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SL Evolution, Part 1: The Racing Car That Inspired the Mercedes-Benz SL

Part 1 of our history of the Mercedes-Benz SL. The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL (W194, 1952) was the first member of the world’s most famous automotive series.

In 1950, as the German automotive industry began to recover from the horrors of World War II, Daimler-Benz made the decision to go back into motor racing. Rudolf Uhlenhaut a gifted engineer and driver, was the head of the passenger car research at the automaker and was also involved in their racing program during the '30s. He received the responsibility for the project and in a few months, he built a chassis, codenamed W194, which became the basis for the 300 SL.

The 300 stood for Daimler's most prominent model at the time, from which the heavy axels, the engine (in a modified version), and the drivetrain were adopted. In order to save weight, Daimler engineers developed a tubular spaceframe chassis made of thin tubes joined together to form triangles. The frame weighted 50 kg, hence the acronym SL, Super Light in English, or Superleicht in German. It was a tremendous relief to the 3.0-liter 170hp engine, which was installed at the front in a 50 degree inclination to the left in order to improve the hood's profile and lower the car's center of gravity.

The engine was fed by carburetors and power was transmitted to the rear wheels. The thin aluminum body panels were hand-crafted by Daimler coachbuilders. The Gullwing doors, which became the car's trademark, were a consequence of the wide body needed to achieve the chassis' high rigidity. All in all it was a proper exercise in mechanical engineering that created an impressive race car that won four out of five races it took part in during the 1952 season. These included the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Jubilee Grand Prix for sports cars at the Nurburgring, the Bern Prize for Sports Car, and the 3,100 km road race across Mexico, the Carrera Panamericana.

It only failed to win the Mille Miglia, in which two 300 SLs placed 2nd and 4th. In the years to come, this racing car became the inspiration for the famous SL-Class. Editors Note: This is the first of our seven part series covering the nearly six decade history of the Mercedes-Benz SL.

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