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*Please note that the difference in length between this car and later production Gullwings cited in the catalogue refers to the chassis rather than the body.
Formerly the Property of Briggs S. CunninghamBriggs S. Cunningham II, New York, New York (acquired in 1954)Bill Fleming, Westport, Connecticut (acquired from the above in 1955)Victor J. Stein, San Carlos, California (acquired from the above in 1959)James C. Hein, Darien, Connecticut (acquired from the above in 1972)Current Owner (acquired from the above)
NASCAR Speed Week, Daytona Beach, Florida, Phil Hill (Practice Laps Only)Mount Equinox Hill Climb, Vermont, June 17, 1956, Fleming, No. 71 (1st Place, Class D)
Watkins Glen, New York, March 1955 (First Prize, Sports Car Class)
The development of the road-going 300 SL dates to 1951 with the construction of the revolutionary, lightweight W194 series, intended solely for racing. These Mercedes-Benz achieved numerous victories and podium finishes as works entries at such grueling races as the Mille Miglia, the Carrera Panamericana, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, marking Mercedes-Benz’s return to racing in the postwar era with globally recognized, high-profile wins. An upmarket passenger car based on these exotic and successful racers was developed and aimed squarely at US buyers with the goal of using this success in competition to raise the profile of the entire Mercedes-Benz product line in the States.
Never in the history of Mercedes-Benz was a new model debuted outside of Europe. The presentation of the 300 SL Gullwing at the New York International Motor Sports Show in 1954 was, like the car itself, unprecedented. Sales success in the US for the race-bred 300 SL was absolutely crucial to both Mercedes-Benz as well as importer Max Hofman, who had made a 1,000-unit sales commitment to the company, which green lit the project. Using his influence, Hoffman arranged for his friend, noted racer Briggs Cunningham, to receive a Gullwing as early as possible so he could compete with it at popular racing venues and reinforce the “Race on Sunday, Sell on Monday” adage.
According to factory records, 4500003 was one of a pair of 300 SLs invoiced from Sindelfingen on August 23, 1954, making them the first production 300 SL Gullwings to leave the factory, weeks ahead of the next completed cars. Finished in German Racing Silver (DB 180) with a blue plaid cloth interior, Cunningham’s Gullwing had the look of a postwar Silver Arrow. Just three days after Cunningham took delivery, the Gullwing made its debut at Watkins Glen. True to his mission, Hofman had arranged time on the circuit for Cunningham to test the car and demonstrate it for the spectators.
Cunningham, a true racer at heart, asked that two significant changes be made to his 300 SL. He found the original dogleg shift lever unwieldy, and 4500003 became the first production Gullwing to be fitted with the straight shift lever, which was standard on chassis 4500051 and onward. Also, Cunningham felt that the Gullwing’s breakaway steering wheel could pose a safety hazard while racing and had a solid steering wheel hub installed in its place.
In February 1955, Briggs was joined by his good friend Phil Hill at Daytona’s NASCAR Speed Week. During the event, the Gullwing experienced an engine failure. Mercedes-Benz immediately dispatched an engine, which replaced the original, five-month-old engine, no. 00007, with the engine that the car has kept ever since, no. 00019.
In mid-1955, with the 300 SL having been successfully launched – and with a backlog of orders at the factory – Briggs Cunningham sold his Gullwing to SCCA official and fellow racer Bill Fleming. It is evident that Fleming entered the car in numerous events and is known to have won his class with the car at the Mt. Equinox Hillclimb in Arlington, Vermont, in June 1956. He is pictured at the event in the September issue of Road & Track.
By 1959, Fleming sold the Gullwing to aerospace parts manufacturer Victor Stein of San Carlos, California, who maintained ownership until February 1972. A handwritten letter in February of that year from Stein to the 300 SL’s next owner, James Hein, marks the pending transaction, mentioning a $16 per day rate for the rental of a car trailer from a local yard. According to Mr. Hein, 4500003 was instead treated to a TWA air shipment between California and New York. A 300 SL enthusiast and historian from the early days, Mr. Hein drove the Gullwing for a number of years and then dutifully kept 4500003 in dry storage, taking note of its many fascinating details. Over the decades, the car was partially disassembled in preparation for a restoration that never commenced. Its years of storage held the coupe in a state of preservation until it was finally sold to the consignor in 2013.
This most special Gullwing was immediately sent to renowned 300 SL authority Hans Kleissl’s HK-Engineering for a thorough restoration. Only when 4500003 was fully disassembled and catalogued by the restorers at HK did the entire scope of the car’s importance fully come to light.
It appears that 4500003 may have been hand built as a late pre-production car that was not initially intended for sale but was renumbered by the factory and prepared for the earliest possible shipment in order to fulfill Mr. Cunningham’s commitment to run the car on popular American racetracks. There are numerous physical differences present on 4500003 that are not found on even the earliest production examples. For instance, the central headliner panel has a unique design and the adjacent overhead door hinges are hewn from rough steel instead of the standard finished aluminum. The side panels of the upholstery just inside the door sills finish out about 10 mm higher than standard cars. The radiator and coolant overflow tank appear to be hand formed and have different shapes compared with production parts. The overall length of the body is shorter than a standard Gullwing by a significant amount, an astonishing 55 mm. It has been said that each of 4500003’s panels is subtly different from those of the production cars. Interestingly, the castings of the front wheel-hub carriers bear serial no. 4500001 and no. 4500002.
Hundreds of hours have been spent by HK-Engineering and 300 SL authorities not only to return this irreplaceable Gullwing to its original glory, but also to document the myriad subtle differences between 4500003 and the Gullwings built on the assembly line.
4500003 has not been seen in public for almost 40 years and is now available for public sale for the first time since it was built. Its importance to the success of the 300 SL project, its descendants still topping the Mercedes-Benz product line today, cannot be overstated. Included with the car is the original service book, as well as a very early typewritten copy of the operating manual; both books bear the original B.S. Cunningham signature. Many of the service coupons have been removed, tracing the car from its earliest days, until it had covered over 30,000 miles.
One of the most important sports cars of all time, 4500003 is singularly unique and is truly deserving of the oft-overused term – icon.