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Delivered New to Famed Conductor Herbert von Karajan | Factory Rudge-Wheel ExampleHerbert von Karajan, Salzburg, Austria (acquired new in 1955)John Kinzerling, SwitzerlandVernon Barbero, San Bruno, California (acquired by 1964)Current Owner (acquired from the above)
Mercedes-Benz redefined the technological abilities of road-going sports cars when it introduced the 300 SL Gullwing in 1954. Stuttgart built 1,400 Gullwings through 1957, and the public revered them from the start. Their allure and mystique remains just as strong today.
According to a copy of its factory build sheet, this particular Gullwing, chassis 5500378, was ordered new by the acclaimed Austrian virtuoso Herbert von Karajan. Widely regarded as one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century, the maestro, who headed the Berlin Philharmonic for 35 years, enjoyed worldwide fame; his recordings have sold approximately 200 million copies.
Mr. Karajan made his conducting debut in 1929 at age 21, and he enjoyed the spoils of his success. In 1938, he purchased his first sports car, a 1938 BMW 328 Roadster, which he used in competitive motor rallies. He soon developed a love for fast, stylish, well-engineered automobiles, and in June 1955, he took delivery of his specially ordered Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing. The conductor had specified the car with Rudge knock-off wheels and the unusual color combination of White Grey (DB 158) paint with a red plaid cloth interior. Mr. Karajan had map nets fitted within the recesses of the car’s headliner, perhaps to hold the sheet music of his current project. These unique overhead nets can be seen in a series of photographs of Mr. Karajan with the Gullwing, taken in the mid-1950s. Mr. Karajan’s name later became synonymous with Porsche, as he owned several important examples, but other cars in his stable included a Ford GT40 Mk III, a Ferrari 275 GTB, and a Lancia Stratos. His tenure with the Gullwing is not currently known, and the Gull Wing Group lists John Kinzerling as the subsequent owner.
After 5500378 was imported to the US, it was acquired by Vernon Barbero of Northern California. His date of acquisition cannot be pinpointed; however, Mr. Barbero’s earliest registration card that remains with the car is dated 1964, and his extensive handwritten maintenance notes begin soon thereafter in 1965. Under his ownership, the Gullwing was originally issued early series California black license plates, which were later replaced by the mid-series six-digit blue plates that are pictured on the car. In the 1970s, Mr. Barbero had the Gullwing restored and, although further details of the work are unknown, the car continues to present well today. It is believed that Mr. Barbero exhibited the Gullwing for a short time at local concours in the San Francisco Bay Area before committing it to long-term storage at his home near San Bruno. The last annual registration sticker was applied in 1984; however, Mr. Barbero’s notes record a biannual starting regimen that continued through early 1993.
When Mr. Barbero’s garage door was opened in 2018, likely for the first time in decades, 5500378 was discovered under several covers and blankets, beautifully preserved, save for the extensive cracking of its lacquer paint, and long-flat Continental bias-ply tires. Closer inspection reveals an engine compartment that is especially tidy, bellypans in place, and wheel wells that are free of road dirt. Even the map nets, originally installed for Mr. Karajan, remain on the car. The chassis, body, and engine stampings match the factory build sheet, although the removable aluminum data plate, for an unknown reason, belongs to an earlier Gullwing.
The long-sequestered Mercedes-Benz was recently returned to running order by a mechanic particularly experienced with the 300 SL model. After nearly 30 gallons of old gasoline were drained from the fuel tank and the braking, charging, and lubrication systems were serviced, the Gullwing roared back to life and settled to a smooth idle, followed by a short drive. Due to its long period of static storage, further mechanical work will be required before any road use. While the decades-old Continental tires, with their distinctive sidewall pattern, will require immediate replacement, they still hold air.
Today, this special Gullwing, with its fascinating history, stands ready to rejoin the worldwide 300 SL community, where it will most certainly be greeted with well-deserved curiosity and enthusiasm.