Classic Car Capital
Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Roadster (W 198 II, 1957 to 1963), 1960.
Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Roadster (W 198 II, 1957 to 1963), 1960.

60 Years of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Roadster

The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Roadster (W 198) made its premiere 60 years ago at the Geneva Motor Show from 14 to 24 March 1957. The open-top sports car superseded the successful “gullwing” 300 SL Coupe, which was built from 1954. The North American market in particular provided considerable impetus for an open-top version of the 300 SL. In technical terms the roadster differed from the coupe in numerous details, the latter being derived from the 300 SL racing car.

Readers of the North American “Colliers Magazine” were the first to hear about the new Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Roadster 60 years ago. For the Stuttgart brand gave top photographer David Douglas Duncan the opportunity to showcase a pre-series roadster for the October issue of the magazine in 1956. It was a media coup, and a well-considered one. Because in the United States demand for an open-top variant of the 300 SL was very high.

The North American market was an important one for the segment of luxurious sports cars: since 1954 Mercedes-Benz had already exported a large proportion of its coupes to North America, a good 800 of a total of 1400 vehicles built. Duncan, who had himself driven a 300 SL “gullwing” for years, shot the roadster from the W 198 model series on the Stelvio Pass and also at the main Mercedes-Benz factory in Sindelfingen for the photo spread. The final series version was then unveiled by Mercedes-Benz in March 1957 at the Geneva Motor Show. By 1963 a total of 1858 units of the roadster were built, and from 1958 it was also available with a hardtop.

The publication “Motor Revue” wrote of the new sports car: “Where the engine and driving characteristics are concerned the 300 SL Roadster is a masterstroke.” The magazine characterised the sports car as “a touring vehicle for two people, featuring superior performance and roadholding”. It was not just the specialist press that was impressed by the open-top version of the “gullwing” coupe. Media such as the weekly newspaper “Die Zeit” reported on the premiere of the “300 SL Roadster from Mercedes-Benz with no end of noteworthy improvements” (issue dated 21 March 1957).

Roadster Tradition from Motor Racing

In 1952, the Stuttgart brand’s first motorsport season since the end of the Second World War, the SL drove home some brilliant successes. This is why the series version, the 300 SL “gullwing” (W 198) was derived from it, and presented by Mercedes-Benz in February 1954 in New York at the International Motor Sports Show together with the prototype of the 190 SL (W 121).

It soon became clear that the market was also very interested in an open-top version of the high-performance sports car. So on 20 February 1954 the Head of Body Testing in Sindelfingen, Karl Wilfert, demanded the development of a 300 SL Roadster as a sample car. Friedrich Geiger, the first Head of the Design Department in Sindelfingen, back then referred to as Stylistics, presented the first drafts on 5 May 1954. Later Geiger then also developed the matching hardtop, which took on the silhouette of the coupe.

Green Light for the Roadster

On 2 June 1954 the Board of Management gave the green light for building two test cars and one presentation car. In November 1954 series production of the vehicle was put back for the time being. On 26 July 1955 the Board then made its decision: “The decision has been taken to build the 300 SL Roadster with an attachable coupe roof and where necessary to take on extra staff for this”, is how the Board meeting’s minutes recorded it.