Style, luxury, and sometimes brutally fast.
Max Hoffman was a singular man. He was an Austrian-born, New York-based luxury car importer with a sense of taste and style with business acumen to match. In the early 1950s, he had the iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright design his Jaguar Hoffman Auto Showroom in Manhattan and then his own house in 1955. In the same year, Hoffman suggested Porsche build the 356 "Speedster" for the American market and was the first dealer to bring BMW and Alfa Romeo here. He was responsible for the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider, but the most famous was the legendary gullwing-doored Mercedes-Benz 300SL.
By encouraging Mercedes to build a sports car mainly for the American market based on its successful 1952 endurance race car, chassis code W194, Hoffman became the grandfather of the Mercedes-Benz SL class. The SL stands for "super-light" in German but has evolved into a true luxury sports car, whether it's a coupe, roadster, or being amped up by the Mercedes-Benz tuning arm, AMG. Ahead of a new generation, we look back at all the SLs past.
Only ten Mercedes-Benz W194 race cars were built but amassed a string of impressive victories, including wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Carrera Panamericana race in Mexico, the Eifelrennen at Nürburgring, and the Bern-Bremgarten in Switzerland. It's considered the most influential of Mercedes-Benz's post-World War II models as it re-established the brand at the top of motor racing. Post-war Germany was rebuilding, but post-war America was thriving, and Hoffman knew that a luxury-based road-going version of the Mercedes Grand Prix car would be an easy sell to affluent sports car enthusiasts. In 1953, he traveled to a Mercedes board meeting in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim to sell the idea, and Mercedes moved quickly. It debuted in New York rather than Europe, and Hoffman had ordered 1,000 300SL models to sell and then a further 1,000 of the smaller 190SL cars that were also announced.
The 300SL came on a tubular frame over a steel chassis to keep it light, and was powered by a 3.0-liter overhead camshaft straight-six engine derived directly from the race car. Its top speed was 163 mph, making it the fastest production car at the time. What turned it into an enduring icon is its exterior styling with its high midline, low roof, long hood, sloping curves, and, most memorably, gullwing doors. They were actually a design necessity brought over from the race car due to the high mid-line and door sills. Its highest sales years were 1955, when Mercedes sold 856 units, and 1957 with 688 units when the roadster model was introduced. In its last model year, 1964, 94 were sold. The list of famous owners is long and included Frank Lloyd Wright, Pablo Picasso, Paul Newman, Sophia Loren, Clark Gable, and the race car driver Juan Manuel Fangio.
When Mercedes replaced the first-gen SL, head of styling Friedrich Geiger worked with Paul Bracq and Béla Barényi on the second. Bracq and Barényi came up with the subtly concave hardtop design that earned the W113 series its "Pagoda" nickname. The idea was for the new SL to not only be within reach of only the richest of people like the 300SL and to improve on the performance of the 190SL. The 230 SL came first, and Mercedes Technical director Fritz Nallinger explained that "it was our aim to create a very safe and fast sports car with high performance, which despite its sports characteristics, provides a very high degree of traveling comfort." He didn't mention right then that the W113 SL was the first sports car to use a "safety body" with crumple zones protecting a rigid passenger cell.
The W113 SL was powered by a straight-six engine pulled from the shelf at Mercedes and grown from 2.2 to 2.3 liters of displacement and modified to make 148 hp. The 250 SL followed in 1966 with sharper brakes, an optional limited-slip differential, and a standard 2.5-liter still making 148 hp but with extra torque.
The final evolution of the W113 platform was the 280 SL that was introduced late in 1967. Now the SL was more of a grand touring sports car, and that was rammed home by the vast majority of American customers ordering it with the four-speed automatic transmission and air conditioning. Only 882 American-spec models were ordered with the manual, while more than half sold in Europe sold with a manual transmission and no air conditioning. It was powered by an evolution of the straight-six, a 2.8-liter engine making 158 hp in the US and 180 lb-ft of torque. Due to a lack of emissions requirements, European models made 168 hp and didn't require the sealed beam headlights on American models or the chrome side bumpers, amongst other things. As a result, grey-market imports became popular.
When the next generation emerged for the 1970s, the SL series was very much a Personal Luxury Car and long removed from the racing heritage of the original 300SL. And it was a series, as the R107 and C107 models consisted of the 280 SL, 280 SLC, 300 SL, 350SL, 350SLC, 380SL, 380SLC, 420SL, 450SL, 450SLC, 450SLC 5.0, 500SL, 500SLC, and 560 SL over the generation's 18-year run. The R107 chassis code indicated the two-door version with a soft-top or detachable roof and optional folding seats for the rear. The C107 chassis code was for the 2-door coupe with standard back seats, more commonly known as the SL Coupe and aimed squarely at the US market. Both variations became the first SLs to be V8 powered.
The 350 SL arrived in the US first, with a 4.5-liter V8 and three-speed auto, but in 1973, it was more appropriately named the 450 SL. Unfortunately, the V8 engines were exported as low-compression units due to emissions requirements stateside. The largest engine of the R107 and C107 era cars arrived in the 560 SL. It had a 5.6-liter V8 but still wasn't as powerful as the 500 SL model in Europe.
In 1989, Mercedes brought the SL-Class up to date with sharp aesthetics, a wide range of engines, and a heavy dose of technology. The R129 chassis code was based on the W124 E-Class sedan platform and came complete with a multi-link rear suspension system and optional electronic adaptive damping. Under the hood, options ranged from inline and V6 engines to V8s and V12s, so you could have either a light(er)weight roadster or a serious GT car. Safety was also on the menu, and its new technology included a pop-up roll-over bar.
However, the big news was that AMG was coming under the Mercedes banner, and the first factory AMG SL was born. The SL 73 AMG came with a 7.3-liter V12 engine making 525 hp - a rare and special beast. Pagani was so impressed with the AMG-fettled V12 the supercar maker used it in the Zonda, but there were more Zondas built than SL 73 AMGs. Mercedes and AMG made just 85, and you had to have the right contacts to order one. Most ended up in collector's hands in Japan, but it was the start of a resurgence of the SL as a luxury powerhouse.
Work on the next iteration of the SL started in 1996, with designs being submitted by ten designers spread across Germany, California, and Japan. From there, the design process was split between traditional real-world models and using a supercomputer in an area that became known through Mercedes as the CAVE (Computer Aided Virtual Environment). The R230 SL was introduced at the 2001 auto show in Frankfurt, Germany and then appeared as the Formula 1 Safety Car for the 2001 German Grand Prix. It arrived with the option of a 242 hp V6 engine, a 302 hp V8, or two flavors of V12. The SL600's V12 made 493 hp, while the SL 65 AMG's 12-cylinder lump produced a whopping great 604 hp. In 2008, the SL 65 AMG Black Series appeared and topped out at 661 hp as a fixed-roof coupe.
While the standard R230 models were consulate cruisers with a sporty feel, the SL 65 AMG Black Series was a legitimate supercar adversary that had to be taken to a track to appreciate just how breathtaking its performance was.
In 2012, the SL was on the verge of turning 60 years old. Mercedes introduced the sixth generation, or the seventh if you include the race car. It arrived bigger than the previous R230 generation but 242 pounds lighter and with an increase in torsional rigidity. It was a welcome return to lightening up. Mercedes did so while retaining many conveniences by using things like a magnesium frame with plastic paneling for the electro-hydraulically folding roof. A V8 engine topped the standard range packing 435 hp, while two AMG models were offered for the more cultured and affluent hooligans. The SL 63 AMG packed a 537 hp while the SL 65 AMG went full-lunatic with a 630-hp V12 powering the rear wheels.
A new model will replace the R231 SL soon, returning to the SLs lightweight roots better than any generation that's come before - at least if you believe Mercedes-Benz. That's because this model will be developed by AMG and will share bones with the second-generation AMG GT supercar. It will make use of a folding soft-top roof, but inside the cabin, Mercedes-AMG is reverting to the old 2+2 layout that hasn't been seen since 1989. Much has been kept a secret of the new SL, but slowly but surely the details are being revealed. It'll likely have a range of six- and eight-cylinder engines, and there's almost guaranteed to be hybrid assistance in some form. Importantly, this will be the first generation with available all-wheel drive. We've also been given a glimpse of a fully digital interior.
After celebrating the SL's history at the 2021 edition of Pebble Beach, it seems not long now before the eighth-generation SL is fully revealed.