The Naked Truth

by

Mercedes Gull Wing Illustration

From 1954 to 1957, Mercedes Benz built what is widely regarded as one of the most spectacular cars ever sold. It was stylish, impossibly well-crafted, technologically advanced and fast as hell. The badge on its trunk identified it as a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, but we know it as the Gullwing.

To recapture some of its prewar competition glory, MB charged its chief development engineer, Rudolf Ulhenhaut, with building a world-beater. Ulhenhaut proceeded to stuff a production-based, overhead-cam, 3.0-liter straight-6 into an elegant space frame constructed of hundreds of steel tubes. He gave the package four-wheel independent suspension — albeit with a production-derived swing axle in the rear — and an impossibly sexy, low-drag aluminum skin. The result was known as the W194-chassis 300 SL: 300 for 3 liters, and SL for Sport Leicht, or sport light.

Several W194s were built in coupe and roadster form. The roadsters were pretty, but the coupes, with their vertically swinging doors — a shockingly elegant feature dreamed up because the 194’s frame tubes prohibited conventional doors — were eye-wateringly gorgeous.

In typical fashion, Mercedes took the car racing and essentially conquered the world. In 1952, W194s finished one-two at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, one-two-three at the 24 Hours of the Nürburgring and first at the Carrera Panamericana.

Mercedes quickly ended the 300 SLR racing career when factory driver Pierre Levegh, took the #20 300 SLR into one of the most spectacular and deadliest crashes of all time during the 1955 24 hours of Le Mans. Some say it was out of honor for Levegh, others speculate it was the drum brake design.

Supplemented words by Sam Smith


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One Response to “The Naked Truth”

  1. Mark A Warmington Says:

    Beautiful car and what a tragic legacy for it – the worst motor racing accident footage I have ever seen :(.

    That Gullwing and the Shelby Cobra are two iconic cars that I drool over.

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