The link: Mercedes-Benz 300 SL (W 194, 1952/1953)
- Racing sports coupé developed in just nine months
- Gullwing doors a technical necessity – and yet accounting for the 300 SL’s cult status
- Victories on the Nürburgring, in Le Mans, Bern and the Carrera Panamericana
The 300 SL racing sports coupé is an important link in the racing history of Mercedes-Benz. As first sports car of the brand after the Second World War in 1952, and very successful to boot, it put new life into motor sports before Silver Arrows again were sent into the fray in 1954.
When the Second World War came to an end, Mercedes-Benz’s first concern was reconstruction – it was only after 1950 that Neubauer’s racing department began thinking about competing again. A first attempt was the participation of the last pre-war Silver Arrow W 154 in two races in Argentina. Hermann Lang, Karl Kling and Argentinean Juan Manuel Fangio put up a good fight in Buenos Aires, but the performance of swift but heavy cars no longer sufficed to score victories. The 1.5-litre W 165 racing car was never reactivated.
The parameters for future activities in motor sports were outlined during the all-important Mercedes-Benz management meeting on June 15, 1951, the gist being that top-flight racing and sports cars were the way to go. New racing cars would have to wait until 1954, however. The company’s coffers were empty; the Formula One regulations applicable at the time would expire at the end of the year, and the interim solution for 1952 and 1953, corresponding to the contemporary Formula 2 with two-litre displacement, did not comply with the brand’s profile and product range.
But a sports car took shape quickly after Alfred Neubauer and Prince Wilhelm von Urach, deputy of Chief Engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut, had reported about the Le Mans 24 Hours they had watched, also in June that year. The concept of the winning car, a Jaguar XK120C, was convincing: a light frame, a light body, as many standard components as possible. Such a car, Nallinger pointed out, could be set up on the basis of the Mercedes-Benz 300, the saloon with which the Stuttgart enterprise had been steering a middle course between prestige thinking and post-war austerity since April 1951.
In just nine months the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL – the very first SL – was created; the letters stand for “Super – Light.” The racing sports coupé was presented to the press on 12 March 1952, and demonstrated the following day on the Stuttgart – Heilbronn motorway. The team in charge of concept development and design was led by Rudolf Uhlenhaut. It comprehended the likes of Wolf-Dieter Bensinger, Franz Roller, Manfred Lorscheidt and Ludwig Kraus.
The majestic Mercedes-Benz 300 saloon contributed the SL’s suspension, slightly modified and made lighter, double wishbones at the front, a swing axle at the rear, and telescopic hydraulic shock absorbers and coil springs all round. The additional torsion bars on the saloon’s rear axle were dispensed with.
As to the track, the team opted for a compromise between the two extremes of wide (reducing the negative consequences of camber changes brought about by the swing axle) and narrow (keeping the frontal area small). Because of their lighter weight and their good-natured way of dealing with the negative consequences of the swing axle, 15-inch wheels, initially bolted on as on the production car but later fastened with central locks (of the knock-off type), were preferred to bigger units that might have led to higher mileages and lower temperatures. The 300’s brakes (drum diameter 260 mm/10.2 in) were carried over as well, their width enlarged to 90 mm (3.5 in).