First 300 SL gullwing sold in U.S. joins historic registry

The first road-going Mercedes-Benz 300 SL gullwing will be part of the historic registry | Historic Vehicle Association
The first road-going Mercedes-Benz 300 SL gullwing was a pre-production car  | Historic Vehicle Association

The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL “gullwing” coupe is one of the world’s most iconic cars, its upward-lifting doors that began as an engineering solution setting it apart, along with its distinctive styling and race-track performance.

In 1954, the first road-going 300 SL gullwing was delivered to a customer, none other than legendary American sportsman Briggs Cunningham, after famed U.S. importer Max Hoffman convinced the automaker to begin producing a street version of its competition car for the U.S. market. Hoffman wanted to get the gullwing to Cunningham as quickly as possible, so the factory produced a unique pre-production model for this most-important customer.

The Historic Vehicle Association announced Thursday that the seminal 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL gullwing has been chosen as the latest addition to the National Historic Vehicle Register, which recognizes important milestone cars in American automotive history. Now completely restored as a head-turning showpiece, the Mercedes is the seventh vehicle so far to be recognized for honors by the Washington, D.C., registry.

Briggs Cunningham with driver Phil Hill in 1955 | Historic Vehicle Association
Briggs Cunningham with driver Phil Hill at Daytona in 1955 | Historic Vehicle Association

Mercedes-Benz was returning to worldwide prominence after the war when it began producing the 300 SL coupe for racing. Its innovative tube-frame chassis was one of the key ingredients to its performance, but the inner structure came up high and wide on the car’s flanks, making traditional side-opening doors problematic. The solution: doors that were attached to the central roofline and lifted overhead. When opened, they resembled the wings of a flying seagull, and the nickname gullwing stuck.

Hoffman saw the possibilities of making the exotic Mercedes available to the public, and the automaker set to work designing the luxury sports coupe for the U.S. market. The importer also saw the need to make a major splash with the initial car, so he contacted the ultra-wealthy Cunningham, who jumped at the opportunity to be the first customer.

The pre-production car was essentially a rush order because Hoffman wanted Cunningham to display the new gullwing during the Watkins Glen, New York, International Sports Car Grand Prix. Chassis number 4500003 was purpose-built for the launch, and differs in significant ways from the production models that came later, including a shorter overall length, hand-formed body components and several underhood features.

The gullwing on display at the Arizona Concours | Bob Golfen
The gullwing on display at the Arizona Concours | Bob Golfen

The car is owned by Dennis Nicotra of New Haven, Connecticut, an avid 300 SL collector who pursued the Cunningham car for 35 years before finally purchasing it in 2013. He sent the intact gullwing for restoration to HK-Engineering of Polling, Germany, a business that specializes in 300 SLs. The restorers noted the differences in this car compared with production models and worked accordingly to retain its unique form.

Since completion last year, the car has been shown by Nicotra in a number of prestigious events, including the Boston Cup; the Arizona Concours d’Elegance, in which he also drove it on the concours tour; and, most recently, at the Amelia Island Concours d’ Elegance.

“The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Coupe is a uniquely American story as it was produced at the request of Max Hoffman specifically for the U.S. market,” said Mark Gessler, president of the Historic Vehicle Association, in a news release. “The 300 SL was the first foreign mass-produced car built primarily for the American market. It launched the SL brand in the Mercedes-Benz family and played a significant role in building the Mercedes-Benz market position in the United States.”

Previous vehicles included in the National Historic Vehicle Register are the 1964 Shelby Daytona Coupe race car, the original 1964 Meyers Manx, the Indy-winning 1939 Maserati 8CTF “Boyle Special,” the 1918 Cadillac Type 57, the 1947 Tucker 48 prototype known as “The Tin Goose,” and 1940 GM Futurliner No. 10, which was used in the automaker’s Parade of Progress tours.

During the coming year, the Historic Vehicle Association said in the release, the group “will focus its efforts on documenting additional vehicles and will continue to work with the U.S. Department of the Interior, Heritage Documentation Programs to refine guidelines and processes to eventually support future public submission.”

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