Of the extensive list of Briggs Cunningham-owned cars, a number rise to the top as rather significant: There’s the first Ferrari exported to the United States, the Bugatti Royale, the Corvettes, and the cars he built under his own name. Picking the most significant of them seems an exercise in futility, but his Mercedes-Benz 300 SL gullwing certainly deserves a mention, leading the Historic Vehicle Association to add it to the National Historic Vehicle Register this weekend.
More than just a gullwing with celebrity provenance, though, this specific 300 SL represents the first 300 SL sold and delivered to a customer and figures prominently in the transformation of the 300 SL from pure race car to one of the first postwar supercars. The 300 SLs were originally built in 1952 and 1953 as competition cars meant to evoke the memories of Mercedes-Benz’s silver arrow racing cars; it took Mercedes-Benz’s U.S. distributor, Max Hoffman, to convince the company to offer the 300 SL in a roadgoing version for the U.S. market, in part by offering to place an order for 500 of the cars and 500 of the less radical 190 SL.
Mercedes-Benz agreed, and put a gullwing and a 190 SL on display at the International Motor Sports Show in February of 1954 in New York. Despite the estimated selling price of $6,800 – at a time when a Corvette sold for less than $3,600 and a Ford business coupe for less than $1,600 – Hoffman took enough orders for the gullwing to justify his venture, so Mercedes-Benz began to tool up for production.
While Stuttgart refined the design and construction of the gullwing for the street, it still sported the race car’s tube frame chassis, independent front and rear suspensions, fuel-injected straight-six engine, and most importantly the non-traditional gullwing doors.
Mercedes-Benz planned to have the assembly lines up and running by the fall in its Sindelfingen factory, but Hoffman needed one ASAP. He’d convinced Cunningham to buy one and to display and race it in mid-September at the Watkins Glen International Sports Car Grand Prix; doing so would generate just as much hype and publicity as showing the gullwing in New York, if not more.
To accommodate Hoffman, Mercedes-Benz had to pull a pre-production 300 SL together that August. Chassis number 198 040 4500003 got fitted with engine number 4500007 and mated to body number 4500000 (later restamped 4500003). While all gullwings differ in minor ways from each other, 4500003 exhibits a number of departures from typical gullwing construction, including a 55-mm shorter body, hand-formed (rather than stamped) steel body panels, additional chassis braces, rectangular (rather than rounded) roof vents, and a number of magnesium (rather than aluminum) underhood parts. In addition, Cunningham requested that his car have a fixed (rather than tilting) steering wheel – he cared more about safety while driving the car than comfort getting in and out – and a shorter vertical gearshift lever.
The gullwing left the factory August 23, and by September 15 – with three days to spare before Watkins Glen – Cunningham took delivery, paying $7,227. Neither chassis number 4500001 or 4500002, marked for delivery to Mercedes-Benz executives, left the factory until weeks later (September 30 and October 9, respectively). Mercedes-Benz didn’t even officially test the production version of the six-cylinder for power and torque figures until early November.
Cunningham did drive the gullwing – but not officially race it – at Watkins Glen that September. Then, in February 1955, he took it to Daytona for the NASCAR Speed Week. While he and Phil Walters drove his Cunningham C-4R and Jaguar D-type, Cunningham handed the gullwing over to Phil Hill for the races. Hill, however, didn’t get far. The engine locked up with him at the wheel. While Mercedes-Benz provided a replacement engine (engine number 4500019), Cunningham sold it later that year.
Second owner Bill Fleming of Westport, Connecticut, had a little more success than Cunningham and Hill with the gullwing: He took it to the Mount Equinox Hillclimb in June 1956 and won his class, then went on to finish third in SCCA points standings that year. He sold it in 1959 to Victor Stein of San Carlos, California, who in turn sold it to gullwing enthusiasts James Hein and Peter Henning of Darien, Connecticut. Hein bought out Henning’s share of the car by 1972, and though he drove it for a while after buying it, he didn’t quite realize the car’s pre-production history until he began tearing it down for a restoration and cataloging the various differences between it and other gullwings.
Collector car dealer and gullwing owner Dennis Nicotra said he knew about the Cunningham 300 SL for 35 years and even had the opportunity to buy it from Hein a number of times over the decades. Not until 2013, though, did he and Hein come to an agreement over a purchase price. “Plenty of other gullwings stand out – there’s the 29 alloy-bodied ones, for example – but this is the single most important gullwing in existence,” Nicotra said.
Immediately after buying the gullwing, Nicotra sent it to 300 SL specialist HK-Engineering in Polling, Germany, for a complete restoration. “I had them take it completely apart for a no-cost-spared restoration, with the goal of complete authenticity,” Nicotra said. Along the way, he documented many of the same peculiarities that Hein had found. With the restoration completed in the summer of 2014, he then took it to Gooding and Company’s Pebble Beach auction last year, where Gooding placed a $3.5 million to $4.5 million pre-auction estimate on it, but bidding failed to meet Nicotra’s reserve.
Since then, Nicotra has taken the 300 SL to last year’s Boston Cup, where it took Best of Show European, and this year’s Arizona Concours d’Elegance. This past weekend, it appeared in the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, making a good opportunity for the Historic Vehicle Association to announce the gullwing’s addition to the National Historic Vehicle Register.
Marc Gessler, president of the HVA, said that the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, despite being designed and built by a German carmaker, is a uniquely American story. “The 300 SL was the first foreign mass-produced car built primarily for the American market,” he said. “It launched the SL brand in the Mercedes-Benz family and played a significant role in building the Mercedes-Benz market position in the United States.”
To go on the register, a vehicle must meet one of four criteria: It must be associated with an important event in automotive or American history; it must be associated with a significant person in automotive or American history; it must be distinctive based on design, engineering, craftsmanship, or aesthetic value; or it must be the first produced, last produced, or be among the most well-preserved or authentically restored surviving examples.
Selection to the register involves a complete documentation of the vehicle, including a fully referenced narrative of the vehicle’s provenance and full photography, which will then be placed in the Library of Congress. No restrictions are placed on subsequent use or sale of the vehicle.
Other vehicles already added to the National Historic Vehicle Register include CSX2287, one of the six Shelby Cobra Daytona coupes; Old Red, the first Meyers Manx dune buggy; the Tin Goose, the Tucker 48 prototype; and the last remaining World War I Cadillac, and Futurliner No. 10.