Mercedes-benz 300SL

Most Mercedes-benz 300SL Road­sters live their lives in col­lec­tions and on con­cours lawns, but this ex­am­ple’s owner has spent the last 18 years us­ing it, tak­ing it as far afield as the Mid­dle East

Classic Cars (UK) - - News - Words SAM DAW­SON Pho­tog­ra­phy SI GRAY

What cars do rac­ing driv­ers use away from the track? Much as we as­sume they’ve all got Fer­rari col­lec­tions, the an­swer usu­ally seems to in­volve some­thing small, min­i­mal­ist and nippy that can be driven at ten tenths on pub­lic roads with­out get­ting into trou­ble – typ­i­cally a Fiat 500 or a Mini – and for long dis­tances, a Mercedes-benz.

I don’t know whether for­mer GT and Can-am racer Michael Wheat­ley has much time for small rear-en­gined Fi­ats, but he’s owned his 1958 300SL Road­ster for 18 years. Un­like most own­ers of these now near-£1mil­lion clas­sics, he didn’t buy his as an in­vest­ment or to be wheeled, per­pet­u­ally pris­tine, out of a lorry and judged in con­cours. No, he bought this one for long-dis­tance rally tour­ing. Now it’s for sale with Sil­ver­stone Auc­tions in July but it would be a shame to see it sub­se­quently ush­ered into a stor­age fa­cil­ity, bear­ing in mind how Michael’s used it.

‘The 300SL Gull­wing coupé is a de­light – if you’re go­ing in a dead straight line,’ he quips as we stand in his garage, tak­ing in both the SL Road­ster and photo al­bums doc­u­ment­ing thou­sands of hard-driven miles all over Europe and even into the Mid­dle East. ‘Its en­gine and power delivery are noth­ing short of in­cred­i­ble, es­pe­cially for its era. But if you lift off or brake too hard into a cor­ner…’ His hands briefly form the out­line of the hard­core SL vari­ant’s in­fa­mous swing-axle rear sus­pen­sion be­fore col­laps­ing.

‘I have a Gull­wing too, but the Road­ster is a far bet­ter all-round tour­ing car. It’s more com­fort­able over long dis­tances too – it can get in­cred­i­bly hot in a Gull­wing but not in the Road­ster. Plus the hood is a beau­ti­ful piece of de­sign – es­pe­cially for the Fifties, com­pletely wa­ter­tight. You hear more ex­haust noise in the Road­ster ob­vi­ously, although nei­ther is a quiet car. But what a noise! It’s no hard­ship.

‘I must con­fess I don’t know much about its early his­tory, but when it was new it went to Amer­ica as Road­sters mostly did,’ Wheat­ley ex­plains. ‘It came to the UK in 1999 via Brian Clas­sic – one of the nicest deal­ers there is, who’s been in the busi­ness since the be­gin­ning of the clas­sic car move­ment re­ally. And I bought it from him per­son­ally, hav­ing found out about it. He never even ad­ver­tised it.

‘It needed some lower-body re­pairs when I got it, just a bit of tidy­ing re­ally, but thank­fully I had an ad­van­tage when it came to mak­ing it per­fect in the form of Ron Waghorn. He was a time­served Mercedes GB tech­ni­cian who in 1954 as a young ap­pren­tice had gone over to Stuttgart with his col­league Tommy John­ston to

“learn the Gull­wing” – things like fuel in­jec­tion were a com­pletely new con­cept to me­chan­ics back then – and two years later to see the key dif­fer­ences be­tween the Gull­wing and the new Road­ster.

‘Waghorn had worked on this car since 1990 and he over­saw the restora­tion, af­ter which he re­tired. But then I tracked down John­ston just down the road in Mil­ton Keynes, and it’s sub­se­quently been looked af­ter by Neil Corns of Omega Mo­tor­sport. It went to APR Cars in Ruis­lip for strip­down to bare metal and re­paint­ing, then to Mau­rice Mcdon­ald for re­trim­ming, although the seats them­selves were in ter­rific con­di­tion.’

Mcdon­ald’s work is sub­lime. Wheat­ley points to var­i­ous points of the in­te­rior where orig­i­nal Mercedes-benz fab­ric and leather meets new, and yet there are no un­sightly changes of hue or tex­ture, nor does the in­te­rior have the jar­ring look of some­thing re­stored to ‘bet­ter than new’ con­di­tion and never sat in. The same goes for its paint, not overly shiny yet con­sis­tent and satins­mooth. ‘Auto Wax­works at Bices­ter Her­itage do the de­tail­ing work,’ Wheat­ley notes. They have a good eye there too.

Wheat­ley switches on the 3.0-litre straight-six, all pumps and in­jec­tors swirling into life abruptly and ef­fi­ciently with a cor­us­ca­tion of whirrs, and eases the car out into the light.

A wave of morn­ing sun sweeps over the car, re­veal­ing the sheer white­ness of its paint. It’s a shade that re­calls Fifties mo­tor shows,

cho­sen by mar­ket­ing peo­ple to re­flect flash­bulbs and stage lights. For a mo­ment be­fore the clouds re­turn it’s quite hard to look di­rectly at the car, such is the daz­zling ef­fect, a cur­va­ceous bub­ble of soft fo­cus with an is­land of scar­let and chrome in the mid­dle.

With the en­gine whirring and the ex­haust giv­ing off a gen­tle metro­nomic thump – ‘Do you hear it jet­ting?’ asks Wheat­ley – he re­leases the bon­net catch. ‘I love the lit­tle things about the way this car was de­signed,’ he notes. ‘There’s only one catch on the bon­net, on the driver’s side, but there’s just enough flex in the alu­minium bon­net for it to be opened by one per­son stand­ing on the other side, and that flex­ing just twists the lug clear of the latch.’ I dread to think how much the con­se­quences of get­ting this el­e­gant-look­ing ma­noeu­vre wrong would cost, es­pe­cially be­cause the cor­rect way to close the bon­net is to let it drop when it’s six inches from its latch. ‘Alu­minium is an odd ma­te­rial,’ says Michael. ‘It’s al­most as though it suf­fers from shock – it’s more mal­leable im­me­di­ately af­ter be­ing bent, so if you do dam­age it you’re bet­ter off bend­ing it back as soon as pos­si­ble, rather than let­ting it “set” and harden.’ Still, I trem­ble to think what re­gain­ing the bon­net’s com­pound curves would en­tail.

He points out the in­jec­tion pump, nestling along­side the en­gine block on the driver’s side of the car. It looks like a tiny straight-six in it­self, a row of minia­ture pis­ton-fed tubes forc­ing fuel up to­wards their full-sized coun­ter­parts in the SL’S slant-block. ‘That is the heart of the car, more so than the en­gine in a way,’ Michael ex­plains. ‘When Ron Waghorn and I were go­ing over the car in 2000 we re­alised it needed re­build­ing – idling all over the place is a sign there’s some­thing wrong – and that meant send­ing it to Ger­many. To me and my fet­tling com­pa­tri­ots its work­ings are a to­tal mys­tery. It can­not be touched, so if any work is needed it has to go to some­one who un­der­stands the Bosch sys­tems of the era, typ­i­cally HK or Kienle, although there’s a great spe­cial­ist in Ire­land, Car­dock, which can do it now too. The pump re­build alone cost €13,000. And then of course if you’re re­build­ing the in­jec­tion pump you have to do the ac­cel­er­a­tor pump at the same time, as they work in con­cert and need to “talk” to each other. You can’t re­ally set one up with­out the other. I’ve also fit­ted elec­tronic ig­ni­tion, hid­den inside a dummy Bosch dis­trib­u­tor. Other­wise they can take an age to start.’

With the bon­net closed – drop­ping that vast alu­minium ex­panse onto the hard­points be­low in­volved a leap of faith – it’s time to climb inside. Open­ing the doors re­veals the same mas­sive leather­padded sills that keep the Gull­wing’s struc­ture stiff. Acutely aware of the door’s fly­weight na­ture, and try­ing not to scuff the sill, I aim my right leg care­fully be­tween the steer­ing wheel and seat squab in the man­ner of one of John Cleese’s silly walks, ease my­self

‘Re­build­ing the in­jec­tion pump alone cost €13,000. It’s the heart of the car, more so than the en­gine in a way’

down into the seat, then twist to the left and pull my left leg high over the sill be­fore fold­ing it be­hind the wheel. Once inside, it’s won­der­fully com­fort­able, far more than the Jaguar E-type that ri­valled the Mercedes in the last two years of its pro­duc­tion life. There’s plenty of legroom, the wind­screen de­flects the weather well what­ever height you are, and the seats are squashy and plush yet sup­port­ive. Gaz­ing at a dash­board adorned with taste­fully-shaped yet hardly re­strained chrome details and a vast white steer­ing wheel with its in­di­ca­tors worked into an in­ner chrome ring re­minds me – al­beit in a far more ex­pen­sively-en­gi­neered man­ner – of the orig­i­nal Ford Thun­der­bird.

‘To im­prove it for long-dis­tance tour­ing I’ve fit­ted elec­tric power steer­ing,’ Michael ex­plains. ‘It’s a su­perb sys­tem that can be taken off the car in half an hour. How­ever, you need to play with the tyre pres­sures to make sure it’s not too soft. Run­ning with the fronts ever so slightly de­flated adds the re­as­sur­ing weight you need, although ob­vi­ously you can’t have them too low or it will wal­low. And then the rears need ad­just­ing to com­pen­sate, other­wise it’ll ride too hard at the rear and threaten to bounce it into over­steer. That said, I’ve never had any swingaxle mo­ments in the Road­ster. I’ve had a few in the Gull­wing…

‘It will pull away from noth­ing and it needs very few gearchanges,’ Michael ad­vises as I head off into the Buck­ing­hamshire coun­try­side. He’s right – the torque from that straight-six is in­stant and seam­less, not to men­tion po­tent when com­bined with the fact that the Road­ster was prob­a­bly the last time Mercedes kept to the ‘Le­icht’ bit of the SL’S de­sign brief.

Yet it blends re­as­sur­ance into that po­tency. With the sum­mer breeze glid­ing over the wind­screen, I pass an R230-gen­er­a­tion SL head­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion en route to Sil­ver­stone and re­alise that the 300SL Road­ster is re­ally where this blood­line of cars truly be­gan. The po­ten­tially lethal rear sus­pen­sion was cured by al­tered, low­ered ge­om­e­try and ad­di­tional spring­ing, while the power and road­hold­ing are ca­pa­ble of com­pletely out­per­form­ing small sports cars, yet masked in ef­fort­less­ness and smooth­ness.

‘You’ll swear you’re bur­bling along at 40mph but a glance at the speedo tells you you’re rapidly clos­ing on 60’

And it’s that smooth­ness that re­ally de­fines the SL. Fuel in­jec­tion has been manda­tory on new cars for decades so we take it for granted, but in the Fifties world of splut­ter­ing, chat­ter­ing car­bu­ret­tors that we credit with so much ‘char­ac­ter’ nowa­days, the chro­matic howl and long-geared whine of a pass­ing SL would have sounded like a new­fan­gled jet air­liner.

The gear­box helps too. I find my­self chuck­ling as I slide it neatly be­tween those four lengthy ra­tios in what is prob­a­bly the slick­est man­ual shifter Mercedes has ever made. As a lux­ury mar­que Mercedes has con­cen­trated on de­vel­op­ing its ex­cel­lent au­to­mat­ics, but they don’t re­ally suit cars such as the SLK, the 190 Cos­worth and the straight-six R129 SLS. But on the rare oc­ca­sion you find one that’s been fit­ted with a five-speeder, it will be frus­trat­ingly baulky and long-winded. ‘The 300SL’S gear­box is a beau­ti­ful piece of phys­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing, as well as a nice thing to use,’ notes Michael. ‘It’s amaz­ing how com­pact it is too – about the size of a box of Black Magic, not quite as big as a tin of Qual­ity Street...’

Per­for­mance, while in­hab­it­ing su­per­car ter­ri­tory in the late Fifties, is by no means ex­plo­sive but it is as­sertive in its crisp re­sponse to the ac­cel­er­a­tor. The SL is also de­cep­tive in how its speed creeps up on you un­awares. You’ll swear you’re bur­bling along at 40mph but a glance at the speedome­ter tells you you’re rapidly clos­ing on 60, and the tachome­ter is barely into its stride. A con­tem­po­rary MGA would be scream­ing.

Yet as I gather speed I can’t help but think of that rear sus­pen­sion. Yes, the mount­ing points were low­ered to re­duce lift-off tuck-in but they’re still swing-arms, so surely it will be­have like an early Tri­umph Spit­fire – with twice the power and torque – when de­cel­er­at­ing hard? It’s got drum brakes all round too, so I keep a greater dis­tance than usual from the cars in front.

But I shouldn’t worry too much. When you pitch the SL into a hard cor­ner you feel its rear end ad­just to its new at­ti­tude with a benev­o­lent, smooth de­lay al­most like a tilt­ing high-speed train. As the corners get tighter the nose tends to bob a bit in the man­ner of

an early Porsche 911, but there’s no threat of run­away un­der­steer, a re­minder of the stag­ger­ing trac­tion from its 205/70 R15 tyres.

Thanks to that af­ter­mar­ket elec­tric power steer­ing sys­tem the steer­ing is fin­ger­tip-light, per­fect for tour­ing, yet it’s still a sports car. Although there’s not much feel through the rim, there’s a sur­pris­ing ac­cu­racy when you make mi­nor course cor­rec­tions. The yawn­ing dead-zone you got on gen­er­a­tions of Mercs from the Six­ties to the Nineties just isn’t there. The nose-bob and at­ti­tude-shift of the SL is warn­ing enough and there are enough turns lock-to-lock to avoid a sense of twitch­ing ner­vous­ness any­way.

The steer­ing was tested to the limit dur­ing Michael’s great­est chal­lenge in the SL, The Jewel That Is Jor­dan rally. ‘The hair­pin bends in the hills above Galilee are some­thing else. They’re not like those we en­coun­tered in the Pyre­nees or the Alps, where you can set a neat cor­ner­ing line. They’re so tight that you re­ally have to force the car round them. Yet it coped with ease. Noth­ing over­heated or fell off – the cool­ing sys­tem is so ef­fec­tive I’ve had to partly blank off the cooler to get more heat in on Bri­tish roads!’

The Gull­wing was ar­guably the era’s great­est sports racer – the com­pe­ti­tion record of the W196 sug­gests that even if the driv­ing rep­u­ta­tion of the W198 road car doesn’t – and af­ter some time in this Road­ster I con­clude that it was a sim­i­larly thor­ough at­tempt to per­fect the tour­ing car. Clam­ber­ing out, I re­alise the race-bred sills are the only as­pect of the de­sign that count against it. It’s frus­trat­ing to think about this SL in re­la­tion to the de­tached Pagoda, the leaden R107, the bland R129 and the anaes­thetised R230 and re­alise that the Sport Le­icht could have sired a blood­line of Porsche 911-style all-round driv­ers’ cars. It’s why Mercedes has be­lat­edly given us front-en­gined su­per­cars in the form of the SLS and AMG GT but I can’t help but think of the po­ten­tial that ex­isted within the mar­que to cre­ate sports cars ca­pa­ble of em­bar­rass­ing E-types years be­fore they even ex­isted.

Michael Wheat­ley never for­got this. And he should know – the man who once raced the mighty Lola T70 and BRM P154 all over the world re­placed a GT40 with this one, and used it as in­tended.

The ques­tion is, will the lucky per­son wield­ing the win­ning pad­dle at the Sil­ver­stone Clas­sic auc­tion con­tinue to do so?

Ex-racer Michael Wheat­ley is part­ing from his 300SL af­ter 18 years

Le­icht con­struc­tion works well with in­stant, seam­less torque

Sym­pa­thetic mods make the 2996cc straight-six fit for pur­pose in 2018 ral­ly­ing

1999-2001 fet­tling left the car look­ing sub­lime but not over-re­stored

Al­ter­ing the Road­ster’s rear sus­pen­sion ge­om­e­try cured the Gull­wing’s cor­ner­ing way­ward­ness

En­hance­ments in­clude a re­born in­jec­tion pump, elec­tronic ig­ni­tion and power steer­ing

Sub­lime restora­tion left the new and old leather in­dis­tin­guish­able

Once you’ve ma­noeu­vred over the vast sill the driv­ing po­si­tion is ex­cel­lent

No con­cours lawns for this SL – Wheat­ley has driven the car hard across Europe and be­yond

The Jewel That Is Jor­dan rally was the great­est test of the car’s for­ti­tude

Could the 300SL have sired a blood­line that might have out-e-typed the E-type?

Here’s hop­ing its new owner will care for and use the SL as en­thu­si­as­ti­cally as the cur­rent one

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