The word “iconic” is used so often to describe cars of all types, but within the Mercedes-Benz marque, the 300SL Gullwing is a car that definitely deserves that label. While only around 1,400 of these Gullwings were ever produced, more than 80% of the cars produced found their way to the USA. This 1956 model is going to require a full restoration, but with good examples now selling for between $1,300,000 and $2,000, 000, the money spent on restoration should represent a sound investment. Located in Madison, Wisconsin, you will find the Gullwing listed for sale here on Bring A Trailer. I have to say thank you to Barn Finder Patrick S for spotting the Gullwing for us.
While the Gullwing is most definitely a German designed and manufactured car, its very existence was the brainchild of New York Mercedes-Benz distributor, the late Max Hoffman. He envisaged a race car for the road, based on the successful W194 sports racing car. He was able to convince Mercedes-Benz management that such a car was a viable proposition, and design and construction were commenced. When the car was first released in the USA, sales were initially not what was expected in spite of the styling catching the public’s imagination, and this was attributed to the high price of the vehicle. The Gullwing was priced at up to four times the cost of many American luxury performance cars of the era, which placed it out of reach of all but the most affluent people in American society. Slow initial sales of new examples also then negatively impacted used Gullwing prices, and the Gullwing looked like it was going to be an unloved and unsuccessful car. However, this low used price made the car accessible to more people, and the public readily accepted the Gullwing and its 160mph performance, and the car became a success. Today the Gullwing rates among the most desirable of collectible cars, and even rough examples will still command 7-figure sales prices.
Our feature Gullwing has been owned by the same family for 50 years but has not seen any form of active duty since 1984. During the last 34 years, the engine has not been started. The body and frame of the Gullwing are both structurally sound, although the current paint, which is a repaint in the original color that was applied in the 1970s, is looking tired. There are also a number of small dings and marks on the paint and body. The underside of the car is solid, although there is a coating of surface corrosion. There are also some sheet-metal areas under the car that have suffered from rot-through, but none of these are structural.
The engine that Mercedes produced for the Gullwing was something very special for a road car of the time, and was based on the same engine that powered the W194 race car, While the engine as fitted to the W194 delivered 175hp, the same engine produced 215hp in the production Gullwing. This power increase was largely due to the installation of Bosch mechanical fuel injection on the road car’s engine in place of triple carburetors on the race car. This also gives the Gullwing a confirmed top speed of 160mph, making it the world’s fastest production car at the time. Our Gullwing still has its numbers-matching engine and 4-speed manual transmission. The engine hasn’t fired a shot since 1984, but a recent leak-down test has produced promising results regarding the overall state of the engine. However, in a car of this value, I think that I would be relying on a significantly more thorough inspection. The mechanical fuel injection has a tendency to “wash” lubricating oil away from the pistons and cylinder bore on engine shutdown, and this is something that would need to be checked.
The black leather upholstered interior looks quite good, but there are some details that would need to be addressed before it could return to its former glory. The wheel has a number of cracks and would need to either be restored or replaced. The leather also looks a bit dry and stretched in places, but this should be able to be revived without the need to reupholster the entire interior. The factory clock has also been removed, and it has been replaced with a voltmeter, and this would need to be changed to protect the car’s authenticity. The car is fitted with some nice, genuine accessories. These include dual heaters and a Becker Mexico TR radio. One aspect of the interior that has held up exceptionally well is the upholstery around the bottoms of both door openings. Due to the high and wide sills of the Gullwing, these are prone to wear and scuffing, particularly as people climb out of the vehicle. The upholstery in this area on both sides actually looks to be quite good.
While the high initial retail price of the Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing hurt early sales numbers, the car became a very popular car for those who were able to afford it. The low production numbers, coupled with the breath-taking performance of the day, pretty well assured the car of future classic status. This car is going to require a complete restoration from the ground up. This is not going to be a cheap proposition by any means. At the time of writing, bidding is sitting at $815,000, and the cost of the restoration is an unknown quantity. However, with a minimum resale price following the restoration of $1,300,000, and that figure likely to continue to increase, then if you had the money, it would be a restoration well worth undertaking.