The tradition of the Mercedes-Benz SL

Peter Merksen 08 Jun. 2021, 11:01:07
 The tradition of the Mercedes-Benz SL

On 12 March 1952, Mercedes-Benz unveiled the spectacular 300 SL racing sports car to the media on a motorway. From 1954 onwards, that very successful competition car shaped the tradition of the Mercedes-Benz SL sports cars.

A stretch of motorway near Stuttgart became the stage for the presentation of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL (W 194) on 12 March 1952. Two days before that, the Stuttgart brand’s press office had caused a sensation when it issued invitations to selected journalists. It was not simply a question of the “new Mercedes-Benz 300 SL (super-light) undertaking test drives in public for the first time”. This was simultaneously a clear statement that the brand was returning to motorsport with this car, as the press release noted: three 300 SLs had already been registered for “that famous Italian road race, the ‘Mille Miglia’, to be held on 3 and 4 May 1952”.

The press photo sent out with the invitation showed a dynamically drawn sports car depicting the archetypal SL lines. Its gullwing doors ended at the waistline of the body. Later, Mercedes-Benz enlarged the cut-outs downwards, making it easier to get in. What was completely new was the structure hidden under the body and made of thin aluminium-magnesium sheet: this was the roll cage, developed by Rudolf Uhlenhaut especially for this racing sports car and weighing 50 kilograms, made of thin tubing that was subjected only to compression and tension. It was this frame design that made it technically necessary to hinge the gullwing doors to the roof. The M 194 engine was derived from the M 186 production engine used in the Mercedes-Benz 300 (W 186) representation car presented in 1951. For use in the racing sports car, the engineers increased its output to around 125 kW (170 hp). By tilting the engine through 50 degrees to the left and employing dry sump lubrication, it was possible to lower the installation position. Other technical components in the 300 SL were also derived from the Mercedes-Benz 300, the legendary “Adenauer” saloon, and the sporty-luxurious 300 S touring car (W 188).

The 300 SL was the car of the season. In the 1952 Mille Miglia, Mercedes-Benz took second and fourth places with the 300 SL in the very first race. The racing sports car also took a triple victory in the sports car race in Bern, a one-two victory in the 24 hours of Le Mans and a quadruple victory in the sports car race on the Nürburgring. The last race of the 300 SL – which now had an output of 132 kW (180 hp) – was the third Carrera Panamericana 1952 in Mexico. Karl Kling/Hans Klenk and Hermann Lang/Erwin Grupp achieved a legendary one-two victory.

For 1953, a successor model to the highly successful 300 SL racing sports car was developed, the W 194/11. It was nicknamed “Hobel” (“carpenter’s plane”) because of it characteristic front design. However, that car was never entered in a race. From 1954, Mercedes-Benz decided to compete in the Formula One World Championship and concentrated on developing the W 196 R racing car.

Mercedes Benz SL Gullwing

An unbroken tradition of production vehicles since 1954

The motorsport successes of the 300 SL racing sports car in 1952 quickly prompted calls for a production version. Mercedes-Benz responded and presented the 300 SL (W 198) super sports coupé and the sporty but elegant 190 SL (W 121) in February 1954. To this day, the Stuttgart brand has continued to uphold the success story of the SL without interruption.

After the successful 300 SL racing sports car (W 194), three iconic production vehicles filled customers all over the world with enthusiasm: they were the 300 SL Coupé of the W 198 model series (1954 to 1957), the open 190 SL sports car of the W 121 model series (1955 to 1963) and the 300 SL Roadster of the W 198 model series (1957 to 1963). Together, these sports cars defined many of the key characteristics of future SL generations. As their joint successor, the 230 SL of the W 113 model series with the safety body designed by Béla Barényi debuted in March 1963. Due to the unusual shape of the hardtop, the sports car was quickly nicknamed the “Pagoda”. The R 107 was then built for 18 successful years from 1971 onwards. At the same time, the roadster formed the basis for the luxurious SLC Coupés in the C 107 model series. The R 129 appeared in 1989 as a pioneering technology car. Its successor, the R 230, introduced the folding Vario roof in 2001, combining the automotive pleasures of travelling in a roadster and a coupé. The consistently applied lightweight design, amongst other features, aroused considerable enthusiasm from 2012 onwards, when the model series R 231 Mercedes-Benz SL debuted. The new SL in the R 232 model series will premiere in 2021 and will lead the SL legend into the future.

And soon Mercedes-Benz will unveil a completely new SL for model year 2022.

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