1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing
It's hard to think of any other car which evokes more appreciative 'oohs' and 'aahs' from bystanders as it passes- or stops to allow passengers out- nor more dinner party recognition ("is that the one with the doors that open upwards?") than the Mercedes-Benz 300SL, or 'Gullwing' as it is popularly known.
This late example dates from November 1956 and as such incorporates all but one of the 61 detail improvements introduced during Gullwing production. Originally black (code DB40) with red leather upholstery, the car spent most of its life in the USA and was acquired in Europe by its present owner, a popular Italian collector, in the 1990s. A complete, body-off restoration was undertaken in Italy with mechanics entrusted to renowned specialists HK Engineering in Polling, Germany, including upgrading the braking system with discs at the front. Since completion the car has taken part in the Tour Auto and Italia Classica and has seen sparing road use from Italy to the Côte d'Azur in summer with complete reliability. Ready for use, and eligible for almost every imaginable event, this is a well-sorted example of one of history's great motoring icons.
To listen to some people you’d think that every car over 15 years old was a 'classic', but age has nothing to do with it. Cars do not become classics, either they are or they aren’t – a true classic has star quality from day one. There has never been a time when a Mercedes-Benz Gullwing has failed to turn heads; like royalty, it was born to prestige and respect.
Those 'gullwing' doors helped, of course. When pictures flashed around the world of Hermann Lang climbing out of his car after winning Le Mans in 1952, they could not have created a greater sensation had they been of a flying saucer. In fact, those doors were merely an expedient because the 300SL's true spaceframe chassis and high sills necessitated hinging the doors on the roof. Such was the stir they caused, however, that the organisers of the Mille Miglia (where 300SLs took second and fourth) tried to ban them.
The 300SL was originally created to prepare Mercedes-Benz for a return to Formula One and there was no intention of production, until American importer Max Hoffman ordered a thousand. The Gullwing's incredible impact is more remarkable considering the cars had appeared only four times (as well as Le Mans they won the Carrera Panamericana).
As soon as the 300SL entered production it became the most desirable road car in the world. Apart from the fact that its performance blew the opposition into the weeds, nothing could compete with its kerbside presence. On top of that it had Mercedes-Benz build quality and reliability and was a thoroughly practical car. You could load a full complement of luggage, edge into morning rush hour traffic in any capital city in Western Europe without worrying about the clutch or the engine overheating, and arrive at Monte Carlo in the evening still fresh enough to play the tables.
Without modifying it in any way, you could also compete in international motor racing. A 300SL was fifth overall, and first in class, in the 1955 Mille Miglia and another won the 1956 Tour de France.
This late specification, 'matching numbers' Gullwing was shipped from Germany on 16th November 1956, destined via the factory's Munich dealer for its first owner in Caracas, Venezuela. The factory data card shows the purchaser as the Zingg Company, who specified the following for their new 300SL: black paintwork (code DB40), 'special order' red leather upholstery (code 1088) with cream headlining; Becker Brescia radio with adapter and electric antenna; windscreen washers; outside mirrors left and right; two-piece fitted luggage set; bumper over-riders and sundry small spares. It's surprising just how many 300SLs were sold new to Venezuela, where at the time oil money was plentiful and there was an active sports car racing scene.
It's also worth mentioning, from a collector and driver's perspective, that the late build date of this Gullwing ensures it features 60 of the 61 detail improvements which were introduced during the model's production run, the most important being the improved braking system.
After Zingg's ownership the Gullwing found its way to the USA, first with Don S Culbertson of Evanston, Illinois followed by James F Katzel of Denver, Colorado. On 4th June 1976 chassis '0264' was sold at the Kruse auction in Auburn, Indiana, for the then-significant sum of $18,000, by which time it was painted red. The new owner was Richard L Bartlett, also of Denver, who drove the Gullwing sparingly until his death in 1984, after which it remained in storage until in 1994 the family decided to sell. According to the Gullwing Register, the next owner was Thomas G Becea of San Diego, California, the car having covered 63,000km. It did not remain in his possession for long, however, as by November 1994 the Gullwing was on its way back to Europe where it was acquired from the Classic Motor Company of Milan by its present owner, a well-known Italian collector and historic racer, in April 1995.
The new owner's intention was to use the 300SL in classic events and for European touring, complimenting the 1950s and '60s sports racing Ferraris he already owned. Closer examination showed that after spending so little time on the road the Gullwing was unmolested and appeared remarkably accident-free, but would benefit from restoration in order to ensure it was reliable and drove well. The mechanical rebuild was entrusted to personal acquaintance Hans Kleissl's HK Engineering in Polling, Germany, one of the world's leading 300SL specialists, whilst the complete body restoration was carried out in Italy. Invoices and a comprehensive photographic record document the extent of this work, which was completed in 2000. The owner chose to have the coachwork finished in DB180 silver-grey with light tobacco leather which makes for an elegant and unusual combination. In 2001 it was decided to have well-known restorer Gianni Torelli in Italy fit front disc brakes, a common and desirable upgrade which ensures the stopping matches the going.
Since completion the 300SL has taken part in the Tour Auto and has been used for touring, mostly between the owner's homes in Italy and the Côte d'Azur. It has proven reliable and a recent test drive by the author showed that it felt 'together' and well sorted. The car started first time after several months without use, it soon idled evenly and accelerated smoothly, without hesitation or 'kangarooing' on a gentle trailing throttle. Brakes, steering and gearchange were all positive, and generally the impression was of a Gullwing which could be driven anywhere right away. If the next owner intends to show the car in concours events the underside and engine bay will respond well to detailing, but otherwise the car is handsome, well presented and ideal for an enthusiast wanting to take part in world-class events such as the Mille Miglia and Tour Auto, or simply for ultra stylish road transport, a role which the Gullwing performs better than most 52 year olds.
Chassis '0264' is Italian registered and accompanied by a substantial history file, restoration invoices/ photographs and Italian Historic Automobile Club certification (rated gold, the highest level of authenticity).