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COMPLETING THE CIRCLE

70 YEARS OF THE MERCEDES-BENZ SL

It may have been overshadowed by its hallowed W198 300 SL “gullwing” co-debutante when launched 70 years ago, but the smaller, four-cylinder W121 190 SL roadster was instrumental in establishing the SL lineage. Now, seven decades later, introducing a new “entry-level” four-cylinder Mercedes-AMG version has completed the circle in the chronicles of the SL.

It was Valentine’s Day, and at a gathering of members of the Mercedes-Benz Club of South Africa at Arrabella in the Western Cape, the belle of the ball – a creamy white, completely original “Gullwing” 300 SL – fittingly displayed a touch of red on her chequer-patterned seats and interior trim for the event.

The first of her kind (with similar red interior accents) debuted 70 years ago in February at the New York Motor Show (that ended on Valentine’s Day, 1954) – and since then, the W198 300 SL has become a motoring icon. She completely overshadowed her smaller co-debutante, the W121 190 SL, yet it was this “entry-level” four-cylinder roadster that established the SL lineage.

The history of the Mercedes-Benz super sports car derived from a racing car and its sporty sibling that surprised the world public back then is well-chronicled; suffice to mention the idea of a toned-down Grand Prix racing car targeted to affluent enthusiasts in the booming post-war American market was suggested by Mercedes-Benz USA importer Max Hoffman.

Derived from the 1952 W194 racing car, the design by Friedrich Geiger retained the upward-opening doors of the race car (hence the “gullwing” description, or “papillon” in French, immortalised to this day) and established the SL face of sporty Mercedes-Benz production vehicles. What made it special was its lightweight tubular frame, designed by Mercedes’ head engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut. This frame made conventionally hinged doors impossible, resulting in the “gullwing” design.

In contrast, the compact 190 SL, presented as a pre-production roadster (with optional hardtop), offered an attractive, more affordable alternative to the exclusive 300 SL. Sharing its basic styling (with no side gills), engineering, detailing, and fully independent suspension, the 190 SL was based on a shortened unitary floorpan modified from the W121 “Ponton” saloon.

The two-door luxury roadster, officially launched in 1955, became a remarkably successful model in the United States – even though it was pricey back then –and by 1960, accounted for almost 18% of all Mercedes-Benz passenger cars delivered to America. 

In total, 1,400 examples of the exclusive 300 SL Coupé were produced, with a further 1,858 Roadsters built. Every single 300 SL was an icon back then – and today, these very exclusive super-sportscars are highly valued collector’s items.

CELEBRATING THE SL

To celebrate 70 years of SL, we were invited to join a bespoke heritage tour organised by the Mercedes-Benz Club of South Africa from George (where many SLs were displayed at the George Old Car Show) to the Western Cape Winelands, including a visit to the Franschhoek Motor Museum. 

We met up with the group at Arabella Country Estate close to Kleinmond, where a pristine and priceless selection of SLs – ranging from invaluable W198 and W121 models to R107 and more modern R129 and R230 examples – gleamed in the parking lot. Luckily, our steed, the latest seventh-generation R232 Mercedes-AMG 43 SL roadster, blended right in.

Well, perhaps “blend” is not the correct description, as our Sun Yellow SL with AMG Night Package II trim, 21” twin-spoke AMG wheels, yellow brake callipers, and darkened headlamps and taillights (all the extras adding another R540k to the R2,316,546 retail price) was hard to miss among the other less ornate-coloured roadsters and coupés.

With the new 43 SL derivative, the **Super-Leicht**, after seven decades, has come full circle – as this entry-level model to the SL realm is powered by a four-cylinder engine, just like the original 190 SL model of yore. Back then, the roadster used a slightly oversquare 1.9-litre in-line-four engine based on the 300 SL’s straight-six. 

This updated M121 engine developed 77 kW at 5,700 rpm (later upgraded with twin Solex carburettors to 89 kW), letting the 190 SL accelerate to 100 km/h in 14.5 seconds and attain a top speed of 170 km/h. Interestingly, a few six-cylinder prototypes with fuel-injected M180 engines were built for testing but never produced.

FASTEST IN THE WORLD

It is easy to see why the original 300 SL, with its beautifully crafted bodywork, clever design features and meticulous quality, is such an automotive icon, and its M198 2,996 cc overhead cam in-line-six engine, shoehorned into the engine bay with a 50-degree angle, is still an engineering marvel. 

With mechanical fuel injection, a sand-cast aluminium intake manifold and dry-sump lubrication, it delivered 158 kW at 5,800 rpm and up to 294 Nm of torque at 4,800 rpm – in the 1950s! This type of power allowed for a top speed of 235 km/h and a zero to 100 km/h acceleration time below ten seconds, making the 300 SL the fastest production car of its time. 

Due to its unconventional layout, it also had some unique features, such as removable windows (stowed in the boot) since it had no window winders, and a pivoting steering wheel to allow easier ingress. (This changed in the 300 SL Roadster, introduced in 1957 with front-hinged doors, and interestingly, the roadster also came with bigger wheels than the “gullwing”).

The 300 SL also incorporated the first version of flush-fitting door handles, both elegant and aerodynamically effective. Slight pressure on the protruding part causes the door handle to fold out so that the door can be swung open. This brings us to the latest SL – with door handles that extend automatically as soon as the vehicle key is detected and retract again when the car is locked, or it drives off.

A RETURN TO ITS ROOTS

Following the two SL variants with V8 engines, Mercedes-AMG has returned to the SL roots with the entry-level SL 43 roadster. However, this also represents innovation, as the 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine longitudinally mounted in the open-top 2+2-seater is the first in a production vehicle in the world using an electric exhaust gas turbocharger.

The turbocharger (working at speeds up to 170,000 rpm) is operated via a 48-volt electrical system, which also feeds the belt-driven starter-generator (RSG), endowing the SL 43 with a power output of 280 kW and 480 Nm of torque, plus a short-term boost of 10 kW from the RSG when it is being hooned.

Even so, the feeble engine sound from the four-cylinder on start-up made us miss the V8 roar by now associated with AMG SL cars. Still, following the convoy of older SL Mercs, the new 43 felt lithe and dynamic, primarily due to the lighter engine under the long hood.

Its handling credentials, with direct and precise turn-in, balanced handling, and poise in the corners, were confirmed by a quick blast up and down Franschhoek Pass in Sport setting. In terms of SL performance, it is no slow coach either – the engine combining well with the slick AMG Speedshift MCT 9G transmission to accelerate to 100 km/h in just 4.9 seconds, while Mercedes-AMG states its top speed as 275 km/h.

The biggest bonus in the smallest AMG SL is the immediate engine response from idle speed across the engine speed range, as the boost pressure is maintained even while braking or coasting, making it a fun car to drive. Yet, at times, we did miss that familiar guttural AMG V8 sound.

Best of all, the new SL has a very pleasant and roomy cabin (lounge-like compared to some of the older SL models), and although the AMG sport seats did become uncomfortable over longer distances, we felt sorrier for our trip companions in the cramped confines of the earlier 190 SL models, with no aircon in 40-degree heat.

Even so, it was top-down motoring at its best, and the fact that all the participants (bar one) completed the tour (some driving up to 2,000 km in their 60-year-old plus machines) is testimony to the technical prowess and engineering integrity of Mercedes-Benz and the iconic SL-class.

*We sincerely thank the Mercedes-Benz Club of South Africa and chairman Waldo Scribante for their support and assistance in creating this feature.

Report by FERDI DE VOS | Images © RYAN ABBOTT / MERCEDES-BENZ

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