Design & Style

The SL legacy lives on.

24 November 2021

As the original SL model approaches its 70th birthday, Jörg Heuer meets some of the lifelong fans in possession of its iconic successors.

Design & Style

The SL legacy lives on.

24 November 2021

As the original SL model approaches its 70th birthday, Jörg Heuer meets some of the lifelong fans in possession of its iconic successors.

AMG co-founder Hans Werner Aufrecht in his 300 SL

Open-top touring: AMG co-founder Hans Werner Aufrecht had dreamed of owning a 300 SL since he was a young man. Image: Igor Panitz and Alexander Babic.

I’ll confess to something upfront: my admiration of the SL series began with the Carrera Panamericana in 1952, which the SL dominated a few months after its first test drives in spring of that same year. And my fascination has its origins in this original SL model: the legendary 300 SL racing sports car (W 194).

The irresistible sporting genes and ground-breaking design of the 300 SL set it apart from everything else at the time. Mercedes-Benz made its 1952 reappearance in racing with this streamlined racing car. With a drag coefficient of just 0.25 – phenomenal at the time – and a distinct flap-like entrance instead of a door, what a reappearance it was.

This was so much more than a nice car. The W 194, chassis number 002, is the oldest Mercedes-Benz SL (Super Light) still in existence. Its first successful outing was in May 1952, when Karl Kling finished second behind the wheel of a W 194 in the Mille Miglia. In total, only ten units of the original SL were built.

The original SL (W 194, pictured left) and successor models such as the “Pagoda” (W 113, right)

From the original SL (W 194, pictured left) to successor models such as the “Pagoda” (W 113, right), the SL legacy remains strong. Image: Igor Panitz and Alexander Babic.

The race car with the star

In the year of its debut, the beautifully designed racing car with the three-pointed star won almost every important race of the year. Drivers Karl Kling, Hermann Lang and Fritz Rieß achieved a triple triumph at the Swiss Grand Prix in May 1952.

In June, race officials at the 24 Hours of Le Mans took exception to the entry flaps – after some quick thinking by the Mercedes-Benz team, the legendary gull-wing doors were born, clearing the way for the 300 SL’s double victory at Le Mans. A quadruple victory followed at the Eifel race on the Nürburgring in August 1952.

Then came the climax in November: the Carrera Panamericana – five daily stages over more than 3,000 kilometres across Mexico. With asphalt, gravel and even more arduous terrain; curves as sharp as razor blades; potholes as deep as pits; and constant full throttle, the Carrera was acknowledged as one of the world’s most prestigious racing events – the Mount Everest of rallies.

 The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL racing car (W 194)

The view into the 300 SL racing car (W 194), which took second place in the Carrera Panamericana in 1952. Image: Igor Panitz and Alexander Babic.

In the end, the 300 SL Silver Arrows, with their spectacular gull-wing doors, scored a sensational double victory. The driver team of Karl Kling and Hans Klenk triumphed, with Hermann Lang and Erwin Grupp swooping in for second. All this despite a vulture colliding with the windscreen of the car that would go on to win, which has long passed into racing legend.

Creating the “sports car of the century”

The 1952 motor racing season marked the revival of the impressive Silver Arrow era. The racing successes of the SL aroused a worldwide appetite for a production sports car for the road. By the mid-1950s, the 300 SL (W 198) progressed to become the economic miracle on four wheels. Automobile designers, technicians and engineers flocked to Mercedes-Benz as it experienced a renaissance.

After the W 194 came the W 198. The 300 SL series sports car became a best-seller from 1954 (first as a coupé, then as a roadster from 1957 to 1963), particularly in the US and Europe. Prominent early owners included Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable, Tony Curtis, actress Romy Schneider, Prince Aga Khan, industrialist Alfried Krupp and billionaire Baron von Thyssen. In 1999, readers of German specialist magazine Motor Klassik voted the 300 SL “Sports Car of the Century”.

The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL racing car (W 198)

The 300 SL (W 198) owned by AMG co-founder Hans Werner Aufrecht. Image: Igor Panitz and Alexander Babic.

A legacy of innovation

The 300 SL was succeeded by the “Pagoda” (the W 113 was delivered from 1963), a monument to the skills of car designer Paul Bracq. Then followed the reign of the R 107. Remaining in production until 1989, the R 107 shattered records for all SL models, successfully keeping its place on the market for 18 years and finding tens of thousands of enthusiastic buyers worldwide.

In 1989, the R 129 appeared as its successor – one of the masterpieces to come from Bruno Sacco, the long-time head of design at Mercedes-Benz.

All SL models have something in common: they are synonymous with outstanding innovation and cultivated sportiness. The second half of 2021 saw the debut of SL models developed exclusively by Mercedes-AMG. Its “face” is defined by the distinctive AMG-specific radiator grille, bringing the SL full circle and leaving no doubt: the legend lives on.

To honour the legacy of this iconic model, meet some of the lucky enthusiasts in possession of a piece of motoring history.

300 SL: Hans Werner Aufrecht

Hans Werner Aufrecht has not shown his small but very select collection of classics to many people. On this sunny day though, the AMG co-founder decides to make an exception.

We are in a small town far in the east of the Netherlands, surrounded by flat farmland, forests and large pastures dotted with grazing horses. The electric gate opens up. Straight ahead lies a white-thatched holiday home. A garage is located to the right of the home, also painted white, also with a thatched roof and with the gates already rolling open for us. Two SL models are parked inside: a white-grey 300 SL Roadster and a 280 SL “Pagoda” in metallic moss green. Hans Werner Aufrecht, 82, also owns a black 280 SE 3.5 “Flachkühler” (low grille) and a white-grey 300 S Cabriolet A.

Hans Werner Aufrecht in the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL racing car (W 194)

Hans Werner Aufrecht has not shown his small but very select collection of classics to many people. Image: Igor Panitz and Alexander Babic.

And now we come to the W 198. “When I started at Mercedes in 1959, I was still driving a small Fiat,” says the good-humoured “A” of AMG. “But I was already dreaming big, even back then: I swore one day I would own – and more importantly drive – a 300 SL Roadster. And 33 years later, in 1992, I was able to turn my dream into reality. Engine, transmission, frame, axles, paint, interior, everything is exactly how it should be. Perfect!”

With routine ease, he folds back the soft top, pushes the sports car out of the garage and fires up the six-cylinder engine. Why does he own the Roadster and not the “Gullwing” model? “The Roadster suits me and what I need much better,” replies the entrepreneur.

“I can get in and out of it easily. And the car does not heat up as much as the Gullwing in summer. The Gullwing’s an icon, there is no question about it. A work of art. I value the Roadster more though.” The two-hour drive unfolds under almost cloudless skies through green avenues, past large stud farms and the manicured lawns of golf courses.

Our destination is a very well-known restaurant in this area, where footballers from Ajax Amsterdam and other top Dutch clubs also occasionally stop off. After finishing the meal, Hans Werner Aufrecht contentedly reaches for the car keys again. “So, that’s enough of a break,” he says. “My Roadster needs the road.”

230 SL (W 113): Lilian and Christian Werner

“This is precisely what we both loved about the car right away: seeing the Pagoda in a completely different light,” says 34-year-old Lilian Werner, a business administration graduate who currently works in the Controlling department of an automotive supplier in Stuttgart, Germany.

Lilian and Christian Werner with their 230 SL

Driving adventure: Lilian and Christian Werner (pictured with sons Feliz and Jakob) bought their 230 SL three years ago. Image: Igor Panitz and Alexander Babic.

Her husband, Christian, 36, an entrepreneur who is also a business administration graduate and worked as a student trainee at the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center, laughs and lifts his baseball cap: “Back when we bought the 230 SL three years ago, it already had that distinctive racing car look, including the Carrera stickers. It was rebuilt in the US and the ownership had passed through several hands by that point. We didn’t even know what the Carrera was back then.

“Then we got involved with the rally and found out for ourselves: it is still very much around. A pure 3,000-kilometre-plus driving adventure every October from the south to the north through Mexico.”

They talked it over and made their long-term plan: “In 2022, we’ll be in Mexico with our 230 SL,” Christian says. “It’s pretty much going to be the adventure of a lifetime,” adds Lilian, sitting at the living room table with her two sons, Felix, 5, and Jakob, 7. The Werners haven’t accumulated much rally experience so far. They only drove the Baltic Sea once – in their 280 SEL.

Lilian and Christian Werner with their 230 SL

Lilian and Christian are planning to race their 230 SL in the Carrera Panamericana in Mexico in 2022. Image: Igor Panitz and Alexander Babic.

For now, they are focusing on financing their Mexican racing adventure. They’ve done the maths: vehicle conversion for the Carrera, including roll cage: approximately €20,000 (A$32,000). Entrance fee: €8,000 (A$13,000). Flight and hotel costs for themselves, their sons, a mechanic and the cameraman they plan to bring along: €25,000 (A$39,500). Shipping, customs, escort vehicle on site: another estimated €15,000 (A$24,000).

In addition to that, there are the fuel and toll costs, safety reserve for repairs... Lilian waves dismissively. “The financial challenge is huge too,” says the family’s bookkeeper. “But what the hell! We’re driving the Carrera. End of story.” Christian pipes up: “Sponsors are welcome.” He continues: “Testing the limits together, and stretching them a bit, is something that you don’t get to do every day. That makes it worth the risk.” This family's car is special, but then so are they.

450 SL (R 107): Jürgen Müller

“I’ve always been clear in my own mind about what I prefer in cars. I think it all came from the film Mad Max, which I first saw when I was a teenager: eight-cylinder, rear-wheel drive, long bonnet, short rear!” explains Jürgen Müller, IT specialist and family man from a small town in the south of Germany. 

“I had already bought my first classic car by the time I was 18 years old. For a long time, muscle cars were my thing. But in 1998 my focus switched over to the SL. A friend tipped me off that a disassembled 450 was sitting in a paint shop in Göppingen, and had been for several years at that point. ‘OK,’ I thought, ‘So I’ll check it out’. Why? Because I never take the easy route. I’m always on the lookout for a challenge.”

Jürgen Müller in the SL R 107

As a teenager, Jürgen Müller was fascinated by the film Mad Max, which inspired the location for this shoot with his 50-year-old R 107. Image: Igor Panitz and Alexander Babic.

The industrial hall in Göppingen was draughty and dusty. And right in the centre of it stood the almost completely dismembered car, most of its parts packed away in boxes and cartons.

Müller purchased the lot for 7,800 marks (around A$6,500 today). He reassembled the R 107 gradually over time – “with a lot of dedication, heart and soul” – at home in his workshop: “It took me well over 200 hours and about 12,000 marks (just short of A$10,000) to bring this forgotten beauty back to life. Not everything is 100 per cent original – the BBS rims and steering wheel for example – but everything is of a piece as far as I am concerned.”

What does he particularly like about his R 107? “The face. I think my SL looks like an angry bull with a wrinkled forehead. And the star is his nose ring.” In 2003, Jürgen Müller chauffeured his soon-to-be wife, Ulrike, in the SL to the registry office to get married. Two years after that, their daughter was born. The Müllers would often drive across the country on warm summer days with the top down.

Jürgen Müller in the SL R 107

When it comes to cars, Jürgen Müller knows what he wants: “eight-cylinder, rear-wheel drive, long bonnet, short rear”. Image: Igor Panitz and Alexander Babic.

And today? Müller runs his hand through his curly hair, searching for the right words. “In such times of great uncertainty, you look for certainty. And that’s exactly what the R 107 exudes for me,” he replies. “I know that SL stands for super light. But for me it’s all about spritely lightness. Or even security and love of life.”

Out in the countryside, he indicates and swings off the road onto the site of a gravel and concrete plant. This is where he is fully in his element. And so is his 450 SL.

SL 320 and SL 500 (R 129): Wolfgang Rosenbaum

Wolfgang Rosenbaum and his wife had plenty of wonderful plans for their retirement. “We wanted to get a convertible and take it easy driving down towards the sun and the sea, preferably right down to the south of Italy,” says the former entrepreneur and dental technician from Hamm in Westphalia, Germany. So he and his wife set off in search of a suitable classic car, doing their research “with an open mind”.

Eventually, in January 2018, they found the car of their dreams at an auto dealer in Bielefeld: a 1995 SL 320 (R 129), a brilliant metallic silver and in great condition. “[It was] a real top-end car that was also affordable. We agreed immediately; we knew that was the one for us. We were poised to set off on our journey in April,” recalls the 67-year-old.

Wolfgang Rosenbaum in his SL 500

Wolfgang Rosenbaum embarked on a road trip around Italy in his SL 500 in 2018. Image: Igor Panitz and Alexander Babic.

But before they could, fate played its hand: Rosenbaum’s wife suddenly passed away. So instead of taking the trip they planned, he bought himself a second 129-series roadster in summer of 2018. This one – an SL 500, manufactured in 2000 – had a bigger engine, but an identical paint job. And that was the one he ended up travelling around Italy in a year later. “I spent three weeks driving and covered about 5,000 kilometres on the road in Tuscany, both on the Adriatic and the Riviera,” Rosenbaum says. “Travelling in this car – mostly with the top down, of course – is just terrific.”

What does he particularly like about the SL 500? The Westphalian doesn’t have to think long: “Everything! The design, the workmanship – and this sublime feeling when cruising. If you need a little more horsepower, the engine responds immediately. That’s phenomenal.”

He has recently given his two-car garage an extensive makeover: covering the walls with wood and tiles, installing ceiling beams, laying electric lines, hanging pictures and lamps, and painting the door signal red. He wants to have a garage party here with friends as soon as he can. So where is the next trip going to be? “Towards the Baltic Sea island of Rügen,” says Rosenbaum. “I’m just going to head back onto the road. If I like a place, I’ll stay a while. But only if I like it. After all, I’m completely free!”

This article was originally published in Mercedes Classic magazine and has been edited for clarity.  

By Jörg Heuer