Following a painstaking restoration by the Mercedes-Benz Classic Centre, the oldest SL model still in existence has been restored to its former glory.
The 300 SL (model designation W 194) is one of the most significant racing cars from the 1950s, and it still carries visible traces of a long and thrilling life.
The origins of the SL are rooted in motor racing: in the early 1950s, Mercedes-Benz developed the W 194, which undertook initial test drives in November 1951 on the Solitude circuit just outside Stuttgart, as well as on the Nürburgring and the Hockenheimring.
The vehicle was introduced to an awestruck press on 12 March 1952, on the autobahn between Stuttgart and Heilbronn.
The 1952 racing season was to prove exceptionally successful for Mercedes-Benz, as a look at the 300 SL's results reveals: second and fourth places in the Mille Miglia, a threefold victory in the "Prix de Berne" sports car race, double victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, fourfold victory in the Nürburgring Anniversary Sports Car Grand Prix and a double victory in the third Carrera Panamericana in Mexico.
The brand had made its return to motor racing with a flourish, while the advertising impact ensured it was firmly back on the international scene.
The very first 300 SL ever built no long exists, having been scrapped during its time with the company. However, the second car, with chassis number 194 010 00002/52, has been in company ownership since it was built in the racing workshops in 1951/52.
This oldest existing SL has now been painstakingly restored to mark the "60 years of the SL" anniversary, which will be celebrated in 2012.
This involved the vehicle being completely dismantled at the Mercedes-Benz Classic Centre in Fellbach, near Stuttgart, then every single component meticulously examined and, where necessary, restored according to the highest standards of authenticity and quality.
The restoration of the bodywork was a particularly tricky process, as it is made of extremely fine aluminum/magnesium sheet metal which, by its nature, is extremely delicate.
It took the specialists around six months to bring the body back to its former glory. The restoration lasted ten months in all, which, in view of the extensive work involved, represented a very tight schedule.
All the effort was worthwhile, though. When the engine of the 300 SL, which bears its original license plate "W59-4029", was started up and the vehicle picked up speed, it was easy to believe it could still manage its top speed of 143mph.
The first racecar to be produced by Mercedes-Benz after the end of the Second World War appeared at a time when Europe still lay in ruins. On 15 June 1951 the Board of Management resolved to participate in motor racing once again from the 1952 season and commissioned the production of the "300 SL Super-Light", as the new car was initially known. The suffix was later shortened to the simple letters SL – so giving rise to the model designation 300 SL.
Its M 194 engine was derived from the engine used in the Mercedes-Benz 300 prestige sedan, also known as the "Adenauer Mercedes". For its use in racing, the engineers increased the output to around 170hp. The engine, equipped with dry sump lubrication, is canted at an angle of 50 degrees to the left.
The body of this first SL pre-empts certain elements of the later series-production car. Among these are the low hood of the pre-war racecars, with a Mercedes star mounted on the grille.
The famous swing-wing doors are a characteristic feature of the Coupé: they are cut deep into the roof, open upwards and were originally conceived as access hatches that opened only as far as the beltline.
During preparations for the "24 Hours of Le Mans" the door openings were enlarged, giving the even more pronounced effect of extended wings. This led to the car being nicknamed the "Gullwing" by the Americans and "Papillon" (Butterfly) by the French. In two races the 300 SL appeared with a Roadster body rather than as a "Gullwing" model.
Lightweight construction was one of the key priorities for the 300 SL. Wherever possible, efforts were made to save weight - the bodyshell is made of sheet aluminum/magnesium, some of the mechanical components of aluminum or magnesium, while various parts were bored to make them lighter.
Another way of improving competitiveness was to make the body as aerodynamic as possible. Rudolf Uhlenhaut, who was the head of passenger car testing at Daimler-Benz at the time, developed a special framework for the W 194, weighing just 50kg. This was made of fine, high-alloy steel tubes designed to absorb tensile and compression forces.
The interior was panelled throughout and, unusually for a racecar, exudes an air of comfort. Speedometer and rev counter are perfectly positioned in the driver's field of vision, with the smaller instruments for water temperature, fuel pressure, oil temperature and oil pressure, as well as the car's original stopwatch, which was located below them. The contoured bucket seats were upholstered in tartan wool cloth, while the four-spoke steering wheel can be removed to get in and out of the car more easily.
A total of ten W 194 vehicles were built for the 1952 season. A successor model was also developed in readiness for the following year which, as the eleventh SL to be built, is also known as the W 194/11. It never raced in the 1953 season, however.
From 1954 onwards, Mercedes-Benz competed in Formula 1, while the W 194 was developed further to become the 300 SL production car (W 198).
The production vehicle became the dream sports car of the 1950s, going on to be awarded the accolade of "Sports car of the century" in 1999.
Mercedes-Benz 300 SL (model series W 194)
Year of construction: 1952
Units built: 10
Engine: six-cylinder in-line engine, overhead camshaft, three Solex twin carburettors, dry sump lubrication
Output: 170hp at 5200rpm
Kerb weight: approx 2336 lb
Top speed: 143mph