Thursday, 3 March 2011
Gandy drives: 300SL Mercedes Gullwing Coupé.
During my last visit to Mercedes-Benz World in Surrey to review the new SLS AMG for GQ.com, the team had to pull me away from the original model that it was based on, the stunning 1955 300SL Gullwing Coupé. After I explained that it was one of my dream cars, they kindly invited me back to drive it...
After suffering two weeks of saturation bombing in 1944, the world's oldest automobile company "ceased to exist". Just ten years later and after victories at Le Mans and the Nürburgring with a car called the 300SL, Mercedes turned that race car into the world's first supercar. The 300SL introduced many pioneering feats which are still used to this day: the complex space frame and fuel injection producing an then unheard-of 215bhp, to name but two.
For me the 300SL is just one of the most heartachingly beautiful cars ever built - powerful without being brutish. The styling (there were no Italian design studios involved) came from practical engineering solutions. Built as a coupé with gullwing doors so that it could be faster on the straights, it had no protrusions, no door handles and no outside rear-view mirror. Its round shape and small flares helped keep the air clean, all to make the car go as fast as possible. The 300SL was an expedient and, at two to three times the price of the top sports cars at that time, the preserve of the rich and famous.
There is a (possibly apocryphal) story about a groupie who spent a wild night in bed with Mick Jagger. Asked by her friend the next morning how it was, she replied, "Well, he's no Mick Jagger." Therein lies the problem when someone or something has a reputation which proceeds it by so such. My expectations of driving one of my dream cars were so great, I almost didn't want to spoil the fantasy I had built up in my mind. So, what happened?
Well, getting into the Gullwing is an event in itself. Clambering over the sill onto the bright red seats (with matching luggage) and closing those famous doors sent shivers down my spine. The dashboard, with its milled metal, numerous switch gears (none of which anyone knows how to use, so best not to start playing around), ivory steering wheel and gear stick, is like a work of art. I can't begin to explain the feeling of nostalgia and history. For the lucky few who own one of these cars, the sense of occasion every time you drive it must be beyond anything you feel not only in modern cars, but also in many classics.
Reading up on the 300SL beforehand, I discovered the following: "a suspect swing axle needed an expert to tame it". Well, if they needed an expert, boy had they chosen the wrong guy. Along with a left-hand steering wheel so large I think it once helped drive the Titanic, pretty much non-existent brakes, tyres so thin a basic Fiesta would have had better grip - oh, and the cold, wet Mercedes-Benz World track (and did I mention the car is worth £500,000?) - to say I was cautious would be an understatement. I was not going to be the guy who pranged the 300SL while on test. Actually, Miss Daisy would have been perfectly happy sat next to me as a passenger.
When people have asked me about the experience, I've told them I felt like I'd just been on a date with the most beautiful women in the world - and I can't have her again. I found myself looking back at the 300SL in a rather embarrassingly longing way, knowing I would probably never get to own or even drive one ever again.
You need to know
You might think me a little mad for saying that I think £500,000 is a bargain. However, with only 1,400 units built (but obviously far less surviving on the road today) and some classic Jaguars and Ferraris going for anything between £3m and £10m, the arguably more beautiful and unarguably more historic 300SL seems like a steal. It will almost never lose money - not something you could say about "supercars" nowadays.
So, a sound investment? Well, that's the pitch I'm going in to my bank manager with. Just imagine yourself out for the evening, dinner suit on, beautiful woman next to you and arriving to an event in a 300SL. Bugatti Veyron? Ferrari Enzo? Pagani Zonda? Oh, please! These cars would merge into one tasteless, characterless lump of machinery by comparison.
Yes, £500,000 is a little beyond most people's budget. There was, however, a Mercedes built and sold alongside the 300SL in the Fifties and Sixties. Of course, it isn't as famous, or as historic, but I think you get 75 per cent of the 300SL for a tenth of the price. I would tell you the name, but I'm currently looking for a good example myself and don't need any more competition, thanks very much.
6-cylinder, 215 bhp
Top speed 160mph (depending on gearing)
Read more: http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk