pursuits

The Great Gullwing

At its launch, Mercedes' 300SL Gullwing cost more than twice the price of a Jaguar XK 140. Today, it's worth about four times as much

Mercedes-Benz returned to postwar competition in 1952, fielding two of its new 300SL (W194) sports cars in the Mille Miglia. The pair finished a creditable 2nd and 4th overall in this most difficult of events, and the promising start was followed up by a win in the challenging La Carrera Panamericana.

The Works first raced the 300SL (Sport Leicht) in open form, but for the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June, a trio of "gullwing"-doored coupes was entered. High sills were a feature of the multi-tubular spaceframe chassis, and while access was not a problem in the open car, the coupe bodywork required innovative thinking, hence the doors. Karl Kling and Hans Klenk duly brought their "Silver Arrow" home in first place, and the 300SL was on its way to becoming a motorsport legend.

Launched in 1954, the production 300SL retained the space-frame chassis and lightweight aluminum-alloy bodywork of the W194 racer, while its mechanical underpinning, like the latter's, owed much to the contemporary Mercedes-Benz 300 luxury saloon. The 2,996-cc overhead-camshaft inline-6 cylinder engine was canted at 45 degrees to achieve a low hood line and produced 215 hp at 5,800 rpm, using Bosch mechanical fuel injection. A 4-speed, all-synchromesh manual gearbox transmitted power to the hypoid bevel rear axle. Suspension was independent all around—by wishbones and coil springs at the front, with swing axles and coil springs at the rear.

A production 300SL (W198) was tested by Road & Track magazine in 1955, accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in 7.4 seconds on its way to a top speed of 140 mph. Half expecting the long-awaited car to provide an anticlimax, R&T were delighted to find it "far beyond our wildest expectations. In fact, we can state unequivocally that in our opinion the 300SL coupe is the ultimate in an all-around sports car. It combines more desirable features in one streamlined package than we ever imagined or hoped would be possible. Performance? It accelerates from a dead start to 100 mph in just over 17 seconds. Dual purpose? A production model 300SL can make a very acceptable showing in any type of sports car competition. Yet the car is extremely tractable and easy to drive in traffic. Comfort? The fully enclosed 300SL is the most comfortable (and safe) high-speed ‘cross-country' car built today."

A 300SL roadster featuring conventional doors was first exhibited at the Geneva Salon in May 1957, and, although built in greater numbers, has never matched the Gullwing for desirability. Its racing parentage notwithstanding, the 300SL remains a thoroughly practical car, as civilized in city traffic as it is exhilarating on the autostrada. By the time 300SL coupe production ceased in 1957, some 1,400 examples had found customers. Today, the model is both rare and sought-after.

This 300SL Gullwing, chassis number 6500274, was sold new in Paris, France, on November 13, 1956, and from 1979 until the present (2008) has been in the hands of only one owner. The car has covered just 52,313 kilometers from new and in 1984 (at 51,712 kilometers) underwent substantial mechanical refurbishment that included overhauling the cylinder head, brakes, starter, and cooling system. The silver body and chocolate leather interior, with its fine patina, are in original condition and the car is said to run well. It is offered with Dutch import papers (1979) and an original set of instruction books.

The SCM Analysis

This car sold for $557,225 at the Bonhams Grandes Marques á Monaco auction on May 10, 2008.

The Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing coupe is such an iconic automobile that numerous experts have praised its beauty, advanced technology, efficiency and quality. Rather than rephrasing existing information, I will sum up a few points and go straight to some pricing analysis.

Let's thank Max Hoffman, North America's East Coast importer of a number of European marques after WWII, for convincing the Mercedes-Benz board that he could sell hundreds of unique and well-built sport coupes if he was offered the chance.

As a result, the 300SL Gullwing was launched in New York City—rather than in Germany or elsewhere in Europe—at the auto show in February 1954. Hoffman delivered the first 300SL to a customer in March 1955. As promised, North America absorbed 1,100 of the 1,400 SL Gullwings produced. Production numbers were 167 in 1954, 877 in 1955, 311 in 1956 and 79 in 1957. These include the 29 full-alloy cars (26 in 1955, three in 1956), which are today all accounted for, with a current going rate above $1,000,000—if you can find one.

Most desirable options for a 300SL are the Rudge wheels with central locking and a fitted luggage set. Not surprisingly, given the period, air conditioning was never offered, although some cars have been retroactively equipped. Body undertrays have quite often been removed to increase air flow and improve interior cooling.

Gullwings please a range of enthusiasts

Now let's discuss pricing. When launched, the 300SL was an expensive car, more than twice the price of a Jaguar XK 140/150. Today, it is worth about four times as much. In 1954, it was desirable for a variety of individuals: Gentleman drivers liked the engine, racers the handling and sheer speed, movie stars the "gullwing effect," and everyone liked the fit and finish. Gullwings still please a wide assortment of enthusiasts.

Analyzing carefully the 41 300SLs in the SCM database sold between 2000 and 2008 (two 1954 models, 24 1955s, 13 1956s, and two 1957s), it is easy to trace the steady increase in value.

A steel car in #2 condition cost roughly $150,000 in 2000, $200,000 in 2001/2002, $300,000 in 2003/2004, $400,000 in 2005/2006, and $550,000 in 2007/2008.

These are average numbers that take into account different options, history, and originality. All in all, this translates to an 18% annual return on the period, compared with about 1% for the Dow-Jones.

By comparison, a similar analysis on the Ferrari 275 GTB/4 indicates an 18% annual return from $400,000 in 2000 to $2,000,000 in 2008; different entry point, same ROI.

Never seen at auction before

Going back to s/n 6500274, the 2008-published Mercedes 300SL Coupe/Gullwing Register by Eric Le Moine (available for $260 on www.mercedes300slregister.com) indicates this Gullwing left the factory on November 13, 1956 as a black car with natural leather. It confirms the car had been in the hands of its Dutch owner since 1979 and had never been seen at auction.

The car is today silver with dark brown leather and equipped with factory steel wheels. When I personally examined it at the auction, I found it to be tidy cosmetically—straight panels, even shutlines, and good paint, though some minor prep issues were visible. All chrome and glass were perfect, and the non-original leather showed a good patina, with a perfect dash and steering wheel.

Although not mentioned in the catalog, Bonhams issued an addendum before the auction stating the engine was a non-matching numbers unit fitted from a later 1957 roadster, though it had been recently overhauled and ran very well.

The new owner appears to be a French Riviera enthusiast who does not care much about matching numbers but cares a lot about having a fully functional car in a distinguished color combination, ready to be enjoyed. I cannot agree more. And even if it's not the engine this car came with, it's no Chevy V8, either. A roadster lump seems close enough.

Prices of ladder-chassis, live-axle, carbureted, prewar designs (1958 Ferrari 250 GT Ellena and her sisters) are in the $550,000 territory today, and I believe there is still room for an increase in Gullwing values, partly because the design is so much more sophisticated and usable.

Gullwings have always been blue-chip collectibles, possessing style, performance, and an impeccable pedigree. This car, given its "driving" condition, and non-numbers-matching engine, brought a fair price in today's market. It will appreciate along with the Gullwing market at large, but due to its shortcomings, not at the head of it. I don't believe the new owner cares much at all about that. A decent buy.

Details

Years Produced: 1954—57

Number Produced: 1,400, plus 29 with alloy body

Original List Price: $8,000 in 1954 at NYC

SCM Valuation: $500,000—$700,000

Tune-up Cost: $2,000—$3,500

Distributor Caps: $150

Chassis # Location: Left front frame; center firewall

Engine # Location: Below cylinder head

Club Info: Gull Wing Group 776 Cessna Ave. Chico, CA 95928

Website: http://www.gullwinggroup.org/

Alternatives: 1952—55 Bentley R Continental, 1970—73 Maserati Ghibli SS coupe, 1964—66 Ferrari 275 GTB/2

Investment Grade: A

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE