Ron Cherry: An affordable Mercedes Benz Gullwing
November 24, 2017
The 1954-1957 Gullwing Mercedes Benz 300SL coupe is without a doubt one of the most desirable cars in the world.
When it leapt into the automotive world with its high-powered, fuel-injected engine and great handling, it would have been well remembered.
But its unique gull-wing doors, necessitated because its race-car frame couldn't accommodate conventional ones, made design history. With that desirability came soaring prices.
A rare find
With only about 1400 ever built and 29 of them the rare aluminum bodied ones, Hagerty's Insurance values the steel-bodied Gullwings at over the one million mark for a decent one.
"You might get a Gullwing for a million," Gullwing afficionado Dan Anderson said. "But it will need work. The price depends on who wants it."
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If you've ever been to a car auction where bidding can go crazy, you know what he meant.
Dan had long loved Gullwings.
"I saw one when I was 18 years old and couldn't get it out of my mind," he said. "The owner of L' Omellette in Palo Alto owned one and I fell in love with it."
However, they were never cheap and by the time Dan was ready to buy one, the price was out of reach. But that all changed in 2009.
"I was looking in a car magazine and read about this company in Florida, Thoroughbred Coachworks, who was making kits for them," he said. "You hear horror stories about kit cars, so I flew back to check it out. The molds were made off an original car, so they were spot on. I saw they were legit and ordered one.
"I would fly down to visit my son who lives near there and check on it every so often. When it was done, I shipped it out here."
What Dan received was a rolling chassis with a body. It had a Mustang II front end and a Ford 8.8 inch Truetrac 2.73:1 rearend. The chassis was built with 2 inch tubing and the body was fiberglass.
He pulled the body off the chassis, welding reinforcement for the gullwing doors and adding Wilwood disc brakes in the front and Lincoln discs in the rear. Then he found a '76 Chevy 350 cubic inch engine on Craigslist for it.
"I found the heads were prone to cracking, so I put on a set of '66 small-block double-hump heads with a competition cam," he said.
For a trans, he went with a Muncie 4-speed. He did all the wiring himself.
Dan and a friend, Chris Socco, prepped the body in Dan's garage and took it to a spray booth to paint it in 2004 Mercedes Benz Iridium Silver. All the "brightwork" (bumpers and such) he bought from Thoroughbred Coachworks.
Some parts would have been prohibitive in cost, even if available, so Dan improvised. For the Mercedes Benz star in the grill, he used one from a '72 Mercedes that looked similar.
Hub caps were not reproduced, so he applied Mercedes star decals to a set of chrome baby moons. Inside, Dan opted for Scat Pro 90 seats and had the interior upholstered in grey leather.
For instruments, he went with Classic gauges. As far as creature comforts, he installed Vintage Air air conditioning, a sound system and power steering and brakes. He finished his project in 2011.
Making changes is all the fun
To say Dan finished his Gullwing is not quite correct. He had it on the road, but has made many changes since then.
"I'm always messing with it," he said. "It's a lot of fun."
He pulled the trans, replacing it with a T5 5-speed overdrive manual trans from a Camaro.
"It's much better," Dan said.
Although the engine originally had a carburetor, he was not happy with it.
"I changed it to a throttle-body injection, but I didn't like that," he said. "Now I've got a tuned-port injection system from a '85 Camaro."
That entailed changing the ignition system as well. Then he decided to take out the power steering and brakes.
"The power steering had no feel of the road," he said. "And the brakes never felt good to me."
Next to go was the sound system.
"I couldn't hear that thing," he said. "I've got good insulation, but I'm just too close to the road."
But Dan doesn't only take things out. He recently added a cold-air intake to the engine and tubular A-arms in the rear and plans to put ones on the front as well. More is coming.
"The 190's and the 300 SL use many of the same parts," Dan said. "I bought a star logo for a 190. By next year, the grill will pretty much be original."
No doubt, that will not be the end of the story.
"I'm always doing something on it," he said.
So, can Gullwing lovers now go to Florida to buy their car? No. Thoroughbred Coachworks has gone out of business.
"A fellow in Tennessee bought the molds," Dan said. "He's been trying to get a business going for years now, but nothing so far."
That means that you can either buy an original Gullwing or find a quality reproduction like Dan's. Offer him half of what an original might cost and he'll likely take you up on the offer.
You probably couldn't find a better reproduction than his.
Ron Cherry's books, including the Morg Mahoney detective series, are available on Kindle and in print copy at Amazon. His new book, The St. Nicholas Murders, is a mystery that takes place in a small town in the Sierra Foothills that is remarkably similar to Nevada City and is now out in paperback and Kindle on Amazon. Check out his website at http://www.rlcherry.com.
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