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This guide traces the development of the original 300SL of 1954 to the 500SL of the nineties.
Unveiled at the 1954 New York Motor Show as a fully equipped and stunningly specified production model, the 300SL stole the show. It was recognisably derived from the all-conquering racer of less than two years before and far from being toned down, it now offered even more performance and even an improved chassis. There was direct fuel injection, which was a world first for a production car and the exceptional aerodynamic styling of the 300SL was revolutionary. Not only was it the fastest production car in the world at the time, it was also a perfectly practical and civilised grand tourer. $6,820 when new, the Gullwing coupe was already being described as an all time classic.
Alongside the 300SL Gullwing coupe at its launch in New York in 1954 was another Mercedes sports car. It had something of the look of the 300SL around the nose, it sat on the same wheelbase and it seemed of similar proportions, but under the skin this neat two seater convertible was really a baby brother. Called the 190SL, its purpose was a commercial one and with clever marketing it capitalised on the 300SL's already well established reputation. Far simpler than the space-framed, fuel injected Gullwing, the 190SL would be reasonably easy and economical to build in respectable volumes and for anyone wanting to buy on the first rung of the Mercedes sporting ladder, the price was affordable at less than $4,000.
Mercedes 300SL Roadster
The inevitable development of the Gullwing was a roadster version of the 300SL and this was finally unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1957. A great deal more than just a coupe with the top chopped off, the roadster was heavily redesigned almost from the ground up, which offered a convenient way of putting right some of the shortcomings of the original. All 300SL roadsters were fitted with the competition camshaft option from the coupe and had a higher compression ratio, taking power output to 250bhp at 6,200rpm. It was not quite enough to offset the higher weight of the roadster, but ultimate performance was no longer the requirement of the 300SL by the time it had reached the roadster stage.
The upgrade of the 230SL to the 250SL in 1967 proved to be remarkably short-lived, surviving less than a year before Mercedes introduced the 280SL, a model that would see the second generation through to the end of its production life. For the 250 in 1967 there was a new seven main bearing engine like those fitted in the 250 saloons, the option of a five speed gearbox and disc brakes all-round as standard. In 1968, the 280SL with its 2.8 litre engine gave another good boost in torque and with a host of detail changes inside the car, many connected with safety, the 280SL received the same enthusiastic welcome and praise from the critics as had the 230SL and 250SL models before it.
By the late 1960s Mercedes knew they needed to invest in the future and with environmental and safety legislation becoming ever more stringent, it would be necessary to invest in rather more than just another upgrading. By the time the third generation SLs appeared in 1971, they had little in common with their predecessors other than the SL badge. Moving ever more towards luxury and safety, the 350SL answered the critics through, with more power, all new suspension and a stylish new look with emphasis on low height and width. Perhaps the automatic transmission and weight kept it from being a sports car, but if one wants to drive fast in comfort, avoiding the clumsiness of a big sedan, the 350SL is the ultimate two-seater luxury car.
The flagship of the sporting end of the Mercedes range, the 500SL is the most expensive model in a three car family which has taken the SL philosophy into the 1990s. Launched at the Geneva Motor Show in 1989, these fourth generation models had been fully ten years in the design process. Highly refined, yet still very sporty, the 500SL features a wonderful V8 quad-cam 32 valve engine giving a capability of 157mph and an acceleration time from standstill to 60mph in just 5.9 seconds. Safety, typically for Mercedes, is also high on the list, with such advanced features as an automatic roll-over bar, which operates only when needed and seats that incorporate safety belts. An assured future classic.