It could easily be argued that the automobile is the most significant sculpture of our modern age. Certainly it’s the most ubiquitous. Over the years, the most notable cars have become design icons and objects of passion. One of those is the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL.
Afghan-American photographer and director Daniel Malikyar has interpreted that 1950’s masterpiece in an art project commissioned by Mercedes-Benz. The series of photographs, accompanied with a short film, elicit the aura of these memorable machines at rest and in motion. Although only 27 years of age, Malikyar is no stranger to old cars. When asked what it is about the 300 SL that he finds especially alluring, the photographer explained, “Growing up, my dad drove an ‘86 E 300. There was something about the feeling, the smell, the sound of that car that connected me with Mercedes-Benz. To pay respect to the 300 SL was a gratifying culmination.”
There’s no doubt the 300 SL is gratifying to behold. Made from 1954 to 1957, the “Gullwing” coupe featured a brilliant 3.0-liter, straight-six engine that produced about 215 hp in street form. It used 12 quarts of oil and gulped fuel through its Bosch mechanical fuel injection—a system as complex as any devised at the time. In fact, the whole car was a rolling testbed for the future. Its tube chassis was as intricate as the Eiffel Tower, and was wrapped in voluptuous bodywork unofficially named for its doors that spread upward like wings. However, entering, exiting and driving one could be a bit of a challenge, especially on warm days, as the side windows can’t be lowered and, without air conditioning, things get warm inside.
Mercedes-Benz made 1,400 examples of the 300 SL coupe over the course of four years before switching to convertibles in 1957, making 1,858 examples of those through 1963 (with three special orders completed in 1964). More user-friendly than its “Gullwing” counterpart, the Roadster drives like a much newer car, and may be the most modern-feeling, enjoyable classic from the era. In either version, reliability and build quality are key attributes that have kept both model variants at the top of collectors’ wish lists for decades. And the number available on the market at any given time is sufficient to keep interest alive. The only barrier to entry is price, and the cost of a full restoration can easily creep toward seven figures.
The value of a 300 SL, let alone three of them, wasn’t lost on the photographer. That’s because when Mercedes-Benz commissioned Malikyar to shoot a trio of them on public streets, the cars arrived from Mercedes’ Classic Center in Irvine, Calif., on a transporter, accompanied by three professional drivers, a full dossier of street closure permits and the law enforcement personnel to ensure safety and careful—but unfettered—driving. Those cars were a 1954 “Gullwing” in light blue metallic, a 1955 in white, and a 1963 Roadster in black.
The sight of a single 300 SL on a concours lawn is a rarity; to see a trio driving in an idyllic setting is otherworldly. “This project was a really crazy experience,” says Malikyar. “Mercedes only made 1,400 ‘Gullwings,’ so to have two of them with a Roadster pulling up the rear along an empty Malibu coast at sunset felt surreal.” So what is the perfect environment—and road—for a car like this? “My intention was to create a dream ride in an SL, one that encompasses beautiful scenery with no one on the road.” says the photographer. “The locations were carefully scouted, and shutting the roads down allowed us to evoke the feeling of the ultimate Sunday drive, 60 years ago, while capturing the soul of the car . . . the spirit of the brand.”
As a static object, the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL certainly inspires, but when it becomes kinetic sculpture, enhanced by sounds and smells of internal combustion, it spreads its wings and becomes alive. “My goal every time is to capture a car at speed. You can best represent the feeling of the car when it’s doing what it does best,” says Malikyar, who acknowledges that, in photos, freezing his subject while in motion is quite different than shooting it when it is static—on the tarmac or on the grass. “It’s also much more technically challenging. You have to shoot at slower shutter speeds, and lean out of a moving chase car. I’m super detail-centric, and so that requires a lot of careful direction. It’s more satisfying, too.”
But the advantages of still photography were fully exploited with the 300 SL project as well. “When you capture the cars still,” explained Malikyar, “it allows the photographer ultimate control, doing things you couldn’t do in motion. The stationary images allow you to capture the car perfectly.”
Photos notwithstanding, Malikyar produced a stirring video that documents the vehicles in motion, as well as showing behind-the-scenes footage of the photographer at work as the shoot came together. The photography will be released as fine art prints available exclusively through Santo Gallery in Los Angeles.