We test the Mercedes 300 SL: 60 years old – the classic meets our modern test
Mercedes gives wings – to us, every 60 years, it seems – we’re going to work on making this a tradition. Having last tested the Mercedes 300 SL gullwing back in our 21/1955 issue, it’s time for a re-test, Mercedes said. We jumped at the opportunity, naturally!
Out of the slowly dissipating morning mist of the Black Forest, a car transporter rears into view. It’s actually happening. Things that change your life often happen on murky, wet Tuesday afternoons – just like that fateful day a few weeks ago, when the Mercedes Benz Museum called to ask whether it could be time once again for a test of the 300 SL in auto motor und sport. The question was met with the following stammered response:
“Um, yeah, with pleasure, but, well, do you know what we put our test cars through?”
“The SL takes part in the Mille Miglia, it’s hardly going to be any worse.“
"Umm, no, no. Well, maybe.”
“Worse than the Mille?”
One deflective answer later, we begin to set the date. Because everything happened so smoothly, so easily, we fear that the famed gullwing will never arrive.
There are certainly more interesting places on Earth, than the forlorn airport at Lahr – pretty much every single other place, to be honest. But the car transporter pulls up, drops the tail ramp, and the Mercedes 300 SL rolls out. And just stands there, as if it were a normal car. Something that it never was, and never will be. It’s pretty hard to find even one 300 SL that doesn’t have a famous owner. And with around 1,400 built, that’s an achievement. This Mercedes 300 SL comes from the USA, and has to head down to the petrol station to fill the 130 litre barrel in the back with Super Plus. That makes the car slightly rear-heavy, as is shown on the scales. The Mercedes 300 SL weighs 1,330 kg – 81 less than a VW Golf 2.0 TDI.
We hook up the measurement equipment, affix the GPS receiver to the roof, and clamber over the door sills into the car. Then we drive gingerly onto the runway. In order to allow the oil and the water to warm up, we first measure speedo discrepancies, then cabin noise. This allows us to test out the function of our phon measurement device. Even at a standstill, the Mercedes 300 SL is as loud as a modern compact driving at 130 km/h. And then, the 300 SL is already at 85 dB(A) – a figure that it will certainly beat later.
Mercedes 300 SL – 100 km/h in 7.2 seconds
We drive up to the end of the runway: the starting gate for our acceleration test. It’s a bit of a drive, and the perfect time to reflect on what an unbelievable car the Mercedes 300 SL was back at its debut. It shared the basis of racecars of the day, which competed in the Mille Miglia, Le Mans and the Grand Prix. When the Mercedes 300 SL went into production in 1954, the VW Beetle was being given a performance boost – from 25 to 30 BHP – could reach 110 km/h and cost 3,950 Deutschmarks. That equates to 19,100 euros in today’s money, the price of a Golf 1.2 TSI with 110 BHP. The Mercedes 300 SL cost 29,000 Deutschmarks (140,500 euros in today’s money) – eight times more expensive, at 215 BHP over seven times more powerful, and with 235 km/h (short axle) more than twice as quick. Using the Beetle-Golf situation as an example, a car would need 790 BHP and a top speed of 417 km/h in order to rival the gullwing in today’s terms. The Mercedes 300 SL is thereby the Bugatti Veyron of the 20th century.
And it’s sat at the start line. 3,000 revs, the clutch ready to release. The rear wheels spin for a fraction of a second, and then the Mercedes 300 SL roars forth. Second gear, the synchronised four-speed gearbox changes quickly and precisely. Second is enough to reach 100 km/h. In 7.2 seconds. Seven point two. We’re talking about a 60 year old car here. One that keeps storming ahead, reaching 200 km/h in 34.8 seconds. If someone were now to say that a Skoda Superb 2.0 TSI reaches 100 in only 7.3 seconds, we realise that another great thing about those days was that only the people that could drive fast drove fast.
It wasn’t just about reaching that speed, it was about mastering it too. The brake tests showed the same. The Mercedes 300 SL carries four drum brakes, 26 centimetres in diameter, with ten centimetre thick pads. Disc brakes were only introduced with the Roadster. It was the first car with brake boosters, but still manages to brake almost casually, which also benefits the tracking. The Mercedes 300 SL will go from 100 to nought in 49 metres, and from 130 to nought in 86.2 metres.
We put up the pylons for the slalom and lane change tests. The Mercedes drudges through them. The steering – with its very direct 13.9:1 ratio – stays around the central point indifferently, and then reacts both stiffly and viciously in equal measure. Hence the 100 kg of petrol over the back axle. We manage to get some impressive tests out of the car, in which the Mercedes 300 SL enters the turn dully, and then the rear swings out emphatically, as if to make up for this. In order to drive the Mercedes 300 SL quickly, you either have to be very talented or very brave.300 SL is not a car for drivers. It’s for pilots!
Seeing as the better part of valour is discretion (Shakespeare’s words, not mine), we decide to venture out onto the public roads back through the Black Forest. After all the inside checks and measurements are done, of course. It’s hard to stop thinking about the fact that the price of a Mercedes 300 SL currently lies at around 1.5 million euros, and, according to forecasts, increases by 50 cents every minute. 30 Euros per hour, 720 euros per day, 21,600 a month, 260,000 every year. So quick! Before it gets more expensive!
We press and turn the key. The six-cylinder engine stars. It’s based on that of the L 1500, a Mercedes lorry. The engineers developed the 70 BHP M159 engine into the M198, adding direct injection, more capacity, a sharper camshaft and many further modifications. The engine, idling roughly, pulls itself together as we pull away. Whilst far from quiet, it is slightly subdued. Until, that is, it reaches 3,000 rpm, and then promptly roars through the rev ranges up to 6,500 rpm. At this point, the Mercedes 300 SL is properly quick – even by today’s standards. But it requires concentration, and lots of it. Relentless concentration – you can’t lapse for a second. Steering, braking, depressing the clutch, shifting. If you believe you’d be able to use the phone at the same time, you’re going to be getting to know the nearest tree very intimately. (Oh, and the paramedics are more likely to work to save the car than you!)
Out the back of Bad Peterstal, the road disappears upwards into the forest, hugging the cliffs closely, through tight corners and along (still rather curvy) straights. You start to forget the 1.5 million euros. Pedal. Metal. The Mercedes 300 SL tears away, the Sun dancing on the curves of its bonnet. Brake early for the corner, downshift, haul on the stubborn steering wheel, hit the gas early, preparing yourself for the rear to misbehave. And then gun it along the next straight, up, up and further up.
Later, the Mercedes 300 SL will retire to an underground garage for the night, before waking up in the morning to provide some truly impressive fuel consumption readings. But for now, standing in the evening sun, it is where it belongs. Where it will always be. At the top.
Date18 December 2015