This is, for me, a year of many half-centenaries.It was in 1955 that I first saw the Mille Miglia, the great Italian road race to which Nemesis was about to put an end, and on the same journey I first encountered the most outrageous and famous of post-war cars built by Mercedes-Benz - the gull-winged 300SL.
I was in a Milanese garage seeking repair to the clutch of a borrowed Vauxhall Velox ruined by the habitual slipping of the girl who was driving with me. "It will take two hours and cost £8,'' they said - those two hours provided me with the most exciting drive of my life.
A Gullwing had just been delivered and the mechanic required to take it for a test run took pity on me, put a clipboard of data in my hand, saw me into the passenger seat and off we tore, up the autostrada to Como, ticking off the kilometres in seconds, to chuck it about on the corniche to Bellagio, and then race back to Milan through Monza, the home of the grandees of Italian motoring history. For that experience - the two seats snug and low, the roar of an engine reaching 6,000rpm communicated to the cabin (every rev of it), a mile a minute reached in a twinkle, (in eight seconds, I now know), and a speedometer calibrated in too few kilometres to outdo the ambitions of the needle (we beat 200, more than twice the Vauxhall's maximum) - I have ever since been grateful for the experience.
The Gullwing was largely the creation of Rudi Uhlenhaut, the man who rescued Mercedes from the ruin, embarrassment and shame brought upon it by collaboration with the Nazis.
Using the refined engine of the 300 saloon (introduced in 1951) it marked the firm's return to motor sport without too crippling an investment. The power of the heavyweight straight 6-cylinder of 3-litres, designed to give something of Rolls-Royce silence to the "Adenauer-Wagens'' required by the state, was tweaked from 115bhp to 215bhp (and ultimately 260bhp), its multiple carburettors replaced by fuel injection.
It was the first production car to be equipped with this ingenuity, yet it proved to be reliable and the engine flexible, pulling the car in top gear from 15 mph to whatever might be its maximum. The gearbox, transmission and axles also came from the luxury saloon, but the brakes were far more powerful, with a skittish tendency to lock one wheel at a time. From three axle ratios a driver could choose outright acceleration and a maximum 140 mph, or the more leisurely pace of 20 seconds for the 100 mph sprint and a theoretical maximum of 160 mph.
All this was way beyond the imagination of men who drove the Vauxhall Velox and its ilk, but what quite undid them were the visual seductions introduced by Uhlenhaut, an engineer with the sculptural sensibilities of a Brancusi. The Gullwing was an exquisite paradigm of aerodynamics, both theoretical and aesthetic. The basic form had unmatched integrity in the single line of the wings, in the perfect siting and proportion of the cabin and its echoing curves, and in the long extrusions above the wheel arches that let shadow and reflected light do the decorative work that on a pre-war Mercedes would have been Art Deco chrome. The silver cellulose too had something to do with its perfection, for this, shrewdly, was the chosen colour for the car (others were supplied to special order). It enhanced the impression of a sculptural form in polished metal, an object cast in a forge rather than pieced together in a factory.
Here was a car that did the business too, with its boot full of spare wheel, its petrol tank able to swallow 130 litres, (giving it a non-stop range of 800 miles or so) and a cruising speed of anything it chose up to its maximum of 162mph. But doing the business required stamina, for cabin comforts were conditioned by the gull-wing doors, an invention mothered by necessity.
Underneath the body lay a spaceframe chassis, a lattice of welded lightweight tubes so deep, to give sufficient strength amidships, that it could not have had conventional doors. Thus it is that the gullwings came about, hinged in the roof, compelling passengers (who had to be slim) to subside into the seats with grace that had to be serpentine. Also, they made a sliding roof impractical; nor was it possible to wind the windows down, and in summer the car was intolerably hot as well as noisy.
In spite of these disadvantages the glamour of the beast was as instantaneous as it has been long-lasting. No other car received or deserved such acclaim and I can think of only one other car that has meant so much and aged so well, the Porsche 356A.
When in the spring this year the Mille Miglia paraded its 375 historic participants, no fewer than 24 Gullwings were among them, and they looked as astonishing as ever. In the three years of their manufacture, 1954-57, 1,400 were made and I dare say most were cherished and survive.
All were left-hand drive; this, and the price - £4,400 - ensured that they were rare in Britain. The only man I know with one is an Australian.
But it is the form that matters. The Gullwing is a thing of beauty to be driven from Aachen to Augsburg in an afternoon; half a century after its creation I doubt if, in such a road race, it would give an hour or an inch to its successors from Mercedes-Benz with engines twice the size -- only air-conditioning might make a difference.Reuse content