Last week, a whopping 93.5% of you agreed that the Jaguar E-type should be given a parking spot in our Fantasy Garage. To put that in perspective, the Ferrari 250 GTO, a car considered by many to be the greatest ever built, received a 95.2% positive vote. The Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe? 93.9%. This week we're sponsoring a car for induction we bet will beat them all. That's right kids, it's Mercedes-Benz's postwar miracle, the 300 SL. Sometimes called the Widowmaker because of all the rich, (suddenly) single women it left behind, you and me know it better as the Gullwing Mercedes.
Before we can get to the car we're actually talking about, we need to first discuss the world-beating racecar the 300 SL was based on. And that car is... the 300 SL. There is a difference; the racer was known internally as W194, while the production car's designation was W198. Prior to the war after the war that ended all wars, Mercedes-Benz was an established motorsports marquee. In fact, its track prowess extended back to the 1900s when MB's ultra-low (comparatively) Simplex purpose built-racer dominated the competition for almost a decade, up to triple-batshit Silver Arrow racers of the 30s pumping out nearly 650 supercharged horses, hitting top speeds of 270 mph and battling neck and neck with Auto Unions of the day (including the midengined, 500 horsepower, 6.0-liter V16 monsters). But then Hitler had to go all crazy and the German car industry... well, you know the rest.
300 SL W194 Racecar
Wanting to get back into the thick of it, Mercedes introduced the 300 SL (W194) to the world in 1952. And the world scratched its head. Sure, the 300 SL was a hot looking little number, but a 170-horsepower race car? Really? Yeah, really. Immediately following WWII Mercedes-Benz could do little to get back on its once mighty feet other than produce Dodge clones with an MB grill tacked on (180 & 220). The company eventually started producing the upscale 300 (W186) in 1951 with its relatively modern 3.0-liter inline-six good for 115 hp. That engine, fitted with three carbs, found its way into the 300 SL racer, pumping out around 170 horses. Despite the lack of muscle, the 300 SL took second and fourth at its Mille Miglia debut, took first and second at Le Mans, finished 1, 2, 3 at the Nürburgring and 1 and 2 at the Carrera Panamericana. How? An extremely lightweight chassis and body from the extensive use of aluminum, sophisticated aerodynamics and superior, never-say-die reliability.
Obviously, a roadgoing version of such a superstar would be bona fide. But Mercedes had no plans to build any. The problem was Germans didn't have any money. But guess what? Americans did. A lot it. Yes, the postwar years were kind to the US of A. Capitalism, democracy and freedom had triumphed (unless you lived within the Soviet sphere) and our wallets were bulging. We needed shit to buy. Expensive shit. Enter Max Hoffman. For those who don't know, Hoffman was the guy who (besides living in a Frank Lloyd Wright home and getting Wright to design his Manhattan Jaguar dealership) brought both the Porsche 356 and the BMW 507 to American soil. The Austrian born "Maxi" also convinced Daimler-Benz that a roadgoing version of the 300 SL would be economically viable. In fact, Hoffman took (and sold) 80% of all the 300 SLs built (about 1400 total) and helped to establish Mercedes-Benz's considerable reputation in the States by doing so.
Let's talk doors. To create such a lightweight vehicle, Mercedes ditched the traditional platform-type chassis and opted for a tubular spaceframe. To give the high-tech chassis strength, engineers were unable to cut into the sills where normal doors would go. So, they (ingeniously) hinged them to the roof. At first Mercedes was worried that the unusual setup might cheese off racing officials, but after pouring over the rulebook racing chief Alfred Neubauer famously said, "Nowhere is it written that a door can only open sideways." Getting in and out of the racecar was a nightmare, and only partly helped by the production car's lower sills. The steering wheel was hinged so you could flip it up during ingress/egress. Put it this way; Britney, wear panties. And that's how timeless design icons are born.
The engine was the first series production car ever fitted with fuel injection. Little-known fact: There are two bumps on the SL's hood. One is for the fuel injectors and the other is only for the sake of symmetry. Stunningly advanced for its time (and Project Car Hell worthy today) the mechanical Bosch units increased the engine's power from 115 horses in the 300 sedan to 215 in the SL. That's officially. But, as certain 300 SLs could hit 161 mph — making them the fastest production cars ever built in 1954 — actual output was probably closer to 240 horsepower. As much as we love those numbers, we love the fact that the mechanical fuel pump (one of three) would continue atomizing fuel and forcing it into the cylinders after the engine was turned off even more. This would dilute the engine oil, especially if the motor hadn't been wrung out enough to generate enough heat to evaporate the gas. Hence, Mercedes recommended oil changes at 1,000 mile intervals. Many owners wound up disconnecting the oil cooler altogether. Stoichiometry at all costs, right? Thank God the Fantasy Garage has that mechanic.
Everything about the 300 SL was epic. The 3.0-liter engine, which had to be mounted at a 50-degree angle to clear the hood, requires 10 liters of oil. The gas tank holds 34.7 gallons and the car gets 22 mpg. That's a 760-mile range. At a time when American cars were ballooning faster than the XBox generation's waistline, the trim super coupe weighed just 2,866 pounds. All four wheels had their own suspension setup at a time when most cars still rode around like buggies.
The internet abounds with owners' tales of driving the car for four hours straight at 120 mph through Death Valley in utter comfort. Both personally (the roof featured flow-through ventilation outlets) and mechanically (that's what you get with production endurance race winners). And we believe them, for how could grand touring get any better? The price when new was more than a house, but that was just for the normal steel bodied car (though the hood, doors and deck were aluminum). For more than double the price you could purchase one of 29 all-aluminum examples, which dropped the curb weight by more than 500 pounds (to a stupid-svelte 2,351!). By the by, the alloy-bodied coupes were the cars that could hit 161 mph.
Even The Convertible Makes You Drool
And never mind any of that. Just look up. That, my dear friends, is timeless indisputable beauty. Even when they hacked the top off it the 300 SL managed to remain gorgeous. Stunningly gorgeous. To summarize: looks that slaughter, 'Ring-crushing handling, massive top speed, technically innovative, a range of over 750 miles and Gullwing doors. I can't think of anything else to say except, happy voting.
[The Jalopnik Fantasy Garage appears every Wednesday at noon. Readers vote the cars in or out. The idea is that we'll have 50 cars in our Fantasy Garage, the world's greatest mechanic and endless wads of cash. Would you like to nominate a car for the Fantasy Garage? Write email@example.com with the subject line "Fantasy."]
The Jalopnik Fantasy Garage, So Far:
RUF RT12 | 1978 Aston Martin V8 Vantage | Honda 1300 Coupe 9 | 1931 Daimler Double Six 50 Corsica Drophead Coupe | Ferrari 288 GTO | Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 | 1970 Buick GSX 455 | First Generation BMW M Coupe | Bugatti Veyron 16.4 | Ford GT | Citroen SM | Porsche 928 | Jensen FF | DeTomaso Vallelunga | Audi Quattro S1 | Buick GNX | Nissan Skyline R34 GT-R | Honorary Fantasy Garager: The LS1 Powered Rotus | Lamborghini LM002 | Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe | Ferrari 250 GTO | Bentley Speed Six | Talbot-Lago T150C SS Figoni et Falaschi Raindrop/Teardrop Coupe | Porsche 917 | Audi RS4 Avant | Maybach Exelero | Lamborghini Miura | Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9 | BMW E39 M5 | Jaguar E-type