“On May 6, 1955, one side of a straight section of Autobahn between Munich and Ingolstadt was closed to allow journalists and Mercedes-Benz testers to try a 300 SL for top speed. Wind speeds were checked and timing equipment was set up in a Volkswagen Microbus to measure speed in two directions over a flying kilometre. The fastest of the day was clocked by company tester Arthur Mischke with an average of 155.5mph” -Karl Ludvigsen, model authority and former Gullwing owner, writing in his 2005 book Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, Gullwings and Roadsters, 1954-1964
After these exhaustive time trials, the 300 SL was borrowed by two British journalists who drove it from Munich to Frankfurt, averaging 78.6mph over 249 miles, an almost unbelievable pace to set on public roads in the mid-1950s, particularly given this car’s optional 3.09:1 ‘long’ axle.
The feat was all the more remarkable as the Gullwing employed in the test had, only days before, just completed 998 miles of the Mille Miglia in 11 hours, 29 minutes. Its engine was checked after the race and found to be in perfect order.
Instantly recognisable today, the immortal 300 SL Gullwing was the apogee of automotive technology of the time: the best of the best.
For the true connoisseur – racer and entrepreneur John von Neumann, sportsman Briggs Cunningham, Woolworth heir Lance Reventlow and British racing team owner Rob Walker – such perfection could, just, be improved upon.
They all ordered alloy-bodied 300 SL Gullwings, of which only 29 were built, and in August 1955 aristocratic Swiss businessman Jean Pierre de Chambrier took delivery of his alloy 300 SL, the white car presented here. The owner of Neuchatel airport and a pioneer in Swiss aviation circles, de Chambrier also bought a new black, steel-bodied Gullwing at the same time although it appears he sold it soon afterwards.
The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Aluminium ‘Gullwing’
When the Stuttgart Titan returned to motor racing in 1952 it did so with futuristic sports cars that looked as if they’d only just landed from another galaxy. The Typ W194 300 SL was entered in five races that year and won four: victorious at Bern, the Nürburgring, Le Mans and the Mexican Carrera Panamericana, only just beaten on the Mille Miglia by an inspired Bracco at the wheel of a Ferrari.
Thanks to a spaceframe chassis that ran level with the driver’s waist, the 300 SL Coupé needed special doors, hinged at the roof and meeting the sills halfway up the side of the car. The ‘Gullwing’ was born.
Work was proceeding apace on the company’s challenger for 1953, a more svelte Gullwing racing car with a now fuel-injected motor, when Mercedes received an urgent request from its East Coast US agent, Max Hoffman. The factory saw the new car as a stop-gap before the straight-eight racers of 1954; Hoffman believed it could be marketed as an ultra-expensive roadgoing sports car.
Hoffman’s initial guarantee for 500 300 SLs clinched it. Rather than building the planned five specialised racing cars for the 1953 Mille Miglia, Mercedes productionised the prototype and the 300 SL was launched to the public at the February 1954 New York International Motor Sports Show.
Until production finished early in 1957, when the 300 SL roadster replaced it, 1,400 300 SL coupés found homes in the garages of the world’s wealthiest. They were also raced and rallied hard by the most talented all-round drivers of the day. Stand-out Gullwing pilots included Olivier Gendebien (winner of the 1955 Alpine and Liège-Rome-Liège rallies), Wolfgang von Trips (who at one point led the 1956 Mille Miglia) and Stirling Moss, who finished second overall on the 1957 Tour de France.
On 22 February 1955, the Mercedes-Benz board approved the development of a more focused car for competition. The prototype had an alloy body, engine and wheels. For production, though, it was decided to make only the bodywork in alloy, and the result was an all-up weight of 1,134kg compared with 1,225kg for a regular road car.
The alloy cars were delivered with Rudge knock-off wheels and uprated brakes, springs and dampers. The engines were built using Sonderteile giving an extra 15bhp, chiefly through higher compression and a new camshaft.
Of the 1,400 Gullwings, only 29 were built to this ultimate specification. Not all were raced, with many bought by the most discerning wealthy enthusiasts simply wanting the best.
This Motor Car
Swiss resident Jean Pierre de Chambrier’s 300 SL Aluminium Gullwing went into production in mid-1955. A copy of the June 1955 factory production sheet confirms the car was DB 050 Weiß with 333 blue leather and the following specification:
SA55080 aluminium body
Special high-gloss paint finish
SA55041/3 Becker Mexico radio with Hirschmann antenna
SA10038 sealed beam headlamps
SA10013 engine with competition components (NSL camshaft)
SA945-198 Rudge wheels
SA550317/3174 bumpers with overriders
SA984/2-198 rear axle ratio 3.25:1
Windshield washer unit
1kg of spare paint DB 050 White
To be supplied separately:
983/2-198 one rear axle 3.42:1
982/2-198 one rear axle 3.64:1
Interestingly, under Kaüfer (buyer) the document states: ‘Merc.-Benz Distr. New York/USA’ – quite possibly an order swapped over to meet the wishes of an important client, or a way around a direct sale to a Swiss resident.
According to a rare copy of the car’s Certificat d’acquittement (Swiss importation receipt), it was brought into Switzerland via the border post at Cornavin, Geneva, on 23 August 1955. The document for a ‘Mercedes-Benz type 300 SL No. 198.043-5.500.413’ clearly states: ‘couleur blanche’, ‘garniture cuir, bleue’. A white car with blue leather interior, its only listed ‘accessories’ were a radio (Becker) and outillage (tools).
Mr de Chambrier registered his new alloy Gullwing ‘NE 4000’ and kept the car until February 1971, a 16-year automotive love affair rarely seen today. During this period the car was returned to Stuttgart for suspension, steering, braking and electrical work. The exhaust was replaced and the car repainted DB 180 Silver, with re-dyed leather upholstery and new headlining. Copies of invoices from Mercedes-Benz from January and May 1967 accompany the car.
A copy of an invoice for CHF 25,000 dated 15 February 1971 confirms its sale from de Chambrier to fellow Swiss national Raymond Perroud of Chemin des Voirons, Petit-Lancy, just outside Geneva. Like de Chambrier, Perroud cherished the rare 300 SL for a long time – until 2005. He was a Swiss airline pilot with a passion for fine and interesting cars: his stable also included a Lamborghini Miura and a Ferrari 246GT Dino bought new.
The third owner of chassis ‘0413’ was former Mobil Chairman and CEO Lou Noto, who entrusted it to Pichler AG, the Swiss Mercedes-Benz Classic Centre in Gstaad. Over five years, the skilled, factory-trained technicians carried out a painstaking restoration to bring the car back to ‘as delivered’. Totalling CHF 1,165,409, no expense was spared or detail overlooked as attested by the large history file including photographs and invoices. The period Becker radio in the immaculate dash is most likely the one that first crossed the border to Switzerland in August 1955.
Our client was the next owner – only the car’s fourth. Since its acquisition it has led a pampered life, now UK registered, barely driven and meticulously preserved in the exceptional condition in which it returned from the craftsmen in Gstaad.
We have seldom seen a Gullwing restored to these standards. As one of the 29 alloy cars – all accounted for – it is an exceptionally rare and desirable 300 SL. Its condition, and stunning and unusual specification of Weiß with blue upholstery, make it a stand-out car. Rarer than a Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta of the period and often its equal on the track or in the mountain passes, the alloy 300 SL Gullwing personifies the tradition of pre- and post-War ‘Silver Arrows’. With only four owners from new, continuous history and benefitting from such an exceptional restoration, this example is one of the finest.