 140 mph, while the record-breaking ones went up to 161 mph.

    The Roadster came in 1957. It had a different frame, which gave room for conventional doors and windows, but it was also significantly heavier than the Gullwing. Some of the Raodsters had 10 hp more due to increased compression ratio and also different rear suspension setup and all four disc brakes from 1961.

    Time also brought several minor styling changes, like steering wheel options, handbrake placement and instrument cluster design, but overall design and philosophy of the 300 SL remained the same.

    The 300 SL was discontinued in 1963 and theoretically replaced by the W113. Although a magnificent car, the W113 was nowhere near the 300 SL and we had to wait for half a century for the first proper successor to the legend that the 300 SL was.

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    Facts & Figures

    BodyCoupe, roadster
    Engines2,996 ccm SOHC l6 (215 hp – 225 hp)
    Dimensions and weight
    Length178” – 179.9”
    Weight2,410 lbs – 3,130 lbs
    Mercedes-Benz 300SL years of production
    1954 – 1963
    1954 – 1957 Coupe
    1957 – 1963 Roadster
    Mercedes-Benz 300SL production numbers
    Total 3,258
    Coupe 1,400
    Roadster 1,858
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