1000 Glorious Miles in a 1958 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Roadster
The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Roadster is the direct descendant of the mighty 300 SL Gullwing, and in many ways, it’s a better car to drive.
I found this out after driving in the 1000-mile Colorado Grand in a 1958 300 SL roadster. I had weaseled my way onto the Grand for a day, not sure exactly with whom or in what car I might drive. Could have been any number of very cool cars that populate the Grand, a round-the-state tour of the best parts of Colorado. But Mercedes-Benz is a major sponsor of the Grand, and my friend (everyone’s friend) Mike Kunz, director of the Mercedes Classic Center, was there in a 1958 300 SL Roadster in perfect Silver-Arrow silver, and he asked if I’d like to drive with him for the day.
Things work out every now and then.
The roadster was the successor to the more-famous hard-topped Gullwing, with its famous swing-up doors, which itself was based on the gullwinged W194 race car. This thing ruled racing in the early 1950s. It started out with a second-place finish in the Mille Miglia, then took first and second at Le Mans, went 1-2-3 at the Nürburgring, and finished another 1-2 at La Carrera Panamericana. The latter win was accomplished after the car of Karl Kling famously experienced a bird strike, taking a buzzard to the windshield at 135 mph on the passenger’s side and knocking out co-driver Hans Klenk. When Klenk came to, bloodied and covered in glass and feathers, he urged Kling to keep going. “Mach weiter,” he might have said. “Es ist nur ein wenig Blut und Federn!”
Those were the days.
From the W194 came the 300 SL Gullwing from 1954 to 1957, and then the 300 SL Roadster from 1957 to 1963. It’s hard to overstate just how cool these cars were. Fangio had one, Picasso had one, Lance Reventlow, Clark Gable, Briggs Cunningham, Yul Brenner, and Frank Lloyd Wright all had 300 SLs. If you were cool in the 1950s and liked to drive fast cars, you had a Mercedes 300 SL.
They were based around a chromoly tubular space frame, with independent suspension including a swing axle at the rear. Power came from a 3.0-liter OHC straight-six making either 220 hp or 240 hp (depending on your source) and 294 lb-ft of torque via the first use of mechanical fuel injection in a production car. That was mated to a four-speed manual transmission. Curb weights varied from 2855 to 3131 pounds, and 0-60 mph was listed from 7.7 to 9.3 seconds, slow by today’s standards but pretty quick for the 1950s. Depending on what final drive you chose, top speed was as high as 163 mph.
Mercedes’ ad slogan when it came out was, “Only Flying Is Better.” It might have even been better than flying. Depending on what model and what year you got, you could get an aluminum hood, roof, and deck lid, as well as disc brakes, features usually only found on race cars of the time.
Griff Borgeson wrote in the April 1956 issue of Sports Car Illustrated: “After exhaustive road testing of a standard 300 SL, after driving impressions in a race-tuned version and interviews with several owners and specialist technicians, I’m ready to haul off and make a flat, unequivocal statement: This is the finest production sports car in the world. No exceptions, no qualifications. On all critical counts, it scores.”
“They’re great cars,” said Scott Grundfor, who has been restoring Gullwings and SLs for over 40 years at Scott Grundfor Co. in Arroyo Grande, California. “It’s one of the few cars that, the design of both of the Gullwing and the Roadster are pretty great. Most cars, I think something happens as time goes on and they fall out of fashion. But 300 SLs, there’s just not a bad angle on them. They’re just very well-done, beautiful cars. They’re durable. In the 40 years, 45 years, I’ve been working on them I’ve never seen one that had major damage. It just doesn’t happen. They’re super tough."
So with that, I met Mike in the parking area of the The Peaks Resort and Spa in Mountain Village outside Telluride and eyeballed our silver SL.
“Want to drive?” he asked.
Sure, I want to drive. This particular 1958 300 SL Roadster was having a slight problem with its fuel injection, hesitating below 2500 rpm. Easy solution to that: Keep it above 2500 rpm!
The 300 SL is, in almost all parameters, a modern car to drive. The clutch works just fine with a perfect weight to it, the shifter gets into and out of the gears with no fuss or double-clutching required, and the vision all around is almost unsurpassed, especially as we had it, with the top down all day. A couple weird things about this specific model: The seat-bottom cushions were a little too high, so we took them out and Mike layered a padded moving blanket across both of them, and the recirculating ball steering was going to be rebuilt after our drive and so was a little imprecise on-center. Plus, the steering wheel is bigger than what a modern driver is used to. Otherwise, the car was a blast to drive.
Off we set to take a 256-mile loop around southwestern Colorado: Telluride to Nucla (yes, Nucla) to Cortez, over Lizard Head Pass, and back to Telluride. At 2500-rpm-plus, the SL was a dream. There were long stretches through red rock canyons, high-speed bombing runs across empty high plains, and slower jaunts through high-country splendor with autumn leaves just starting to fire. The sun was shining, the weather was perfect, and the ancient straight-six roared happily.
Our first stop was in Nucla, a small town of just over 700, where all the cars from the Grand parked on the main street and down the middle turn lane. It seemed the whole town turned out to see the show. The local school let all the kids out to see the cars. The Nucla Mustangs football team wore their football jerseys (“Beat Telluride!”). Photos were taken, polite conversation was made, delicious toffee was purchased and eaten.
Then we jumped back in the SL and headed west, which, it turned out, was the wrong direction. But we got to see about 100 miles of the Dolores River as it carved its way into the very sandstone edifices first made famous on the Wile E. Coyote vs. Road Runner Looney Tunes Comedy Hour. The road was mostly third- and fourth-gear curves, which the SL ate up. The faster you drive, the happier it was.
By the time we figured out our navigation error and turned around, we had missed lunch in Cortez, but we had gotten gas, apples, and Pringles in Dove Creek, three of the four food groups, so we were fine. Across the high plains and mesa tops of this corner of the state, the SL was doing perfectly happily. (It is not only illegal to drive at 100 mph for long stretches, but probably retroactively citationable, so without admitting any wrongdoing, I will say that the SL is set up for just that kind of thing, like a Colorado autobahn.)
Over the picturesque, 10,222-foot-tall Lizard Head Pass, the SL was likewise happy, unaffected by the altitude.
“Taking a 300 SL roadster on the Grand is not an endurance test for the car or for the drivers,” said Paul Russell, whose Paul Russell and Company handles restoration and other services on pre-war through 1960s Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari, Porsche, Bugatti, Alfa Romeo, and other such cars. “It is comfortable, weatherproof with the top up, glorious with the top down, and super-reliable. The performance is very capable, if not exhilarating. The engine is not fussy about altitude changes, with a barometric compensator controlling the mechanical fuel injection mixtures. The brakes are up to the mountain challenges.”
Challenges like, say, the blankets over the seats with no cushions started to hurt after a while in our SL. But then I thought of the great Hans Klenk, unconscious and bleeding with a bird stuck to his face, and I sucked it up. We rolled into Telluride that evening like Kling und Klenk, victorious, if a little late. When people asked how it went I just said, “Es ist nur ein wenig Blut und Federn!”
Looking forward to next year’s run. Maybe I’ll start sucking up to the Bugatti people now for an Atlantique.
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