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Lot 255: Mercedes-Benz 300SL Coupe

Automobiles of Amelia Island, RM Auctions (14 March 2009)

215bhp, 2,996 cc overhead camshaft inline six-cylinder engine, four-speed manual transmission, four-wheel independent suspension, and four-wheel drum brakes. Wheelbase: 94.5"

Legendary Mercedes-Benz engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut was given responsibility for developing Mercedes-Benz's first postwar racing car. He had observed the success that Jaguar had at Le Mans in 1951 with their XK 120C, which was essentially a standard XK 120 with a higher output engine that had been lightened and fitted with a streamlined body. The key lesson, for Uhlenhaut, was the use of as many production components as possible.

While prewar Mercedes-Benz engineers operated with seemingly unlimited budgets, the postwar company simply could not afford such cost-no-object development programs, and so when Uhlenhaut learned how little he would have to work with, it became clear that a production-based approach would be required.

Fortunately, the company's new 300 series incorporated some excellent components, including a three liter overhead cam six-cylinder engine, a strong cast iron gearbox, and a lightweight independent swing arm rear axle. The main difficulty was the height of the engine; the ingenious solution was to lay it on its left side at a 50 degree angle. This required a custom chassis and body, which became the major new components developed specifically for the racing car.

During the war, Uhlenhaut had done extensive work on framework made of small diameter tubing. He had learned that by triangulating many small tubes, it was possible to achieve tremendous strength while retaining very light weight. Indeed, his chassis for the 300SL weighed just 180 pounds, but was extremely stiff and very strong.

When wrapped around the canted engine, it was clear the car could have a very low frontal area  one of the key factors for success as a racing car. The only difficulty was that to maintain its strength, the new chassis required very high sides. The solution was another flash of brilliance  he would hinge the doors at the centerline of the car. It worked, although in the first generation of racing cars the doors came down only to the bottom of the side windows.

Mercedes-Benz was concerned that the motor sports governing bodies would rule against this radical design, but Uhlenhaut and Neubauer had done their homework and learned that none of the rather elaborate regulations restricted the size, position, or configuration of the doors.

A very sleek body was designed for the car, and with its low profile and smooth flanks (there were no bumpers, door handles, trim, or anything else to cause drag), it achieved a coefficient of drag of just 0.25  a remarkable number even today.

The resulting car was dubbed the 300SL. It created a sensation when it was first seen, and an enviable track record beginning with its very first race  the 1952 Mille Miglia, where the brand new SL, driven by Karl Kling, finished second after a wheel-to-wheel battle with the race-leading Ferrari. Many victories would follow, beginning with the very next race, the Bern Grand Prix. The most notable win, however, came at Le Mans, with a one-two finish that proved, once and for all, that the 300SL was a worthy successor to the legendary prewar Mercedes-Benz sports cars.

In the case of the 300SL, the road car was a clear and direct descendent of the racing car. So good was the racing car that the street car was virtually the same. Of course, some concessions were made for comfort and convenience, but the basics  tube frame chassis, gullwing doors, three liter overhead cam six-cylinder engine  all remained in place.

Some structural changes were needed to improve access through the doors, but other than the addition of fuel injection and improved creature comforts, the basic specifications of the new 300SL coupe were unchanged. It was fast, solid, and handled well, and it quickly developed an enviable reputation both on the track and in the streets.

Some cars are fortunate enough to become icons, and in the collector car world, there is no more immediately recognizable sight than a 300SL with its doors raised. Born as a solution to a constraint imposed by the car's light tubular frame, the gullwing doors became the car's visual signature. It is this combination of an impeccable bloodline, outstanding engineering and striking design that has made the 300SL so highly prized by collectors today.

As supported by an extensive scrapbook of documentation and newspaper clippings accompanying the car, this particular 300SL Coup� was purchased new from dealer Heinz Zegke of Spokane, Washington by Ed Atchinson. Atchinson was an engineer for the State of Montana Highway Department at Helena, Montana. After retaining the car for a number of years he sold the car to a doctor in Great Falls, Montana. The doctor, however, only had it for a short time as he sold it to one Mr. Waldenberg of Great Falls, who likewise only kept the car for a short time before selling it with about 20,000 miles to Mr. Curt Hanson of Portland, Oregon in July 1966.

After driving the car sparingly in the Great Falls area, where he owned a Volkswagen and Porsche dealership, Hanson drove it to Portland, Oregon in the summer of 1977 where it remained in storage until November 1981. Following its four years of storage, the car was treated to a full restoration, which was completed in July 1982. Thereafter, the car was only driven to and from the trailer at the various show events it attended.

As documented in the aforementioned binder compiled by Mr. Hanson, the 300SL was a multiple-award winner. It was honored with Best of Show awards at the 1982 Olympia Concours d'Elegance and 1982 Chico Concours d'Elegance before coming in second at the Forest Grove Concours of 1984. The car also won additional First in Class awards between 1982 and 1984 at the Modesto, Hillsborough, OSU Corvallis and Forest Grove Concours events. It also received a Distance Trophy at the 1982 Oakland Invitational Concours, followed by a People's Choice Award one year later at the Exotic Sports Car Show in Portland, Oregon.

According to the vendor, the award-winning Gullwing was subsequently shipped to Switzerland where it became part of a highly respected automotive collection and museum and never saw any road use for 15 years. The car was finally acquired by the owner's family twelve years ago and shipped to London, remaining in their collection ever since. It has since been stripped down, repainted and brought back to concours-quality condition, as per factory specifications, finished in white with a red leather interior. The engine was rebuilt, the underside was fully detailed and, as supported by MOT certificates, the car has accumulated only about 1,000 miles in the last 10 or 12 years. In fact, the car has been driven less than 3,000 miles in the last three decades. Presented in show quality condition, it is also accompanied by belly pans and has been properly cared for and maintained in the owner's respected collection.

Just 867 300SL coup�s were built in 1955, and fewer still remain today. It is difficult now to imagine the significant advance represented by the 300SL in its day. Not only did it offer considerable technological advancement and trendsetting design, but the long hood concealed a powerful overhead cam six-cylinder engine with Bosch fuel injection capable of top speeds in excess of 130 miles per hour. Perhaps Autocar's editors said it best: the effect is electrifying.

Lot Details
Auction Automobiles of Amelia Island
RM Auctions, The Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island, Florida
TypeCar
Lot Number255
Estimate$475000-$550000
Outcome SOLD
Hammer Price$375000
Hammer Price (inc premium)-
Year1955
Condition rating0
Registration number
Mileage-
Chassis number1980405500503
Engine number
Engine capacity (cc)
Engine - cylinders
Number of doors