1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Alloy Gullwing
“As one of the most iconic motorcars of all time, it can easily be said that the Alloy Gullwing is the most significant road-going Mercedes-Benz of the post-war era.” Gooding & Co auction catalogue, Lot 27, 20th January 2012. The car was sold for $4,620,000.
Simon Kidston was invited to write the cover story about this sale for the authoritative American magazine Sports Car Market, and to do so he thought it important to shed proper light on these little-known cars: “There has been much debate, most of it from well informed sources, over the mechanical variations between steel and alloy bodied Gullwings. It appears to me that as prices of the two grow apart, so people come up with new and exotic sounding technical differences to match. To separate fact from fiction I flew to Stuttgart to meet Michael Bock, head of Mercedes-Benz Classic, and spend time in the factory archive. What I discovered is fascinating: the alloy body option was sanctioned on 22nd February 1955 by the M-B board for clients wishing to participate in FIA races where a limited weight saving was allowed compared to the standard car. The price premium for this ‘Leichtmetallausführung’ was set at $1,000 for the USA or DM.5,000 for Germany, where the steel car listed at DM.29,000: Herr Bock Sr. paid DM.55,000 for a nice town house that same year by means of comparison. A prototype Gullwing with alloy body, engine and rims was found to weigh 130kg less than the standard car (the engine alone saved 44kg), and a further 7.2kg could be saved with plexi windows, but in the end only the alloy body itself (1mm thick) was deemed suitable for production, resulting in a total weight of 1134kg compared to 1225kg for the steel body (0.8mm thick).
“And what about the much debated mechanical differences? Great fuss is made about the ‘NSL’ motor. The factory confirms that this ‘Sonderteile’ (special parts) engine, which was a popular option available on both steel and alloy cars, consisted of a sportier camshaft (standardized on the roadster) adding about 15bhp, paired with a different butterfly throttle valve for the injection pump and an appropriately calibrated distributor. The 8.55:1 compression ratio remained unchanged, but alloy cars did receive different springs and shock absorbers. Externally, all 29 alloy cars featured Rudge knock-off wheels (optional on steel Gullwings) and beading between the eyebrows and body (standard on early steel cars), so these are not infallible visual clues.”
The SCM article concluded that the auction car had been well sold, especially given that it had been well restored but not to ‘100 point’ standard (as fellow Gullwing owners were quick to point out), but there’s no doubt that the result, and all the attendant attention, has brought the 29 alloy Gullwings very much into the limelight as the ‘must-have’ post-war Mercedes-Benz for the few who can afford them.
This car, chassis no. 198043-5500786, engine no 198980-5500728, was the 20th of the 29 alloy Gullwings made (how many survive is not known). It was collected by road on 29th November 1955 by the original purchaser, Mr Rene Wassermann of Basel, Switzerland, and driven home. He specified DB50 (white) paintwork with red leather trim and standard grey headlining. Other details on the factory build record, kindly supplied by the Mercedes-Benz archive, include:
Alloy version SA55060
Special paint high gloss
Sealed beam [headlights]
Instruments with English wording
Wheels with Rudge hubs [knock-offs]
Engine with special parts for sporty driving SA10018
6 spark plugs, W310 T 17
Springs and dampers for sporty driving, SA1009/2
Suitcase set (2 pieces)
Spare paint, 1kg, DB50 nitro
Windscreen cleaning system
Special upholstery [this usually signified leather]
We don’t know how long Mr Wassermann, a well-known Swiss industrialist, kept his alloy Gullwing but like many significant collectors cars it had found its way into American ownership by the 1960s. The Gullwing Register records the following: John K Scattergood III; Senator Wood (c.1970); Bill Kontes (well known dealer, c.1972); Joe Marchetti (another dealer, c.1974); Leslie Barth (1983-1988); Hans Thulin (high profile Swedish collector, 1989-1991). The car was totally restored for a German client by perhaps the best-known of all 300SL specialists, Kienle, in the early 2000s, and acquired from them by the current owner, a prominent Swiss collector, in 2006. Total mileage covered since the restoration is just over 2,000km.
Any Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing is special: they are amongst the worlds most iconic, sought-after and recognized classic cars. Even most normal Gullwing owners would be unlikely to notice the subtle differences between this and their own unless they were lucky enough to get behind the wheel, turn the key and find an open road to exploit the alloy car’s race-bred performance and character. Only a handful of connoisseurs will be able to appreciate the rarity, mystique and value of an alloy Gullwing, and they are the same breed who might choose a Ferrari 250GTO rather than a SWB, a McLaren F1 rather than an F40, or an Alfa Romeo 8C 2.9 rather than a 2.3, but owning the very best of anything has rarely turned out to be a mistake.