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The Mercedes 300SL Chronology

The Mercedes 300SL Gullwing coupe was arguably the best and most famous race car of its time. It was the first real high-performance mass-produced sports car in the world. At the time, it was the fastest production car and could achieve a top speed of 263 km/h.

Mercedes-Benz W194, Hobel and W198 Roadster
Mercedes-Benz W194, Hobel and W198 Roadster Photo: Mercedes-Benz Group Media

300SL W194

Everything began in 1952 with the Ur-300SL with the internal Mercedes designation of W194. The first prototypes had narrow Gullwing doors whit the sills reaching all the way up to the waist. The doors and high sills weren't a design feature but necessary due to the underlying spaceframe which keeps the car as light and rigid as possible. The idea originated from Rudolf Uhlenhaut who at the time was Mercedes racing director. It's said that he fabricated a spaceframe model at home with soldering iron and wires until he found the perfect construction that wouldn't bend anymore but only collapse under pressure.

1952 Mercedes W194 Spaceframe
1952 Mercedes W194 Spaceframe and engine without body Photo: Mercedes-Benz Group Media

The engine was taken from the heavy Mercedes 300 sedan. Everything needed a lightweight treatment to bring down the engine's weight to racing specifications. The heavy cast iron engine block was used during WWII in commercial vehicles and was way too heavy for a racing application. Mercedes engineers didn't find much weight savings with the engine but instead compensated with the ultra-light space frame, an ultra-thin aluminium body and acrylic windows.

1952 Mercedes W194 engine
1952 Mercedes W194 engine. You can clearly see the 50-degree tilt Photo: Mercedes-Benz Group Media

The W194 was presented to the public on the 12th of March 1952 on a section of the German Autobahn 81 between Heilbronn and Stuttgart. On the 1st of April 1952, the spaceframe of Chassis No.5 was just completed on time for the Mille Miglia race on the 3rd of May. The car entered the race as No.613 and scored place four with Rudolf Caracciola at the helm and Paul Kurrle as co-driver. Karl Kling and Hans Klenk cross the finishing line with Chassis No.4 second and win a podium place.

Chassis No.5 went on to race at the grand prize of Bern where Caracciola crashed, and his racing career ended. No.5 was then restored and shipped to Mexico along with No.4 to be entered at the 3rd Mexican Carrera Panamericana. Both cars went on to win first and second with pilots Karl Kling and Hermann Lang. A triumphant double.