The open Mercedes SLS AMG had its official premiere at the IAA. We invited its almost forgotten ancestor, the 300 SLS from 1957, to join us for a family reunion.
Rumors have it that it was a long night. In late 2008, Mercedes managers were trying to come up with a name for their new gullwing: SL, like the predecessor from 1954? Been there, done that. SLR? Couldn't use that, either; it was already taken by the Brit-ancestry McLaren-Mercedes. So what should they call this baby? They sent somebody into the basement to dig up the old family register, and he came back suggesting the SLS moniker: "Gentlemen, we had an SLS in the late 1950s already", he informed them. "However, the 300 SLS was a roadster." Didn't matter. SLS sounded pretty good, especially as they'd already decided to follow the gullwing with an open C197 roadster two years later. SLS was a go.
The vintage 300 SLS sounds amazing
The proportions have changed a lot over time. The rear of the vintage Mercedes is longer and rounder. The new kid hides an electric spoiler in its trunk lid.
Daimler presented the SLS AMG Roadster at the IAA 2011 as an homage to its predecessors. Now, after more than half a century, the two "Sport Light Super" (SLS) models are presented together by Mercedes exclusively for AUTO BILD. Despite several retro elements, however, the new kid has only its name in common with the 54-year-old classic. Unlike the high-performance premium sports convertible by AMG, the vintage 300 SLS is a street-legal competition car. You can hear it in its voice, too: hoarse, brutal and perfectly unfiltered, the 300 SLS barks orders at its grandchild from two side pipes. Although the grandkid growls back with a low V8 bass, it can't compete with the sound of the vintage car.
Which is hardly surprising: a richly tuned mechanical injection is competing with EU-5 electronics, dark exhaust clouds against a four-stage high-performance cat. And while erstwhile gentlemen drivers used to scrape their hands bloody on the wooden steering wheel while licking the racetrack dirt from their lips, today's SLS pilots are pampered by air-conditioned seats and hot-air fans for their necks. And at 571 hp, this car is more than twice as strong as the one-of-a-kind SLS. Once upon a time, the racing division built two cars exclusively for American Paul O'Shea, who raced them to the US sports car championships in 1957 with great success. With a body and motor in aluminum, dispensing with a roof, side windows and windshield, the weight dropped by a total of astonishing 743 lbs. After installing a sports camshaft, the output of the inline six-cylinder engine increased from 215 to 235 hp.
Rebuild from scrap
Racing windshield and roll bar remind us of the tough competition from Maserati and Aston Martin. With a curb weight of only 2,138.5 lbs, it is much lighter than the production SL.
As both of O'Shea's 300 SLS have vanished, Mercedes' museum engineers have converted one of the 29 serial aluminum Roadsters into a factory replica based on documents kept by former race organizer Rudolf Uhlenhaut, even using the original engine since Mercedes had wisely produced three spare engines for the two racing cars. One of these aluminum engines later ended up in a 300 SL Roadster driven by former Daimler head of development Hans Scherenberg. When Mercedes discovered it while taking an inventory, they had found the basis for their 300 SLS replicas. Historic footnotes such as these are the foundation upon which sports car myths are built, and from which the new SLS profits as well. It's somewhat difficult to imagine that Daimler boss Dieter Zetsche would drive such a souped-up SLS through Stuttgart today. Which, actually, is a real shame. What are fans of the three-pronged star supposed to dream about in 2065? Well, maybe by then we will have heard a bit more about that infamous all-night meeting.