No car before or since has cleaved the air as effectively as did the 1954 Mercedes 300SL, the Gullwing. Today, more than 50 years later, automakers still are striving to achieve its coefficient of drag. Its door handles alone were works of aerodynamic art—slivers of featherweight aluminum that lay flush to the body and flicked open only when you pressed a raised lip at the rear edge.
Then there were those doors. They were hinged to the roof, and when they opened, it was reminiscent of the Caped Crusader spreading his bat wings. Beautifully balanced and with aircraft-quality construction, this was a car that truly appeared to be flying when it was standing still. The Gullwing was the McLaren SLR of its day. It was technically advanced, highly innovative, supremely over-engineered, and a masterpiece of quality and craftsmanship. The 300SL embodied all of the qualities that Mercedes-Benz stood for then, and still stands for today.
As an innovator of technology, style, and safety, the world’s oldest car company is head and shoulders above the pack. In the 120 years since Karl Benz first phutt-phutted around his yard in his single-cylinder, three-wheeled horseless carriage, Mercedes has pioneered many of the automotive innovations that dictate how we drive today.
Among the Mercedes-Benz innovations were the first multivalve engine, the first supercharged engine, the first independent suspension, and the first diesel-powered car. The list goes on to include the first rigid passenger cell with front and rear crumple zones and the first energy-absorbing steering wheel.
The latest S-Class flagship, which will arrive on U.S. soil early this year, will feature more examples of state-of-the-art technology, such as what Mercedes calls the Pre-Safe network of safety systems. If the radar sensors detect an unavoidable crash—say a driver up ahead slams on his brakes—the system reacts in a nanosecond, raising the front seats to bolt upright positions to maximize the benefit of the airbags. The system also closes the sunroof and windows and snaps the seatbelts tight. And the instant you hit the brakes, it automatically applies full-on braking power.
The new S-Class also is equipped with Distronic Plus, the ultimate cruise control feature. Set the car to your desired speed, and it will remain a safe distance from the car in front of you—regardless of how slow traffic moves—alleviating much of the stress associated with stop-and-start commutes. Other high-tech features include infrared night vision; active seats that ventilate, massage, and use 11 air chambers for lateral support during cornering; and a brand-new 388 hp, 5.5-liter V-8 mated to a 7-speed automatic transmission.
The origins of Mercedes’ technical brilliance can be traced to company founders Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler. Just 15 years after Benz received a patent for his rickety trike—recognized as the world’s first automobile—Daimler’s new-for-1901 model revolutionized vehicle design. It was the first modern car, with its pressed steel chassis, high-performance four-cylinder engine cooled by a honeycomb radiator, gate-change gear lever, and seating for four. Climb out of a modern-day C-Class and into that 1901 model, and you might notice some similarities.
In 1926, when Daimler merged with Benz, a brilliant engineer by the name of Ferdinand Porsche was breaking new ground at the company. The first model to appear after the merger—the solid, upright Model K—featured an overhead-camshaft, 6.2-liter straight six with a Roots-type supercharger and two plugs per cylinder, developed by Dr. Porsche. With a top speed of 90 mph, the Model K was among the world’s fastest cars.
When a young Austrian engineering genius named Béla Barényi arrived at Mercedes-Benz in 1939, he introduced the notion of passenger safety. The crumple zone, safety steering column, steering wheel impact plate, and side-impact protection are among the inventions for which Mercedes’ first safety engineer is credited. By the time he eased into retirement at the end of 1972, Barényi had submitted patent applications for more than 2,500 safety-related inventions.
But Mercedes has excelled at more than technical innovations, and no car captured the essence of Mercedes’ style better than the breathtaking 540K Special Roadster. Unveiled at the 1936 Berlin Auto Show, it was a masterpiece of flowing curves, powerful stance, and refined supercharged power. Mercedes built only 26 and sold each for a small fortune.
And no car defines the luxury sports car genre better than Mercedes’ SL. From the stunning 300SL roadster of 1957 to the pagoda-roofed 230SL of 1964 to today’s hyper-powerful, 604 hp, twin-turbo, V-12-powered SL65 AMG, the car has been a symbol of style, luxury, and performance.
Then there is the renowned Mac-Merc, the racing-inspired Mercedes SLR McLaren, developed and built by the same folks who created the McLaren F/1 supercar and put the Mercedes-engined McLaren Formula One team on the track most summer weekends. Its coal-black carbon-fiber body is feather-light, yet immensely strong. It features the world’s first series-produced carbon-fiber front crash structure, which consists of two 24-inch-long carbon-fiber tubes that are capable of absorbing the entire energy of a head-on crash, leaving the passenger cell largely undamaged. It also has fiber-reinforced ceramic brakes, a Sensotronic braking control that readies the brake system for emergency stops, and an adaptive airbrake on the trunk lid. If this car were any more exotic, it would dance around a pole.
it is the most famous Mercedes-Benz that you never heard of, a true mid-engined supercar that predates today’s Mercedes SLR McLaren by more than three decades. It came with a Wankel rotary engine capable of delivering standstill-to-60-mph acceleration in 4.7 seconds and a genuine 186 mph top speed. It had classic gullwing doors and a glass-fiber-reinforced plastic body painted an audacious shade of orange and mounted on a lightweight steel frame. When it was later modified with a sleek, low-drag body and equipped with a 500 hp twin-turbo V-8, it clocked a sensational 251 mph around the Nardo test track in Italy.
Yet despite prospective customers’ flooding the Mercedes mailroom with blank checks, the carmaker built only six of these C111 sports cars. Each time someone proposed that the company proceed with low-volume production, the Mercedes-Benz board said nein. That was a shame, for here was the potential successor to the 1955 300SL Gullwing: a stunning, practical supercar packed with cutting-edge technology and displaying as much style as anything coming from Italy. Instead, Mercedes viewed this wild orange dream machine as only an engineering test bed to investigate Felix Wankel’s new-fangled rotary-piston engine.
The first C111 that Mercedes showed to journalists, engineers, and favored customers in 1969 had a three-rotor Wankel that cranked out 280 hp and produced a top speed of 162 mph. Feedback was so positive that Mercedes decided to freshen the car’s styling, bolt in a larger four-rotor Wankel, and show off the new C111-II to the public at the Geneva auto show in 1970.
The car was a sensation. Lean and low, with bulging fenders, a hood that stretched into the distance, and bold buttress roof sections, the C111 looked every inch the exotic supercar that it was.
But any thoughts of putting the car into production were dashed when it became clear that Wankel’s new wunder motor was not as wondrous as it first appeared. Even the technical might of Mercedes could not reduce its exhaust emissions and quell its appalling thirst. With the onset of the 1973 oil crisis, the Wankel’s days were numbered.
Instead of abandoning the C111 project, however, Mercedes used the supercar to add some spice to its diesel car image. Mercedes was confident that it could shatter a few diesel endurance records by equipping the car with a turbocharged version of its lethargic five-cylinder, 3-liter, naturally aspirated diesel. Thus in June 1976, at the newly opened Nardo high-speed test track in southern Italy, four drivers took turns behind the wheel to set a total of 16 world records over a 60-hour period. Among the benchmarks they established was a cumulative 156 mph average speed for 10,000 miles of driving.
To raise the record-breaking bar even higher, Mercedes finessed the C111 into the ultimate aero machine, with concealed wheels, an ultra-low front end, and a long, tapering rear. Its coefficient of drag of 0.183 made it the most aerodynamic car of its time. In its C111-IV guise, powered by a thundering 4.8-liter, twin-turbo, 500 hp V-8, the car was back at Nardo in May 1979, setting a world record speed of 251.07 mph.
Twelve years later at the 1991 Frankfurt auto show, Mercedes once again ignited hopes of a production mid-engined supercar carrying the three-pointed star when it unveiled the 6.0-liter, V-12-powered C112 concept. Although it received 700 orders with deposits, the company decided once again not to green-light the project.
With demand for the current SLR beginning to soften, who knows whether the C111 would have been a financial success? But as a symbol of Mercedes’ towering technical genius, it was a true star.