The Mercedes-Benz W194 “Gullwing” made its race debut in the Mille Miglia, finishing in 2nd and 4th

Saturday 3rd May 1952

The Mercedes-Benz W194 “Gullwing” made its race debut in the Mille Miglia, finishing in 2nd and 4th. It was the first motor racing vehicle to be produced by Mercedes-Benz after the end of the Second World War appeared at a time when Europe still lay in ruins. On 15 June 1951 the Board of Management resolved to participate in motor racing once again from the 1952 season and commissioned the production of the ‘300 SL Super-Light’, as the new car was initially known. The suffix was later shortened to the simple letters SL – so giving rise to the model designation 300 SL. Its M 194 engine was derived from the engine used in the Mercedes-Benz 300 prestige saloon, also known as the ‘Adenauer Mercedes’. For its use in the racing car, the engineers increased the output to around 170 hp (125 kW). The racing engine, equipped wîth dry sump lubrication, is canted at an angle of 50 degrees to the left. The body of this first SL preempts certain elements of the later series-production sports car model. Among these are the low bonnet of the pre-war racing cars, wîth a Mercedes star mounted on the grille of the cooling air intake. The famous swing-wing doors are a characteristic feature of the Coupé: they are cut deep into the roof, open upwards and were originally conceived purely as access hatches that opened only as far as the beltline. During preparations for the ’24 Hours of Le Mans’ the door openings were enlarged, giving the even more pronounced effect of extended wings. This led to the car being nicknamed the ‘Gullwing’ by the Americans and ‘Papillon’ (Butterfly) by the French. In two races the 300 SL appeared wîth a Roadster body rather than as a ‘Gullwing’ model. Lightweight construction was one of the key priorities for the 300 SL. Wherever possible, efforts were made to save weight – the body shell is made out of sheet aluminium/magnesium, some of the mechanical components of aluminium or magnesium, while various parts are bored to make them lighter. Another way of improving competitiveness was to make the body as aerodynamic as possible. Rudolf Úhlenhaut, who was the head of passenger car testing at Daimler-Benz at that time, developed a special framework for the W 194, weighing just 50 kilograms. This is made out of very fine, high-alloy steel tubes designed to absorb tensile and compression forces. A total of ten W 194 vehicles were built for the 1952 season. A successor model was also developed in readiness for the following year which, as the eleventh SL to be built, is also known as the W 194/11. It never did race in the 1953 season, however. From 1954 onwards Mercedes-Benz competed in Formula 1 racing, while the W 194 was developed further to become the 300 SL series-production sports car (W 198). The series-production vehicle became the dream sports car of the 1950s, going on to be awarded the accolade of ‘Sports car of the century’ in 1999.

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