1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing
Mercedes-Benz returned to post-war competition in 1952, fielding two of its new 300 SL (W194) sports cars in the Mille Miglia. The pair finishing an creditable 2nd and 4th overall in this most difficult of events and this promising start was followed up by a win in the challenging Carrera Panamericana. For the Le Mans 24-Hour Race in June a trio of ‘Gullwing’-doored coupés was entered. Karl Kling and Hans Klenk duly brought their ‘Silver Arrow’ home in first place and the 300 SL was on its way to becoming part of motor sporting legend.
Launched in 1954, the production 300 SL retained the spaceframe chassis and lightweight aluminium-alloy bodywork of the W194 racer while its mechanical underpinnings, like the latter’s, owed much to the contemporary Mercedes-Benz 300 luxury saloon. A 2,996cc overhead-camshaft inline six, the 300 SL’s engine was canted at 45 degrees to achieve a low bonnet line and produced 215bhp (DIN) at 5,800rpm using Bosch mechanical fuel injection. A four-speed, all-synchromesh manual gearbox transmitted power to the hypoid bevel rear axle. Suspension was independent all round: by wishbones and coil springs at the front, with swing axles and coil springs at the rear.
The company’s U.S. distributor, Max Hoffman, decided that there was a market in America for a fast, sensual Mercedes-Benz coupe, and a production version of the racing 300 SL (complete with the fascinating gullwing doors) would be it.
This stunning early 300SL Gullwing was a special order for Hoffmann via a Mercedes Dealer in Grand Rapids, Michigan who ordered the car on behalf of a Mr. Herbert L. Levinson of Indianapolis, Indiana. Levinson was a larger than life character; during the war he was stationed in the Pacific with the Fourth Marine Corps, returning to the U.S. to build up several businesses in the Indianapolis area, notably Dorothy’s Women’s Apparel which he ran with his wife for nearly 40 years. The Levinson’s had a penchant for jazz, sports in general, and of course sportscars in particular. An XK120 tried but failed to maintain their interest, so they approached a contact in Grand Rapids to place a special order for the exciting and newly launched Mercedes 300SL Gullwing.
The order was placed in the autumn of 1954, in the special paint option of DB158 “Weissgrau” with a complimenting blue “Plaid Cloth” and vinyl interior. Hoffman placed the order (with the Mercedes Benz commission number 664 078) and was assigned the chassis number 300SL/198.040–4500158. Due to a backlog in processing orders final completion and acceptance of 4500158 took place on 8th January 1955, the Levinsons taking formal delivery a month later. Several other interesting vehicles came and went through their hands over the years, but the prized 300SL remained with them until they finally decided to sell the Gullwing in order to buy a 1965 Ferrari 500 Superfast.
The 300SL was sold to William “Bill” Russell Bryant, a prominent socialite who lived less than an hour away in nearby Muncie, Indiana, joining a 1957 Fuel-Injected Corvette that he also owner. At the age of 67, and suffering from a heart condition, Bryant joined fellow Mercedes Club of America members for a gathering at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The club was invited to tour the track with the understanding that a strict top speed limit of 85 mph would be adhered to. Bryant however decided his one and only foray onto a track would be remembered well by all who attended, so he put his foot down and hit nearly 140mph on the front straight. A mob scene saw Bryant being pulled from the car and hoisted on the shoulders of fellow club members who doused him repeatedly in champagne!
Not long thereafter, Bryant put the 300SL up for sale, and it was bought in early 1973 via the Mercedes Star Letter by Bernard “Beano” J. Sheridan. Sheridan was a decorated Air Force pilot who flew photo reconnaissance missions over Germany in 1954/55. On one particular mission, he buzzed the autobahn near Stuttgart and encountered his first 300SL Gullwing. The car made a lasting impression, so after retiring and moving back to the States, he was determined to buy one. He had met Bill Bryant a few times and after seeing the advert called Bryant repeatedly to arrange to meet. Sheridan and Bryant organised a visit, the two hit it off well and a deal was duly agreed.
Sheridan greatly enjoyed his new Gullwing, remaining active with the Mercedes Club and the Gullwing Group International. Sheridan noted that the car had never been damaged, not even a door ding, and that the mileage was accurate. He kept the car running regularly and improved drivability by changing the ignition to a delta discharge system, replacing the fuel pump diaphragm to a Hjeltness synthetic one, and having the pressure spring adjusted correctly.
In December of 2013 with the odometer showing just over 50,000 original miles, Sheridan decided it was time for his prized 300SL to move onto a new custodian. Our vendor brought this beautiful original Gullwing back to the UK shortly afterwards whereupon a thorough £64,000 program of refurbishment was commissioned.
A detailed mechanical overhaul was completed by Martin Cushway, the UK partner for world-class Gullwing restorer HK Engineering. The engine was serviced with all fluids replaced, a new timing chain fitted, and to improve running the Gullwing was converted to electronic ignition. The gearbox and differential were stripped and overhauled with new seals and gaskets where required, and mated to a modern clutch and refaced flywheel. A number of smaller jobs were completed, such as relining the brakes, renewing hub bearings and grease seals, replacing all engine coolant hoses, and reinstating the oil cooler circuit.
Attention was then turned to the paint and trim. All glass was removed, as were the outer sills and wheel arch brows, and minor localised repairs were carried out where required. The dashboard and cockpit tub were also removed to allow for refurbishment of the chassis tubes, and the colour change from the previous sIlver paint finish which had been applied at some point in the car’s lifetime. At this point it was decided to return the car to its special order scheme of 158 Weissgrau and to retrim the interior in the correct blue vinyl and plaid interior. Finally brightwork was rechromed and refitted where required.
Offered with its original manuals, US title and UK registration documents, and showing a mere 52,480 miles recorded from new, this is without doubt one the finest examples Coys have seen in 30 years of trading the most iconic of post-war sports cars.