When someone is asked to conjure up images of a Mercedes-Benz or even any classic car in their head, it is not difficult to suggest that the legendary 300 SL Gullwing appears. Acting as the longest running nameplate in the model range of Mercedes-Benz, and defining automotive innovation for over half a century, the SL is at first glance one of the most successful vehicles ever made. However, as the release of an all-new variant grows ever closer, I thought I would take a delve into the peculiar history of the what could be argued to be the company’s most important car ever, and how a revered nameplate vanished from relevance in the contemporary automotive landscape.
First and foremost, a new SL is on the horizon, which often means that its a great time to look back at the heritage of the model and understand where its replacement will align. However, that’s where the trouble begins, as unlike other iconic cars of its type such as Porsche’s 911, the SL formula has not adhered to a linear evolution, but rather changed in function over time. As I’m sure I’ve muttered for the eighty billionth time, the original 300 SL W198 was derived from the W194 endurance racer and adapted to road use by the request of the official US importer of Mercedes-Benz motorcars, Maximilian Hoffman.
Hence, while the car can be regarded as a thoroughly European creation, its intended use was always for American shores. As sales of the race derived yet obviously unrefined 300 SL Coupe tailed off, the vehicle was heavily modified to create a model more suitable to the requirements of wealthy American clientele with the W198 II Roadster of 1957. The second iteration of the original SL had a more supple ride, luxurious accoutrements and was overall far easier to utilise on a day to day basis, despite DNA being very much embedded in the world of vintage sports car racing.
This is where it gets rather intriguing as while the SL became an icon for a company aiming to rejuvenate its stodgy image in the wake of destructive global conflict, sales were always quite mediocre at 1,400 for the Coupe and a smidge over 1,800 respectively for the Roadster between 1957-1963. Thus, the SL was never destined to be a rampant sales success story, aiming squarely at the upper echelons of the market. So, why did Hoffman and Mercedes-Benz go to the trouble of turning the W194 into a production road car? Rather simply, it was with the intent to lure people into the showrooms at a time when owning a luxury car, particularly one of the European variety, was a novelty in the United States. The sporting image of the 300 SL was capitalised on further with what I consider to be the first SL in the succeeding lineage, the 190 SL.
The 190 SL took the contemporary and curvaceous aesthetics of the 300 SL flagship and intelligently adorned it to rather more conventional engine and chassis components, supplemented by perhaps the most important feature of them all in the lucrative US market, the availability of true open top motoring. The 300 SL may have been a poster car for a generation, but the 190 SL was the true seller, reaching cumulative sales in excess of 25,000 units by the time it was replaced by the fascinating W113 230 SL Pagode. From this point, every SL produced would follow a simple recipe, to be a somewhat sporting but predominantly refined and luxurious two seater Roadster designed for the American market in mind, and one which was achieved by taking somewhat humdrum underpinnings from the company’s sprawling passenger car range, and clothing it in a svelte body and including a prolific amount of technological innovations.
Therefore, while every piece of marketing material likes to establish the connection from whatever new SL is on sale at that particular time with their original foray into sports car building in 1954, the link could certainly be said to be superfluous and unnecessary. Each generation of the more conventional SLs , so to speak, going forth proved itself to be a cultural iconic, a fashionable display of affluence and technological prowess. However, whereas cars like the 911 have merely grown more and more popular over time, the tables have been thoroughly reversed from the days not so long ago when R129 SLs flew off the showroom floors at an impressive rate, and a fledging fellow company from Stuttgart could barely muster enough sales to survive with their niche aircooled sports car.
In evaluation, I would thereby attribute the decline of the SL as a motoring icon to two pivotal factors. First and foremost, the resurgence of traditional rivals such as the Porsche 911 and similar vehicles becoming incredibly refined, reliable and easy to use which is supplemented by the industry shift away from roadster and coupes at the highest echelons of the market. Thirty years ago, it could be said that an SL was the most refined display of affluence and success, but in the modern era, an individual wishing to achieve the same inherent goal is tempted into the likes of Mercedes’ own lucrative Gelandewagen and other luxurious sports utility vehicles.
Thus, as the world entered a new millennium, the SL had lost its panache, its relevance and enticing nature, a tale of what could perhaps be the longest running identity crisis in the automotive industry. However, a new, radical SL is in the works as we speak, aiming to eschew its antiquated image and redefine the brand’s longest running nameplate in a constantly metamorphosing automotive landscape.