Mercedes-Benz SL-Class 60 Year History
Groundbreaking technology and race victories, the 1952 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL racing car picked up where the Silver Arrow left off
by John Clark | 10 April 2012
View the photo gallery
For the past 60 years, the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class has represented the brand with its elegant lines, technical innovations and its speed. The SL’s success stories began with the 300 SL race car in 1952 when it began winning several international races. These victories provided the initial spark for the 300 SL Gullwing (W 198 I, built from 1954) and 190 SL (W 121, from 1955) production vehicles. Later model series of this powerhouse car – the W 113 ‘pagoda’ and the R 107, R 129 and R 230 – brought the SL-Class seamlessly into the new millennium.
The SL sports cars have always sold extremely well, particularly in terms of exports. By the end of the 1950s, the 300 SL gullwing coupé and the 190 SL roadster had already set quite a standard for international sales, although later SL models were also able to match the success of the sports car’s first generation.
The design and engineering innovations of each SL model put it at the forefront of its time. But customers have also benefited greatly in the long-term from the purchase of an SL sports car. And why? Because the models of the 1950s and later generations have long since been regarded as vintage cars of value or coveted modern classics. Mercedes-Benz Classic is committed to helping owners retain and increase the value of their cars. It still supplies genuine spare parts, for example, and sells vintage cars through its Young Classics dealership or under the Mercedes-Benz Classic banner.
The R 231 model being launched in 2012 is the latest generation of the Mercedes-Benz SL. The foundation for its success are 60 outstanding years of Mercedes-Benz sports car history under the Super-Leicht (super lightweight) or SL designation.
Exclusive sports cars for the world
Groundbreaking technology and international triumphs – in 1952, the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL racing car (W 194) appeared to pick up where the pre-war Silver Arrow had left off. And just as in those days, the success of the 300 SL brought the Stuttgart-based car manufacturer back to the attention of a motor sport-loving worldwide public. In a period which saw Germany rebuilding after the war, this proved of inestimable value to the company. There was one major difference, however, between the pre-war Grand-Prix racers and the gullwing coupés with their tubular space frames. Whereas the Silver Arrow never broke free from its racing mould, the 300 SL was reborn two years after its competition debut in the form of a breathtaking series sports car.
This Mercedes-Benz 300 SL (W 198 I) burst onto the world stage in February 1954 at the International Motor Sports Show in New York. This luxury coupé – which shared its DNA with the internationally successful SL sports car – did, after all, emerge from a partnership between Germany and America. Mercedes-Benz’s official US importer Maximilian E. Hoffman was the man who convinced senior management in Stuttgart to build a series sports car modelled on the W 194. And so it was fitting for the W 198 I to be publicly unveiled in New York to automotive experts from all over the world, alongside a prototype of the 190 SL (W 121).
Born in Vienna in 1904 as Maximilian Edwin Hoffmann, the automotive enthusiast had previously worked as an importer in Austria in the 1920s and 1930s. Volvo saloons were among the cars that his company sold. Hoffmann, son of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, emigrated to France in the late 1930s. To escape the Nazis, he fled France for the United States of America in 1941, where he re-established himself as an automotive importer after the Second World War. In 1947, he opened his first showroom on New York’s Park Avenue and had his last name anglicised to Hoffman.
From 1951 onwards, Hoffman sold Mercedes-Benz cars as well. The exclusive German automotive brand matched not only the ethos of his business, but also his personality. A New York Times retrospective described the automotive dealer as follows: “Hoffman was compared to the legendary art dealer of the early 20th century for his ability to captivate clients with his salesmanship, superb taste and forceful personality.”
On top of all this, Hoffman had a keen nose for trends. This made itself felt in September 1952, when he secured the contract to become the official importer of Mercedes-Benz passenger cars for the eastern United States – a sales territory that later expanded to cover the west coast as well. Crucially, Hoffman did not restrict himself to merely selling Mercedes-Benz cars in America. His influence on the Stuttgart-based company was much more direct than that; most notably, he demanded that they offer sporty, good-looking cars.
In September 1953, at a meeting with the board of directors of what was then Daimler-Benz AG, he pressed for the introduction of new sports cars. Hoffman correctly judged the market for such an extraordinary series sports car as the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, but even in 1954 he would still much rather have been selling the open-top roadster version. This followed in 1957 in the form of the 300 SL Roadster (W 198 II).
The new sports car was an immediate success, particularly in the USA. Within 17 months, 996 gullwings had been sold, of which 850 went to the USA. That was 85 percent of all the models produced in 1954 and 1955. The US export ratio did level off afterwards, but it remained impressive. Up to 1963, Mercedes-Benz exported more than half of its 300 SL W 198 models to the USA, exactly 51 percent of all the 1,400 coupés and 1,858 roadsters that were produced. The export ratio for all international markets put together was 86 percent.
Even before the launch in New York, there was a sense at Mercedes-Benz that this exceptional sports cars had huge potential to be a style icon. In February 1954, Friedrich Nallinger and Rudolf Uhlenhaut registered a design patent for the gullwing on behalf of Daimler-Benz AG. In December 1955, the United States Patent Office published the relevant document (design number 176,278), which protected “the ornamental design for an automobile, substantially as shown and described herein”. The patent serves both as the birth certificate of the Mercedes-Benz’s SL series sports cars and as and as evidence of the designers’ awareness that this pioneering vehicle was truly original.
Introduced in prototype form in 1954 and built as a production vehicle from 1955, the 190 SL became just as captivating a symbol of the sporty motoring ethos of Mercedes-Benz as the 300 SL coupé – the car from which the designers borrowed so heavily. From 1955 onwards, almost 80 per cent of the 25,881 vehicles produced were exported, and nearly 40 percent of all 190 SL models were sold in the USA. 1956 is thought to be a record year: from January to December, Mercedes-Benz sold a total of 3,109 passenger cars in the United States – and no fewer than 1,849 of these were SL 190 sports cars, almost 60 percent of the company’s entire US exports for the year.
The manner in which the SL sports car – from a standing start – established itself as a sought-after automobile for sporty and style-conscious drivers in key export markets was instrumental in Mercedes-Benz’s success. Most important of all, of course, were sales to customers in the USA and other foreign markets, which generated huge revenues from cars in the upper range of the Mercedes-Benz price list. In addition, the SL sports car conveyed the image of a modern automotive brand whose vehicles united a sporty aesthetic with groundbreaking technology. Millionaires, actors, artists – it was often celebrities who proudly turned out in their 300 SLs and other Mercedes-Benz cars, raising the profile of the brand in the public eye.
This international success was reflected time and time again in the exceptionally high export ratios of the various SL model series. For some vehicle generations, four out of every five cars went abroad. And – as remained the case down the decades – the biggest market for them was almost always the USA.
It was no different for the W 113, which appeared in spring 1963 as the replacement for the 300 SL Roadster and 190 SL. The designers and engineers at Mercedes Benz struck a delicate balance to position the car, which became known as the ‘pagoda’ because of its distinctive, slightly concave hardtop, between the high-performance 300 SL Roadster sports car and its ‘baby brother’, the 190 SL. The result was a luxurious, two-seater tourer boasting great performance and optimum handling safety. Nearly 70 percent of all pagodas were exported; once again, this model sold best in the USA (40 percent of the entire production).
For the W 113, Mercedes-Benz responded to the specific demands of the export markets through specific modifications. Customers in the United States ordered far more cars with automatic transmission, air conditioning and whitewall tyres than their counterparts in Europe. The USA even supplied the name for a special version of the Mercedes-Benz roadster – the ‘California Coupé’, which had two fold-down seats instead of the soft top. This edition could only be driven open-top or hard-top.
The 107 series roadster, made between 1971 and 1989, has the highest US export rate of any SL model to date: 62 percent of all cars in this series went to the United States and almost four fifths of the 237,287 vehicles produced in total were exported. Mercedes-Benz developed a low-compression version of the 350 SL solely for export to North America, which had a 143 kW (195 bhp) 4.5 litre V8 engine adapted to meet US legislation regulating exhaust emissions. In April 1973, both versions of the 107 series, the roadster and the coupé, were introduced to other markets as well in the 4.5 litre V8 format, which now had an output of 165 kW (225 bhp).
Another special edition for North America, Japan and Australia arrived in 1985 in the form of the 560 SL, whose 5.6 litre V8 engine delivered 170 kW (230 bhp). It was sold in these markets instead of the 500 SL. This spectacular sports car had the same V8 engine as the 500 SL but with an extended stroke.
Modifications of this kind were necessary to meet the strict regulations on emission reductions in the USA. The bulky rubber bumpers, introduced in 1974, were also a byproduct of North American legislation. In the case of the SL R 107, this protection against collision was around 20 centimetres thick. Together with the modified headlamps of the export version, this gave the US model series a highly distinctive look.
The R 129 SL Roadsters gave a whole new meaning to the term ‘special model’. For the first time, the company produced exclusive editions for specific markets instead of merely adapting the cars to meet the legal requirements and aesthetic preferences of the export countries. This included, of course, the ’40th Anniversary Roadster Edition’ of the SL 320 and SL 500, released in the US market in 1997. Producing 750 vehicles in total, Mercedes-Benz commemorated the launch of the 300 SL Roadster (W 198 I) in 1957. The ‘Silver Arrow Edition USA’, made in 2001, comprised 1,515 vehicles in the SL 500 and SL 600 formats.
But the focus was not exclusively on the USA. There were special versions for the UK and Japanese markets as well, such as the one-off ‘designo MB UK’ series (150 cars) and ‘designo MB Japan’ (67 cars), and the ‘designo-Vintage Edition UK’ and ‘designo-Heritage Edition UK’ (49 cars each). As in North America, Mercedes-Benz sold the R 129 in the UK market as a final one-off series limited to 100 vehicles – the ‘Silver Arrow Edition UK’.
The R 230 series, the first SL Roadster with a steel vario roof, appeared in the summer of 2001. By October 2011, almost 170,000 of these sports cars had been sold. And with an export ratio of 78 percent (USA: 45 percent), this vehicle generation was an international bestseller in the great SL tradition. For both the R 230 and the R 129, there were few special models with modified engines. Although developed for the European market, the models had long since fulfilled the strict emissions standards of North America and other export markets as well. Nevertheless, there were still subtle differences between the US versions and the series models for Europe. The European SL 500, for example, was not renamed after being given a facelift in 2006, even though its M 113 5-litre V8 engine had been replaced by a 5.5 litre equivalent. In North America, the sports car’s cubic capacity increased by 10 percent (engine output rose as well from 225 kW/306 bhp to 285 kW/388 bhp), and its new name was worn proudly on the boot lid – the SL 550.
In 2012, a new SL in the R 231 series arrived on the market. Sports cars enthusiasts around the world heralded the latest generation of a legend that had been established 60 years earlier by the 300 SL racing car.
“Better than shares”: The SL as a classic car and long-term investment
The strong values of the SL-Class apply not only to Mercedes-Benz’s current sports cars generation, but also to the veterans of the series. Within a short time after production had ended, the iconic 300 SL was thought of by many as the ultimate dream car – so it was only fitting that in 1999 it was voted sportscar of the century by an expert panel of judges.
But also the 190 SL, the W 113 ‘pagodas’ and the R 107 and R 129 SL Roadster have long been sought-after as vintage cars or modern classics. The timeless appeal of these extraordinary sports cars is reflected not only in the passion that they inspire in people, but also in how much they retain their value. In November 2011, Motor Klassik magazine described certain classic cars as being “better than shares”. Included in this category is, of course, the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL gullwing. Examples of this model series in good condition have grown in value by 171 percent since 2001.
This is not a flash in the pan, but a long-term trend. And on this basis, experts at Mercedes-Benz Classic believe that prices will continue to rise for well-looked-after SL classics. The January 2012 edition of Motor Klassik magazine gave the following piece of advice to potential buyers of the 300 SL, series W 198 I: “For most classic car fans, owning a gullwing coupé will remain a dream. Top-of-the-line models reach prices of more than one million euros at auction.”
The classic car magazine also took a close look at the other SL models. Its top performers were cars that offer “something for all tastes” (R 107) because of the many different types that were made, and those that are regarded as “future classics” (R 129). But for a classic sports car to retain its value – and this is the crucial point – it must be maintained to an adequate standard.
In this respect, Mercedes-Benz Classic lends its help to owners both of vintage SL sports cars and modern classics. The outstanding availability of spare parts, including the central star on the radiator grill of the 1950s 300 SL, is securing the future of these vehicles as mobile museum pieces. Mercedes-Benz Classic provides knowledgeable, expert advice to owners of classic cars. But this is about more than just providing a service. It also helps to preserve a special chapter in the story of automotive engineering.
Since the 300 SL gullwing and the 190 SL made their debuts, the SL series sports cars have consistently set standards in terms of technical excellence and aesthetics. Top engineering innovations include the direct injection in the W 198, the safety bodyshell of the ‘pagoda’ and the pop-up roll bar of the R 129. And as a style icon that moves with the times, the sports car can still be seen today at international classic car rallies, in films and in prestigious collections all over the world.