Mercedes-Benz 60 years of SL history
From generation to generation – the SL is always an icon of its time
- It all began with international racing victories
- A unique sports-car legend for 60 years
- Highly sought-after vehicles for enthusiasts
- Irresistible design, superb engineering
Sixty years ago the story that would immediately become a legend began. Six years following the end of the war – a time during which some of the Daimler-Benz plants still lay in ruin – the Head of Testing, Rudolf Uhlenhaut, was inspired to shed a positive light on the developments taking place at Mercedes-Benz through successes in motorsport. The means available were limited, and he made a virtue out of necessity by building the first SL from the components available and from a generous portion of pioneering spirit: a racing car which was sent to the international race tracks as early as 1952.
The 300 SL (whose in-house code was W 194) won the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans race that year with a spectacular one-two victory. This followed on from a one-two-three finish at the Bern Grand Prix, and at the Jubilee Grand Prix for Sports Cars at the Nürburgring the 300 SL even took the first four places. This hugely successful racing year was even crowned by the newcomer with a triumphant one-two win at the III Carrera Panamericana, a long-distance race over 3111 kilometres right across Mexico. Soon it was clear to everyone that Rudolf Uhlenhaut’s delighted team had put a unique car on the road.
At the same time the combination of the letters “SL” became a phenomenon. As an abbreviation of “super” and “light” it had originally merely been intended to differentiate between the 300 and 300 S models, but it soon took on a charismatic shine. The forefather of the race track was followed by the first descendant available for purchase in 1954: the 300 SL series-production sports car (W 198), which achieved equal renown and was known as the “gullwing” model on account of its unusual doors. Ever since, the two letters have stood for unique cars, for legendary sports cars.
The irresistible design, the superb engineering and the virtually unlimited motoring pleasure they bring have bestowed on the Mercedes-Benz SL an aura which has elevated all the models created since 1954 to the status of classic, one after the other. Amongst automotive enthusiasts they are highly sought-after collectors’ vehicles and pass on their special status from generation to generation. It is no wonder, then, that the 300 SL gullwing model was voted “Sports Car of the Century” by a jury consisting of motoring journalists in 1999.
To mark its sixtieth birthday, Mercedes-Benz has completely assembled the 1952 racing car with the vehicle identification number 2 again – true to its original state and in such a way that it is ready to drive. Countless hours of work, a great deal of sweat and know-how have been invested by the specialists at Mercedes-Benz Classic in the car’s restoration. In so doing they went to enormous lengths to ensure that the vehicle was not “over-restored” and that instead it would retain its individual patina which makes its unique character shine. On the occasion of the unveiling of the new SL, the forefather – bathed in authentic splendour – was also presented to the public and demonstrated the fountainhead of the SL legend. In this juxtaposition the two SL models from 1952 and 2012 represented the entire spectrum of the SL legend – spanning from its origins right through to the current pinnacle.
But 60 years ago it was not just the SL bloodline that was born; at the same time the foundations for the entire Mercedes-Benz sports car family were laid – and today, encompassing the SL, the SLK and the SLS AMG, it is more strongly differentiated than ever before. Even back in the 1950s, when the successful racing car evolved into a series-production car available for purchase, Mercedes-Benz offered not just the decidedly sporty 300 SL “Gullwing” but a second SL model, too: the less powerful yet equally fascinating 190 SL, which, in its capacity as the “little brother” of the gullwing model, opened up the opportunity to experience the SL legend to a larger circle of customers.
In the present day the 190 SL is often regarded as the predecessor of the compact SLK, whilst the 300 SL gullwing model with its characteristic doors and its outstanding performance potential is widely perceived as the ancestor of the SLS AMG. Both models, the 300 SL and the 190 SL, are, however, first and foremost precisely what is revealed by the model lettering on the boot lid: the roots of the legendary SL ancestral line, which stands for refined sportiness like no other has done for over six decades now.
The cars in this model series were created with their own unique characteristics because their time had come, because Mercedes-Benz was meeting its customers’ requirements.
This also applies to the subsequent SL generations – each one reflects the spirit of its day and the wishes and desires of their buyers. The sales success of every single SL generation proves Mercedes-Benz has always built the SL which was best suited to its time – having said that, they generally tended to be somewhat ahead of their time in Stuttgart, setting new trends. This is why comfort, which, alongside sportiness, can be seen as the inherent discipline of the SL models, became an indispensable part of the SL philosophy very early on. Further hallmark SL characteristics spanning the generations include superior performance, technical innovations and, of course, an exciting, often surprising, design which always finds new ways of succinctly expressing the high emotional appeal of the SL models.
1954 – 1963: W 198 – the legend enters series production
Without a doubt the 300 SL racing car of 1952 was the primal concept. With an enhanced design and boasting refined ride comfort in spite of its higher output, it was continued as a series-production sports car. In 1954 the 300 SL gullwing model embarked on an incomparable triumphal procession. Alongside the gullwing doors, its other characteristic features were the filigree space frame familiar from the racing car and also the first four-stroke engine with petrol injection in a series-production passenger car. It had an output which was sensational in its day: 215 hp from a displacement of three litres. From 1957 the 300 SL was then built exclusively as an open-top version.
An open-top model right from the outset, the 190 SL was presented to the public at the same time as the 300 SL. Its roots lay in proven series-production technology rather than in the world of racing. Yet this did not impact on the fascination surrounding the vehicle – on the contrary: that special SL feel was now available for a significantly larger group of buyers to experience. In eight years nearly 26,000 vehicles found proud owners.
“The 300 SL belongs to the genus of cars which challenge their drivers and at the same time give them enormous driving pleasure.”
Juan Manuel Fangio, five times Formula 1 world champion
1963 – 1971: W 113 – the “Pagoda”
In the spring of 1963, when Mercedes-Benz ceased production of the 300 SL and 190 SL, the joint successor was an SL model which caused a furore – above all because of its unusual exterior.
As well as the fresh, new lines, the dominating design feature was a removable coupé roof, which sloped down to the centre of the vehicle. This was unique, and reminiscent of Far Eastern temple architecture, resulting in this SL being referred to colloquially as the “Pagoda”.
“In the many years I have been driving, I cannot remember wanting to own any car I have ever driven (with the exception of racing cars!) as much as this one.”
Formula 1 racing driver and Mille Miglia winner Stirling Moss in a letter to the Head of Racing, Alfred Neubauer
1971 – 1989: R 107 – the evergreen
In 1971, the “Pagoda” model was then followed by an SL model series which was destined to be built for 18 years. The advanced styling of this classic ensured that it has continued to look contemporary to this day. Known internally as the R 107, this roadster’s combination of distinctive curves and clean, frill-free lines still gives it a handsome and iconic appearance.
The R 107 was the first SL generation to be characterised by a large variety of models. During its long construction period, it was available, for instance, with engines from the 2.8-litre six-cylinder in-line engine to the 5.6-litre V8. Over a long period of time the customer was able to choose from three engines. And the R 107 set new standards in safety with its high safety reserves and numerous innovative, detailed solutions.
“It’s powerful, yet not ostentatious. It simply oozes superiority and masculinity.”
Hans Hermann, Formula-1 racing driver and Le-Mans winner.
1989 – 2001: R 129 – the sculpture with style
In 1989 the last of 237,287 SL Roadsters of the model series R 107 rolled off the assembly line in Sindelfingen, to be succeeded by the SL model series known internally as the R 129. Its defining wedge shape immediately found popularity, radiating taste and style. Today it is thought of as an automotive sculpture.
In addition to design quality of the highest calibre and maximum open-air motoring pleasure, this SL offered occupant protection on an uncompromisingly high level. Its safety features included, for example, a roll-over bar which automatically extends in critical situations and – for the first time anywhere in the world – what is known as an integral seat with a three-point seat belt integrated into the seat. The R 129 also raised the bar when it came to its engine line-up – featuring units with up to twelve cylinders – and its driving characteristics.
“I bought the SL because I believe it to be the finest car in the world.”
José Carreras, star tenor and automotive enthusiast
2001 – 2012: R 230 – a stylish synthesis of tradition and modernity
With a stylistically fascinating and technically discerning sports car in the model series R 230, Mercedes-Benz continued the long SL tradition in the autumn of 2001. It was the first SL to be fitted with a vario-roof. The innovative roof construction, which transforms the two-seater roadster into a weatherproof coupé (or vice versa) within a few seconds, was launched by Mercedes-Benz in 1996 in the first-generation SLK, and enhanced for the SL. The R 230 also offers the active suspension system Active Body Control (ABC), a unique package comprising state-of-the art electronic control systems and optimised occupant protection. But the R 230 also stands for new performance dimensions and outstanding sportiness: as the SL 55 AMG, which was used in 2001 and 2002 as the official Safety Car in Formula 1, it exceeds the 368 kW mark. When it was unveiled in 2004, the SL 65 AMG was no less than the most torquey roadster in the world, and in 2008 and 2009 the R 230 once again took on the role of the Formula 1 Safety Car – this time as the SL 63 AMG.
“With regard to the balancing act between comfort and sportiness, the SL is now setting new benchmarks”
Wolfgang König, automotive journalist in the 2001 road test
As of 2012: R 231 – athlete and aesthete
The new SL is now taking on the original SL, as demonstrated objectively by its performance data and subjectively by its driving feel. Along with the S-Class and the E-Class, the SL belongs to the Mercedes-Benz model series with the longest tradition. And like virtually no other vehicle class from Mercedes-Benz it stands for fascination and emotion.