16-17 January 2014

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Lot 83

1956 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing

  • Chassis no. 198.040.6500052

Sold for $1,292,500

215 hp (DIN), 240 hp (SAE), 2,992 cc SOHC six-cylinder engine with Bosch mechanical fuel injection, four-speed manual transmission, coil-spring independent front suspension, coil-spring and swing-axle rear suspension, and four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes. Wheelbase: 94.5 in.

  • The 1956 Turin International Automobile Salon car
  • Equipped from new with Rudge wheels
  • A beautiful, recent restoration

Mercedes-Benz’s 300 SL claimed 2nd in the Mille Miglia; 1-2-3 in the Berne, Switzerland, Sports Car Race; 1st and 2nd at Le Mans; 1-2-3-4 at the Nürburgring; and 1st and 2nd at La Carrera Panamericana. The company’s U.S. distributor, Max Hoffman, decided, from his Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Park Avenue showroom, that there was a market in America for a fast, sensual Mercedes-Benz coupe, and a production version of the racing 300 SL, complete with the fascinating gullwing doors, which were necessitated by the unusual frame design, would be it.

Fuel injection replaced the race car’s carburetors, and the Bosch mechanical unit would be the first for a production car. After the 11 prototype W194s, including the so-called “Hobel,” were made in all-alloy, the new Karl Wilfert-designed body was largely made of steel; it also retained an aluminum hood, doors, and trunk lids, and it included bumpers (with over-riders for U.S.-spec cars, but optional for the rest of the world) and numerous creature comforts, including a tilt-wheel for ease of entry and a sumptuous interior, which is a requisite for road use.

The SL (translated to English as “Sport Light”) moniker reflected the pioneering use of welded tubular-steel ultra-light frame construction, which made it only 182 pounds. The car also featured a fully independent suspension, in addition to its fuel-injected, 3.0-liter (2,996-cubic centimeter) OHC straight six with dry-sump lubrication; the motor was inclined to the side in order to reduce the height of the front end. The power, rated at 240 brake horsepower at 6,100 rpm (SAE) and 215 brake horsepower at 5,800 rpm (DIN) with the factory-optional or dealer-installed “sport” camshaft, was delivered through a four-speed manual gearbox. With a 161-mph top speed and a 0–60 acceleration of approximately eight seconds, depending on the rear-end ratio, which could be selected from five options, the 300 SL was the fastest production automobile of its time.

It took practice to elegantly climb into a Gullwing, with its wide door sills and low-set seats, but once one was seated and the door swung down, all was right. The pedals are exactly where one’s feet wants to find them, the steering wheel and shifter are at a comfortable level, and the entire car seems to wrap around one’s body like a Savile Row suit. The result was a comfortable, snug place in which to carry oneself and a loved passenger to ridiculously high speeds while negotiating mountain passes, seaside highways, and the like. Long before other manufacturers advertised racing cars for the road, the 300 SL truly delivered it to those who could afford it.

Appropriately, for an automobile that Max Hoffman had almost single-handedly willed into being, the production 300 SL made its debut in the United States, not in Germany, which was a Mercedes first. More than 1,000 of the 1,400 cars produced between 1954 and early 1957 where delivered through Hoffman, to whose showrooms the rich and famous flocked. The 300 SL was as much a status symbol in its time as it is today, as it has been favored by everyone, from Hollywood stars—Clark Gable took one on location for his films—to racing legends and genuine royalty; the kings of Jordan, Belgium, and Greece all became owners within the first year of production. Argentinean dictator Juan Peron had been a racing driver before finding his true course in politics, and he, too, owned a 300 SL.

The 300 SL also raced, and it was piloted by such legends as John Fitch, Olivier Gendebien, Paul O’Shea, Prince Metternich, and, of course, Sir Stirling Moss. It all added to the romance of a car that seemed destined to become a legend the moment production began. It had all the right ingredients: it was incredibly expensive, incredibly exclusive, and incredibly fast, and any red-blooded human who had ever pushed a clutch pedal would’ve sold his or her soul for the feeling of 161 mph behind the wheel. “A thoroughbred in every sense of the word,” advertising boasted, “and a car which will be recognized by all enthusiasts as the ‘last word’ in sporting automobiles; a car which puts indescribable pleasure into driving!”

CHASSIS NO. 198.040.6500052

The car offered here, chassis no. 198.040.6500052, is documented by noted 300 SL historians as having been built for display at the 1956 Turin International Automobile Salon. According to its Mercedes-Benz Classic Center data card, an English translation of which is in included in the file, it was originally displayed in Silver Grey Metallic (180), with a special-order red leather interior (1079) and arguably the most desirable factory option, Rudge wheels.

In the late 1960s, the 300 SL was discovered in West Nyack, New York, by avid Mercedes-Benz enthusiast Jan Fraser. In a recent telephone conversation, Mr. Fraser happily recalled the car, stating that, when he found it, he was told that it had been raced in Italy, and, indeed, it still showed signs of its time in competition. It had been refinished in red with a light beige interior, but it retained a silver dashboard, which was a nod to its original livery. “You didn’t have to take your hat off to anyone in that baby,” Mr. Fraser recalled. “It was a wonderful automobile.”

Mr. Fraser eventually sold his 300 SL to Dr. Leon Levine, who would keep it for decades. It was acquired from Dr. Levine by its present owner, a noted collector from the western United States, in whose care it has been body-on restored by California specialist Tom Drummond in its original, iconic Silver Grey Metallic shade, as it had been shown in Turin. Importantly, many components of the car, such as the silver dashboard, were in such good original condition that they were able to be preserved. The interior boasts comfortable 300 SL roadster-style seats that have been reupholstered, utilizing factory-correct materials and patterns, in blue leather, which is a more subtle accent to the sparking finish. The chassis underneath is covered by belly pans, and importantly, for the discerning enthusiast, the original Rudge knock-offs remain on the disc wheels.

Every collector has to own and drive a 300 SL Gullwing once in his or her life. This example is an ideal opportunity to capture one of fine quality and one that has been preserved, enjoyed, and restored by great enthusiasts. It is finished in an iconic color, it bears original Rudge wheels, as it has since new, and, most importantly, it is perhaps the only original factory 300 SL auto salon car available for sale today.

Jan Fraser describes his beloved 300 SL best: “It’s had a wild beginning, a mild middle, and it’s now ready for new excitement.”

Please note that this car is offered with a set of fitted luggage, which has been added since photography.

Please contact our exclusive automotive transportation partner, Reliable Carriers, for a shipping quote or any other information on the transport of this vehicle.

Alexander Weaver

+1 864 313 6844
California, United States

Alexander Weaver joined RM Sotheby’s in 2011 as a Car Specialist after graduating from Furman University in South Carolina. Born... read more

Augustin Sabatié-Garat

+44 (0) 74 1511 4179
United Kingdom

Augustin Sabatié-Garat joined RM Europe in 2012 as a Car Specialist after more than a decade in the collector car hobby. Gradua... read more

Barney Ruprecht

+1 203 912 7168
Ontario, Canada

Barney’s interest in classic cars began at an early age after being introduced to his father’s all-original 1965 Porsche 911. Barney l... read more

David Swig

+1 415 302 2247
California, United States

David Swig joined RM Sotheby’s West Coast division as a Car Specialist in May 2015. David is a life-long automobile enthusi... read more

Don Rose

+1 617 513 0388
United States

Don joined RM in 2006 after several years of professionally trading sports and classic cars, and after earning a reputation as a noted... read more

Donnie Gould

+1 954 566 2209
Florida, United States

Donnie Gould joined the RM team in 2002 as a partner and Car Specialist after more than two decades in the vintage automobile auction ... read more

Gord Duff

+1 519 352 4575
Ontario, Canada

Gord Duff began his journey with RM Sotheby’s in 1998. Since then, he has gained an intimate knowledge of a variety of marques a... read more

Jake Auerbach

+1 310 559 4575
California, United States

Jake Auerbach got his start in the automotive industry at an early age, spending his summers during high school working at a classic c... read more

Kurt Forry

+1 717 623 1638
California, United States

Having worked for Bonhams’ Automobilia department for over 10 years, Kurt Forry joined RM Sotheby’s with more than a decad... read more

Matt Malamut

+1 805 231 6410
California, United States

A long-time car enthusiast and Southern California native, Matt studied Automotive Technology at San Diego Miramar College and complet... read more

Michael Squire

+44 (0) 20 7851 7070
United Kingdom

Michael Squire joined RM Sotheby’s European Division in the summer of 2016. He comes to RM with a prestigious racing background ... read more

Mike Fairbairn

+1 519 352 4575
Ontario, Canada

As one of the three founding partners of RM Sotheby’s, Mike has a long-standing interest in the classic car industry. Graduating... read more

Oliver Camelin

+44 (0) 75 0110 7447
United Kingdom

With an extensive background in exotic sports car history and sales, a particular passion for American curves, and fluency in three la... read more

Paul Darvill

+44 (0) 20 7851 7070
United Kingdom

Paul Darvill joined the RM Sotheby’s European team at the beginning of 2015. Paul holds a degree in French and Politics from the... read more

Pete Fisher

+1 519 784 9300
Ontario, Canada

Pete Fisher was first introduced to antique cars in high school, working for Classic Coachworks in his hometown of Blenheim, Ontario. ... read more

Shelby Myers

+1 310 559 4575
California, United States

Shelby Myers grew up with the classic car industry infused into every aspect of his life. He had the unique opportunity to watch the R... read more

Tonnie Van der Velden

+31 653 84 19 60
United Kingdom

Tonnie Van der Velden joined RM Sotheby’s European division in September 2015 as a Car Specialist. A lifelong enthusiast, Tonnie... read more