Had you asked me aged 15 to name a sports car from the Sixties, you’d have got a rapid answer: E-type. How about a Seventies supercar? Countach, in a flash. I could even have done you a couple of turbo shopping trolleys from the Eighties and a nice F1 from the Nineties.
But a world-beater from the Fifties? There, I’d have come up short. Which is odd, because a clued-up enthusiast should be able to reel off a list of mid-century machines that mattered.
Yet, when it comes to motoring nostalgia, the Fifties simply don’t get the same admiration. Perhaps it was the plethora of straight-nosed saloons or the countless stately coupés with their swept wheel arches, but something about the period just seemed a little, well, staid.
If the Sixties swung, the Seventies rocked and the Eighties whipped out the shoulder pads, what could you say of the Fifties? James Dean was doing his thing and Marilyn Monroe making her millions, but the motors on the road looked a long way from Hollywood.
Or so I thought. See, between the Rileys and Rovers, the Austins and the Armstrong Siddeleys, there was, as I later learnt, a small but significant field of stunning Fifties sports cars that put paid to my theory of stoic sobriety: the beautiful BMW 507; the fabulously understated Ferrari 250GT; the divine Aston Martin DBR1.
Not everyone, it turned out, had wanted to keep calm and carry on with the established post-war form. And the result was a decade with style in spades. Who knew?
But it was even more than that. It was, thanks to one streamlined coupé, a decade that went space-age long before Sputnik hit the skies – and one that introduced the world to the supercar long before any Lamborghini. That car? The magnificent Mercedes-Benz 300SL.
Even today, the gleaming Gullwing looks like the future. Is it the rocket-ship silver finish or the endless nose? The aero accents? Or those glorious soaring doors? It’s everything – and only more so because it comes from a time when plain understatement was the order of the day.
Here was a machine derived from a world-beating racing car – the W194 – and repackaged for the road in the most arresting aerodynamic bodywork imaginable; a cruiser bred to consume countless autobahn miles and gifted with momentum before it even turned a wheel.
I remember ogling a 300SL for the first time back in 2009, as Mercedes launched its spiritual successor, the SLS AMG. Even in print, it took my breath away. In person? It was smaller than I expected, all lithe lines and polished elegance, yet very ready to gallop – and unlike anything I’d ever seen.
That it came from 1954? To me, mind-blowing. Sure, it had a cabin like a jukebox and the absence of seat belts clearly signposted its age but, still, even the sexiest of contemporary supercars couldn’t cut a dash like the 300SL – and it would still leave some of them for dust.
Under the hood sat a 3-litre straight six engine fitted with groundbreaking Bosch direct fuel injection. Good for 215bhp, with the right gearing it could top 150mph. In the Fifties. With no seat belt. And notoriously tricky rear suspension.
It was comfortably the fastest production car of its time, but the coup de grace was its ability to devour hundreds of high-speed miles, then trundle into Monaco and turn every head, those show-stopping gullwing doors – fitted because the sills of the featherweight tubular frame were too high for ordinary ones – at once preposterous and effortlessly cool.
And, setting a precedent that’s been followed by almost every supercar since (including the several pretenders that have attempted to ape its winged portals), you’d almost certainly look less than graceful clambering out of it. So tricky was the entry and exit procedure that Mercedes fitted the steering wheel on a hinge just to make some extra space.
A more practical Roadster variant did arrive in 1957 after sales of the Gullwing plateaued, but who’d want practical when you can have doors that look a million dollars? Which, funnily enough, is roughly what you’ll pay for a 300SL today. Worth it? For a schooling in Fifties cool, almost certainly.
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