In March 1957 at the Geneva Motor Show, Mercedes unveiled a car that would become the de facto blueprint for drop top dream cars — the 300SL Roadster.
Like all German manufacturers, it took a number of years for Mercedes to rebuild its reputation following the end of the Second World War. However, thanks to an unnerving focus on racing and performance upon returning to competition in 1952, within two years the three-pointed star was once again the dominant force in motorsport.
But it also wanted to be a dominant force in the US car market and thanks to Max Hoffman, a Vienna-born racing driver turned US-based European car importer, it quickly found the answer.
Hoffman complained that the marque didn’t have a “crowd puller” to get US customers excited. So, to provide him with an out-and-out sportscar, Mercedes had the ingenious idea of offering its racing car, the 300SL Gullwing, as a road car for the well-heeled, a move that essentially set the original template for the supercar, a vehicle that combined mind-blowing performance with phenomenal aesthetics.
So that same year, head designer Friedrich Geiger took the SL back to the drawing board and enhanced its low drag look while simplifying every aspect that could be a hindrance to “care-free” open-air motoring.
This meant a complete reimagining of the chassis. The Gullwing used a spaceframe that rose along the car’s sides so half-size upward opening doors was the only way to allow anyone into or out of the car. The changes enabled the car to have traditional doors, a generous trunk and enough space for a more complex suspension set up to really improve handling.
These did not hinder performance. With a racing wind shield fitted and the passenger seat covered, the car managed an average speed of 242.5 kilometres per hour on the on the Munich-Ingolstadt motorway.
Between 1957 and 1963, despite being one of the most expensive cars in the world — it cost $10,900 in standard specification — Mercedes sold 1,858 300SL Roadsters before replacing it with the W113 series SL, better known as the Pagoda, but again overseen by Friedrich Geiger.
The car cemented Mercedes‘ place in American consciousness, too. Between 1936 and 1941, the firm had exported a grand total of 41 cars to the country. Yet with Hoffman helping guide the firm, by 1957, the company was exporting 6,048 cars to the United States yearly.
Today, even 300SL Roadsters in poor condition easily fetch more than US$1 million at auction, making it one of the most collectible and sought-after Mercedes in history.