There’s a line of succession that can be drawn from the original Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing coupe right up to the latest roadster, the sixth-generation. During the intervening years, the SL has embodied a cocktail of top-flight engineering and absolute glamour. Not just on the boulevards of Hollywood and the French Riviera, but also the racetrack.
The 300SL started life purely as a racing car. In 1952 alone, it conquered the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a one-two finish, had a strong showing in the Mille Miglia and took the first four places in a race on the famous Nürburgring Nordschleife. It also scored a victory at the 1952 running of the Carrera Panamericana in Mexico, despite a vulture hitting the windshield at almost 120 mph.
If anyone thinks a lightweight tubular space frame is recent technology, think again, the 300SL had one. SL stands for “Sport Light.” This was the machine that modernized the image of Mercedes-Benz after World War II as the company rebuilt itself from a bomb-ravaged pile of rubble. But it took an American to bring the SL to its current status.
Well, an emigrant Austrian. Max Hoffman was based in New York, importing Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, BMW, Volkswagen and Jaguar cars. With one foot in the Old World and another in the New, Hoffman was in an ideal position to influence European car companies that wanted to sell to Americans. He convinced Mercedes-Benz to create a road-going version of the 300SL (he also talked Porsche into making the now-legendary 356 Speedster).
At the 1954 New York Auto Show, two cars wearing an SL badge were introduced to the world: the six-cylinder, direct gasoline-injected 300SL coupe and the 190SL roadster. The latter had a less powerful four-cylinder engine with two twin-choke Solex carburetors; it was considered an “SL-lite” (it could be described as the SLK of its day), but still found such glamorous buyers as Gina Lollobrigida and Grace Kelly, plus another 25,879 customers. Of the 1,400 300SL coupes the factory produced, 80 percent of them sold in the States.
The roadster version, the template for every SL to come, arrived in 1957 for the 1958 model year. It had narrower sills and was therefore easier to access. At $11,000, it sure wasn’t cheap.
In 1963 came the second-generation 230SL, replacing both the 300SL and the 190SL. Over the course of its life, larger six-cylinder engines prompted name changes to 250SL and then 280SL. This is the model with the “Pagoda roof” detachable hardtop, so named because of its distinctive shape that had two raised sections at either side. The more pedantic among us might argue that it looks nothing like a pagoda and they would have a point, but history always has the casting vote.
This was also the first sports car to have a rigid passenger cell with crumple zones incorporated into the body, plus a cabin where edges were rounded off for extra safety. In 1968, the company made a one-off version with a rotary engine.
Generation four began in 1989. Princess Diana had one of these, the first member of the British royal family to drive a “foreign” car.
The third-generation V8-powered 350SL came out in 1971, becoming the 380SL, 420SL, 480SL, 500SL and 560SL at various points between its debut and 1989. This generation takes the award for second-longest production cycle for a Mercedes-Benz vehicle; the G-Class is the longest (introduced in 1979 and still going strong).
Generation four began in 1989. Princess Diana had one of these, the first member of the British royal family to drive a “foreign” car. This was when the numbers and letters switched places, the 500SL becoming the SL500. It also had a pop-up rollbar and the option of a 6.0-liter V12 engine. There was also a rare SL73 AMG with a 7.3-liter V12 (the same engine that powered the Pagani Zonda).
The fifth version arrived in 2003, the first to have a retractable hardtop. Steve Jobs famously used to drive an SL55 AMG. After a 2008 facelift came three more AMG models: SL63, SL65 and SL65 Black Series. Generation six comes out in July 2012.
With the possible exceptions of the more contemporary AMG versions, the SL has matured from sports car to powerful grand tourer. But it’s still highly desirable.