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There’s a steadfastness about the way it rides, with no squeaks or rattles from the latches and catches. In two months this remarkable car will be celebrating its 60th as a road car at the Festival of Speed.There’s no one about and the first corner, a double apex beckons.
The problem was fixed for the later roadster versions of the 300SL, but quite how Rudi Uhlenhaut, Mercedes-Benz’s legendary engineer/chief designer allowed his gorgeous car to be offered to the public with such a flaw is understandable, if not altogether excusable. Since the boom in classic car prices, gullwing values have gone nuclear.And that, together with better crank damping, hotter cam profiles and timing, and optimised porting, meant that Mercedes virtually doubled the power from 115 to 212bhp.Maintenance was parlous, however, as the fuel quickly poisoned the lubricating oil, which demanded a big sump capacity of 2.2 gallons and oil-change intervals of just 1,000 miles.Yet despite the hype, in the darkest tones, these articles all reference the gullwing’s sting in the tail, its handling.Derived from the 1951 300 saloon, the 300SL’s driveline, suspension and in particular its high-mounted, rear swing axles were all designed for comfort rather than stability at speed.With its flickering instrument needles and guttural industrial engine note, it feels more like an aeroplane than a car and you half expect Berlin’s old Tempelhof aerodrome to hove into view through the greenhouse-like cabin.
The driveline is taut and requires smooth inputs to prevent shunt, but the engine gains revs more slowly than a modern lump and you have to double declutch the ratios going down the ’box.
If applied in a corner they tend to jam the suspension bushings in the direction of travel so you need to brake before turning.
At this point I told my tape recorder that the swing axles weren’t quite as scary as I’d been warned. Down the Sussex lanes the 300SL feels quite floppy and you can sense the body twisting, but it’s a delightful dance between the hedgerows where it feels like a strong car if that’s not too contrary.
It’s stable at speed, but there’s about an inch of free movement at the 17in wheel rim, which is partly the old-fashioned steering box, partly the tall 15in Dunlops.
So you need to think your way through the corners, turn in, apex and exit points; it’s as much about vision as it is the car’s dynamics, but you have to concentrate.
It’s open with a decent run off, although I doubt Lord March would thank me for tearing up the sward.