Jay Leno Restores a Vintage Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing - Article
March 2, 2010 12:00 AM
For Jay Leno, the Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing was always just out of reach. That changed recently when he bought, and slowly restored, a 1955 300SL. Though its paint job isn't new, this sturdy Gullwing is finally back on the road.
Since I’m one of the few guys on TV who own old cars and enjoy restoring them, people often contact me about their car projects. Some are restorations that folks may have barely started. Others are vehicles they’ve labored over, but never quite finished. Then there are the cars that people have owned for 40 years, and now they ask me if I’d like to buy them so they end up in a good home.
That’s how I came to own a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing. It was an old race car that its owners put in a storage container out in the California desert in the late 1970s. And the Mercedes just sat there for decades. I’m only the third owner. And that makes it special.
The 300SL was ahead of its time, with a tubular space frame, fully independent suspension, a fuel-injected SOHC Six, those cool gullwing doors and a lot of racing history. John Fitch won the GT Class in the 1955 Mille Miglia, and finished fifth overall in what was basically a stock 300SL. But for me, it was always a car that was just out of reach. When I was in college in 1969, working for a Mercedes-Benz dealer, we took one in trade. We gave the guy $5500 for it, which seemed like a lot of money back then. Within 10 days, we’d sold it for $7200. We thought we’d pulled off quite a con job ... we got 7200 bucks for that thing.
We’re restoring the mechanicals and the instruments on my Gullwing, but we’ll leave the worn interior and exterior alone. I like not having to worry about a freshly sprayed, pristine paint job. It’s very liberating if a screwdriver falls on the fender and makes a mark. You don’t go, “Aaarrrggghhh! The first chip!”
At some point, we will restore it completely. But there’s something charming about having a car that’s used for its original purpose—driving. I’ll just tool around in this coupe for a while, and when enough purists get angry at me, we’ll restore it. But right now, I can take it to Bob’s Big Boy and if somebody wants to lean on it, I won’t get upset. I don’t want to be one of those guys who says “Hey! Hey! Heyyy!”
These 3-liter Sixes were supposed to develop 220 to 240 hp. We cleaned it up internally, did a little work to it, and we’re seeing around 180 hp. I was disappointed, but I talked to a few Mercedes guys, and they said that was about right. It’s like the Jaguar XKE—Jag claimed 265 hp, but it was probably more like 210 hp. Back then, everybody lied about horsepower.
Honda used to do that. When Soichiro Honda, the company’s founder, was alive, he vowed that every part for every Honda motorcycle would always be available. But once he died, they brought in the accountants who said it wasn’t viable to keep Honda 50 leg shields in stock. Yet Mercedes-Benz has always produced those parts, and that makes people bond with the brand.
They built just 1402 300SL Gullwing coupes, but it was enough to support the spare-parts market. If you write a book on the Gullwing, you’ll always sell at least 1400 of them. If you write a book on, say, the Jackson car, made in Michigan until 1923, you’ll sell five. There might be five Jacksons left out there.
My vintage 300SL Gullwing will be finished at about the same time the new SLS AMG Gullwing hits the road. And the old ones still cost more than those brand-new ones. I think that’s funny, but I do like to see the heritage carried on. The Gullwing works because there’s a bit of theater involved. The car requires some effort: You can’t just get in and drive it. There are certain things you have to know about, whether it’s as simple as the flip-down steering wheel or the heater controls. You sort of pilot these cars; you don’t necessarily drive them. You have to understand the handling limitations of those swing axles too—in high-speed corners they can be a handful. Consequently, you tend to drive a bit more carefully.
I’m not one of those people who have to have the ultimate 300SL with the knockoff Rudge wheels either. That’s just extra cake frosting. I think the regular hubcaps and steel wheels look a little nicer. The knockoffs can loosen and come off, and I don’t want to drill them and put safety wire on them. With lug nuts, I know what I’m doing. It’s like women who wear those high heels. “Yes, but they’re really attractive,” they’ll say. And I think to myself, “But they’re uncomfortable!”
The Gullwing isn’t our only Mercedes project. I bought a 6.3-liter 600 sedan from the 1960s with 324,000 miles on it—my favorite Mercedes from a styling and performance point of view. I thought, why don’t we install the modern 6.3-liter V8? So we’re putting in a new AMG 563-hp V8, like the one in the SLS, with a seven-speed transmission. We’ll turn it into the ultimate 6.3 Mercedes-Benz. Stay tuned.
By Jay Leno
Photograph by John Lamm
Published in the March 2010 issue of Popular Mechanics.