This Gullwing Has Always Been Destined For The Mille Miglia
Story by Laura Ferriccioli
Photography by Marco Annunziata
Who wants a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing? Surely any car enthusiast with a beating heart and a working brain would say yes, but even to the masses that content themselves with silver compact cars, the Gullwing commands attention. This post-war pearl of a Mercedes-Benz is probably one of the most recognizable automotive silhouettes, regardless of how often you’ve seen them. It’s a timeless icon of style and engineering prowess, and one of the most sensational sports cars of its era, descending from the Mercedes-Benz Le Mans-winning W194 competition coupé. Classified as W198, the Gullwing road car was far ahead of its time. With a super light construction and a top speed of up to 155mph, the innovative lightweight tubular space-frame design was a sensational disruption in the world of fast cars.
The chassis supports a robust drivetrain, and the big inline-six cylinder 3.0L engine (producing 215bhp at 5,800rpm) was an evolution of the units fitted in Mercedes-Benz Type 300 sedans, pioneering mechanical fuel-injection on production cars in the process. Launched in February of 1954 at the New York International Motor Sports Show, only 1,374 examples of the Gullwing were produced until the 1957 roadster all but replaced it.
One of the first race entries for the model that was itself born from a race car was the 1955 Mille Miglia—with all three of the 300 SL entries finishing among the top ten positions. It’s no coincidence that such modern reinterpretations of the event regularly see the model on the entry list, and in fact the competition debut of this spectacular 1955 example pictured here came in the early 1990s.
This car got its shakedown test with its current owner during the famous road race because he only had the car returned to him a couple of days prior to the start. The German workshop he had entrusted the car with did excellent work though, and the Gullwing reached the finish line at midnight on the Brescia-Rome-Brescia route without any issues. The same specialist mechanics from Germany happened to be on hand during the race, assisting with other customers when they offered to check this gem over once more, which included a quick oil top-up and a thorough cleaning.
The proud owner at the wheel, an Italian entrepreneur, wasn’t looking for this metallic Mercedes while flipping through a classic car magazine during a holiday afternoon at the beach, but we don’t often plan these things, do we? He happened upon the classified ad just a few months before the next running of the Mille Miglia, and not wanting to miss the opportunity to take part in it, he bought the car with the plan to race it in “the most beautiful race in the world,” as Enzo Ferrari once described the great road race.
And so he was able to live out his—and many others’—dream: driving a historically significant car in the Mille Miglia. Fittingly, he was counting the miles rather than the kilometers during the race, as this example was built for the American market, evident by the presence of the front and rear bumper overriders. It was imported to Italy by the previous owner, who passed away a couple of years after the fact.
The coupé hasn’t needed any significant work since the mechanical inspection and service following the purchase apart from the replacement of the fuel tank after a fault that prevented the car finishing the Mille some years after its first successful attempt. The high build quality is, of course, another hallmark of the car. “This example is more than sixty years old, and every time all it needs to go is a charged battery,” says the owner, who has accumulated some 10,000 miles on his Gullwing to date. “These cars are just so well made!” He tells me he will never sell it, attached as he to the car that feels like a son. And its enchanting beauty provides another reason to love it—even when the battery does go flat, you’re left with a pretty nice garage ornament in the interim! The Gullwing defines elegance in a way usually reserved for lumbering art deco luxury cars, and it was arguably peerless in this regard. The unmistakable details like the doors cut into the roof, the smooth curve of its rump, and of course the uniquely flared wheel arches—the wiles of this car are immortal.
If you’re wondering about what Sofia Loren, Picasso, and Juan Perón had in common, not to mention many other celebrities of the last century, the 300 SL Gullwing is the answer. It is not without its faults, though. “Yes, the steering wheel, which is heavy and requires a lot of energy from the driver, and the interior, which is like a sauna: too warm and not pleasant even in winter time.
“Moreover, there is the high transmission tunnel to the rear driven axle,” but the owner wouldn’t call any of these real nuisances, rather, “They are rather part of the charm,” he tells me, “During a ride on the motorway or on a mountain road, the sensation of experiencing how the works drivers of the era were feeling is priceless.”