Petersen Archive: The 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing Coupes
This is the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL gullwing coupe, a sports car that Walt Woron exclaimed “is a giraffe’s head above the crowd,” that “deserves whatever superlatives may be heaped upon it” in his 1956 road test of the car in Motor Trend Magazine.
Woron praised both the coupe’s “roadability” and performance. Though the Mercedes was “genteel on city streets,” Woron proclaimed, on the track there “seems to be no end to the acceleration.” These photographs show the “formidable trail of rubber” that Woron left on the Willow Springs Road Course, in Rosamond, California. The Mercedes was only 0.7 seconds faster from 0 to 60 mph than a Studebaker Golden Hawk with Ultramatic. It was, however, technically superior. Its 220 horsepower 6-cylinder engine “is smaller than anything produced in Detroit.”
“On a clear, windless day,” at El Mirage Dry Lake, the Mercedes clocked a staggering top speed of 134.73 mph. As Woron observed, this “surely could be upped to 138-140 on a good asphalt or concrete surface.”
The Mercedes, however, was not just fast. It held a straight line and could not be dissuaded from it by any amount of wind. On turns, “it holds the groove” Woron wrote. It also was “built!” “Pungent leather and flawless chrome” adorned the coupe’s cockpit. This careful craftsmanship assured that the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL coupe not only drove fast, and well, but was “one of the nicest-appearing hunks of machinery” on the road.
This is also the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL gullwing coupe, a 1955 300 SL owned by Earle Bruce and flamed by Von Dutch. If the base 300 SL was the Mona Lisa, then this was Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass. The car received its hot rod look after Bruce noticed there were some flaws in the original paint job. He sought out Von Dutch to fix them. The resulting red coupe’s irreverent white flames and yellow pin striping caused an outrage. They belonged on crass customs and over the top t-buckets, not the stately and elegant Mercedes, a car that, as Woron described, was “assembled with the car of a German camera.” The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL gullwing coupe, the naysayers’ criticism implied, was not a cultureless custom.
This, however, is also the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL gullwing coupe, a car customized by Chuck Porter and driven at the June 1956 Pomona Road Races at the Los Angeles County Fair Grounds. The coupe’s original price of $7,500 to $9,000, nearly four times the price of an average economy car, assured that the 300 SL was not a common custom. Porter built the car from a wrecked 300 SL gullwing coupe. He called his custom coupe the “Mercedes-Benz 300 SLS Porter’s Special.” This was, essentially, the first “SLS.” Mercedes did not build cars with the SLS name until 1957, and did not release the SLS line until 2009. The second “S” in the “Porter’s Special,” however, stood for scrap not sport. The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, therefore, had many “superlatives heaped upon it.” It was, at the same time, stately, crass, and uncommon.
By Kristin Feay
Photography by Bob D’Olivo (Mercedes-Benz 300SL Coupe Road Test), Lynn Wineland (Earl Bruce’s Flamed Mercedes at the 1956 Pomona Road Races), and Eric Rickman (Chuck Porter’s “Mercedes-Benz 300 SLS Porter’s Special at the June 1956 Pomona Road Races).