The Adventurer The Adventurer Life with an exceptionally well-travelled Mercedes-Benz 300SL. Most Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadsters W198 live their lives in collections and on concours lawns, but this example’s owner has spent the last 18 years using it taking it as far afield the Middle East. Words Sam Dawson. Photography Si Gray.
On the road in an unusually well-travelled Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadster
That cars do racing drivers use away from the track? Much as we assume they’ve all got Ferrari collections, the answer usually seems to involve something small, minimalist and nippy that can be driven at ten tenths on public roads without getting into trouble – typically a Fiat 500 or a Mini – and for long distances, a Mercedes-Benz.
I don’t know whether former GT and Can-Am racer Michael Wheatley has much time for small rear-engined Fiats, but he’s owned his 1958 300SL Roadster for 18 years. Unlike most owners of these now near-£1million classics, he didn’t buy his as an investment or to be wheeled, perpetually pristine, out of a lorry and judged in concours. No, he bought this one for long-distance rally touring. Now it’s for sale with Silverstone Auctions in July but it would be a shame to see it subsequently ushered into a storage facility, bearing in mind how Michael’s used it.
‘The 300SL Gullwing coupé is a delight – if you’re going in a dead straight line,’ he quips as we stand in his garage, taking in both the SL Roadster and photo albums documenting thousands of hard-driven miles all over Europe and even into the Middle East. ‘Its engine and power delivery are nothing short of incredible, especially for its era. But if you lift of or brake too hard into a corner…’ His hands briefly form the outline of the hardcore SL variant’s infamous swing-axle rear suspension before collapsing. ‘I have a Gullwing too, but the Roadster is a far better all-round touring car. It’s more comfortable over long distances too – it can get incredibly hot in a Gullwing but not in the Roadster. Plus the hood is a beautiful piece of design – especially for the Fifties, completely watertight. You hear more exhaust noise in the Roadster obviously, although neither is a quiet car. But what a noise! It’s no hardship.
‘I must confess I don’t know much about its early history, but when it was new it went to America as Roadsters mostly did,’ Wheatley explains. ‘It came to the UK in 1999 via Brian Classic – one of the nicest dealers there is, who’s been in the business since the beginning of the classic car movement really. And I bought it from him personally, having found out about it. He never even advertised it.
‘It needed some lower-body repairs when I got it, just a bit of tidying really, but thankfully I had an advantage when it came to making it perfect in the form of Ron Waghorn. He was a time0served Mercedes GB technician who in 1954 as a young apprentice had gone over to Stuttgart with his colleague Tommy Johnston to “learn the Gullwing” – things like fuel injection were a completely new concept to mechanics back then – and two years later to see the key differences between the Gullwing and the new Roadster.
‘Waghorn had worked on this car since 1990 and he oversaw the restoration, after which he retired. But then I tracked down Johnston just down the road in Milton Keynes, and it’s subsequently been looked after by Neil Corns of Omega Motorsport. It went to APR Cars in Ruislip for stripdown to bare metal and repainting, then to Maurice McDonald for retrimming, although the seats themselves were in terrific condition.’
McDonald’s work is sublime. Wheatley points to various points of the interior where original Mercedes-Benz fabric and leather meets new, and yet there are no unsightly changes of hue or texture, nor does the interior have the jarring look of something restored to ‘better than new’ condition and never sat in. The same goes for its paint, not overly shiny yet consistent and satin-smooth. ‘Auto Waxworks at Bicester Heritage do the detailing work,’ Wheatley notes. They have a good eye there too.
Wheatley switches on the 3.0-litre straight-six, all pumps and injectors swirling into life abruptly and efficiently with a coruscation of whirrs, and eases the car out into the light. A wave of morning sun sweeps over the car, revealing the sheer whiteness of its paint. It’s a shade that recalls Fifties motor shows, chosen by marketing people to reflect flashbulbs and stage lights.
For a moment before the clouds return it’s quite hard to look directly at the car, such is the dazzling effect, a curvaceous bubble of soft focus with an island of scarlet and chrome in the middle. With the engine whirring and the exhaust giving of a gentle metronomic thump – ‘Do you hear it jetting?’ asks Wheatley – he releases the bonnet catch. ‘I love the little things about the way this car was designed,’ he notes. ‘There’s only one catch on the bonnet, on the driver’s side, but there’s just enough flex in the aluminium bonnet for it to be opened by one person standing on the other side, and that flexing just twists the lug clear of the latch.’ I dread to think how much the consequences of getting this elegant-looking manoeuvre wrong would cost, especially because the correct way to close the bonnet is to let it drop when it’s six inches from its latch. ‘Aluminium is an odd material,’ says Michael. ‘It’s almost as though it suffers from shock – it’s more malleable immediately after being bent, so if you do damage it you’re better of bending it back as soon as possible, rather than letting it “set” and harden.’ Still, I tremble to think what regaining the bonnet’s compound curves would entail.
He points out the injection pump, nestling alongside the engine block on the driver’s side of the car. It looks like a tiny straight-six in itself, a row of miniature piston-fed tubes forcing fuel up towards their full-sized counterparts in the SL’s slant-block. ‘That is the heart of the car, more so than the engine in a way,’ Michael explains. ‘When Ron Waghorn and I were going over the car in 2000 we realised it needed rebuilding – idling all over the place is a sign there’s something wrong – and that meant sending it to Germany. To me and my fettling compatriots its workings are a total mystery. It cannot be touched, so if any work is needed it has to go to someone who understands the Bosch systems of the era, typically HK or Kienle, although there’s a great specialist in Ireland, Cardock, which can do it now too. The pump rebuild alone cost €13,000. And then of course if you’re rebuilding the injection pump you have to do the accelerator pump at the same time, as they work in concert and need to “talk” to each other. You can’t really set one up without the other. I’ve also fitted electronic ignition, hidden inside a dummy Bosch distributor. Otherwise they can take an age to start.’
With the bonnet closed – dropping that vast aluminium expanse onto the hard-points below involved a leap of faith – it’s time to climb inside. Opening the doors reveals the same massive leather-padded sills that keep the Gullwing’s structure stiff. Acutely aware of the door’s flyweight nature, and trying not to scuff the sill, I aim my right leg carefully between the steering wheel and seat squab in the manner of one of John Cleese’s silly walks, ease myself down into the seat, then twist to the left and pull my left leg high over the sill before folding it behind the wheel. Once inside, it’s wonderfully comfortable, far more than the Jaguar E-type that rivalled the Mercedes in the last two years of its production life.
There’s plenty of legroom, the windscreen deflects the weather well whatever height you are, and the seats are squashy and plush yet supportive. Gazing at a dashboard adorned with tastefully-shaped yet hardly restrained chrome details and a vast white steering wheel with its indicators worked into an inner chrome ring reminds me – albeit in a far more expensively-engineered manner – of the original Ford Thunderbird.
‘To improve it for long-distance touring I’ve fitted electric power steering,’ Michael explains. ‘It’s a superb system that can be taken of the car in half an hour. However, you need to play with the tyre pressures to make sure it’s not too soft. Running with the fronts ever so slightly deflated adds the reassuring weight you need, although obviously you can’t have them too low or it will wallow. And then the rears need adjusting to compensate, otherwise it’ll ride too hard at the rear and threaten to bounce it into oversteer.
That said, I’ve never had any swing-axle moments in the Roadster. I’ve had a few in the Gullwing… ‘It will pull away from nothing and it needs very few gearchanges,’ Michael advises as I head of into the Buckinghamshire countryside. He’s right – the torque from that straight-six is instant and seamless, not to mention potent when combined with the fact that the Roadster was probably the last time Mercedes kept to the ‘Leicht’ bit of the SL’s design brief.
Yet it blends reassurance into that potency. With the summer breeze gliding over the windscreen, I pass an R230-generation SL heading in the opposite direction en route to Silverstone and realise that the 300SL Roadster is really where this bloodline of cars truly began. The potentially lethal rear suspension was cured by altered, lowered geometry and additional springing, while the power and roadholding are capable of completely outperforming small sports cars, yet masked in effortlessness and smoothness.
And it’s that smoothness that really defines the SL. Fuel injection has been mandatory on new cars for decades so we take it for granted, but in the Fifties world of spluttering, chattering carburettors that we credit with so much ‘character’ nowadays, the chromatic howl and long-geared whine of a passing SL would have sounded like a newfangled jet airliner.
The gearbox helps too. I find myself chuckling as I slide it neatly between those four lengthy ratios in what is probably the slickest manual shifter Mercedes has ever made. As a luxury marque Mercedes has concentrated on developing its excellent automatics, but they don’t really suit cars such as the SLK, the 190 Cosworth and the straight-six R129 SLs. But on the rare occasion you find one that’s been fitted with a five-speeder, it will be frustratingly baulky and long-winded. ‘The 300SL’s gearbox is a beautiful piece of physical engineering, as well as a nice thing to use,’ notes Michael. ‘It’s amazing how compact it is too – about the size of a box of Black Magic, not quite as big as a tin of Quality Street...’
Performance, while inhabiting supercar territory in the late Fifties, is by no means explosive but it is assertive in its crisp response to the accelerator. The SL is also deceptive in how its speed creeps up on you unawares. You’ll swear you’re burbling along at 40mph but a glance at the speedometer tells you you’re rapidly closing on 60, and the tachometer is barely into its stride. A contemporary MGA would be screaming.
Yet as I gather speed I can’t help but think of that rear suspension. Yes, the mounting points were lowered to reduce lift-of tuck-in but they’re still swing-arms, so surely it will behave like an early Triumph Spitfire – with twice the power and torque – when decelerating hard? It’s got drum brakes all round too, so I keep a greater distance than usual from the cars in front. But I shouldn’t worry too much. When you pitch the SL into a hard corner you feel its rear end adjust to its new attitude with a benevolent, smooth delay almost like a tilting high-speed train. As the corners get tighter the nose tends to bob a bit in the manner of an early Porsche 911, but there’s no threat of runaway understeer, a reminder of the staggering traction from its 205/70 R15 tyres.
Thanks to that aftermarket electric power steering system the steering is ingertip-light, perfect for touring, yet it’s still a sports car. Although there’s not much feel through the rim, there’s a surprising accuracy when you make minor course corrections. The yawning dead-zone you got on generations of Mercs from the Sixties to the Nineties just isn’t there. The nose-bob and attitude-shift of the SL is warning enough and there are enough turns lock-to- lock to avoid a sense of twitching nervousness anyway.
The steering was tested to the limit during Michael’s greatest challenge in the SL, The Jewel That Is Jordan rally. ‘The hairpin bends in the hills above Galilee are something else. They’re not like those we encountered in the Pyrenees or the Alps, where you can set a neat cornering line. They’re so tight that you really have to force the car round them. Yet it coped with ease. Nothing overheated or fell of – the cooling system is so effective I’ve had to partly blank of the cooler to get more heat in on British roads!’
The Gullwing was arguably the era’s greatest sports racer – the competition record of the W196 suggests that even if the driving reputation of the W198 road car doesn’t – and after some time in this Roadster I conclude that it was a similarly thorough attempt to perfect the touring car. Clambering out, I realise the race-bred sills are the only aspect of the design that count against it. It’s frustrating to think about this SL in relation to the detached Pagoda, the leaden R107, the bland R129 and the anaesthetised R230 and realise that the Sport Leicht could have sired a bloodline of Porsche 911-style all-round drivers’ cars. It’s why Mercedes has belatedly given us front-engined supercars in the form of the SLS and AMG GT but I can’t help but think of the potential that existed within the marque to create sports cars capable of embarrassing E-types years before they even existed.
Michael Wheatley never forgot this. And he should know – the man who once raced the mighty Lola T70 and BRM P154 all over the world replaced a GT40 with this one, and used it as intended. The question is, will the lucky person wielding the winning paddle at the Silverstone Classic auction continue to do so?