Classic Cars

Classic Drive: 1957 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadster

Four days and 1,000 miles on the 2016 Colorado Grand rally

There are few things I enjoy more than driving an interesting car in a scenic corner of the world. Which is why when Mercedes-Benz asked me if I’d like to spend four days in a 1957 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Roadster on some of the best roads in the Rocky Mountains, it took me all of two minutes to respond in the affirmative. The basis for this occurrence was the Colorado Grand, a non-competitive road rally open to cars of 1962-or-earlier vintage. Mercedes-Benz has been a sponsor of the event for 21 years and the Irvine, California-based Mercedes-Benz Classic Center usually brings one of its cars along with support vehicles for fellow participants.

This year, Classic Center director Mike Kunz was bringing said 300 SL, which was fresh from extended storage in Mercedes’ German collection. In the weeks before the event, while I was busy telling anyone who would listen about my upcoming adventure, Mike and his team were hard at work at the Classic Center, waking the 300 SL from its sleepy slumber and generally “taking it back to zero,” as the crew says – resetting and prepping the car for 1000 miles of road use.

I flew in to Colorado directly from the Goodwood Revival in Chichester, England, where I had spent the prior three days drinking not entirely cold beer and ogling vintage race cars. Once I found Mike at The Lodge at Vail, the host hotel for the first and last nights of the Grand, he took me to the bowels of the hotel’s parking garage to meet our car. It looked lovely with its silver paint and blue interior, even in the dim fluorescent glow of the garage. Nate and Anders, Classic Center mechanics on-duty for the rally, told me a little more about the car and said it was running and driving well – better every day, in fact. Should anything go wrong, the pair would be following along the route in a Sprinter that had been converted into a rolling workshop of sorts. While Nate and Anders were technically there to assist the large number of Mercedes participating, I watched them work their magic on everything from Ferraris to Jaguars.

1957 Mercedes Benz 300SL Roadster rear three quarter in motion

Our first stint took us from Vail to Grand Junction, with a stop in Paonia in Colorado’s North Fork Valley mid-day for a potluck-style lunch prepared and hosted by the small town’s residents. The Grand costs $7,500 per pair (driver and co-driver) to enter and includes lodging and food. It’s a sizable amount of money, but much of it goes to charity (the Colorado Grand administrative body is a non-profit organization). This is evident after lunch on the first day, where a sizable check is cut to Paonia to help put selected students through college. It’s a heartwarming thing to watch.

Meanwhile, the 300 SL has been running wonderfully all morning and it’s quite a car. You climb into a 300 SL over wide door sills that conceal the car’s tube-frame chassis construction and slip your legs underneath the bus-like steering wheel. There are plenty of unidentified knobs and switches on the dash that become clearer as the days wear on – headlights, choke, secondary fuel pump, windshield wipers, etc. The view over the long aluminum hood is terrific, with those twin power bulges pointing straight ahead and down the road. Mike is a gracious host, sharing driving duty with me by splitting each of the route’s legs in two, giving us equal time behind the wheel.

Mike’s knowledge of Mercedes models is encyclopedic and his enthusiasm is infectious. He has an immediate answer for my dozens of questions about the car we’re driving and he’s quick to answer questions that other Mercedes-driving participants have about their cars as well. At breaks for food or coffee, Mike makes the rounds from Mercedes to Mercedes, making sure everything on each car in the event is working as it should – the overwhelming majority of the time, it is. A testament to Mercedes’ build quality, no doubt.

The next day’s driving takes us to Telluride via Moab, Utah, where we drive along the Colorado River under the shadows of tall red cliffs and spectacular rock formations. It’s one of the most scenic legs on the route and the 300 SL is reveling in the twisty bits. Compared to a modern Mercedes, the 300 SL is very different – the brakes (drums all around) take a little anticipation on the driver’s part, there’s a fair amount of body roll in turns, and you’re always aware of the car’s rear swing axle-style suspension, which allows for massive camber changes when under duress (suspension geometry changes to the Roadster versions improved this slightly over earlier “Gullwing” coupe models). Steering is light and feels like a multi-stage process: turn in, wait for the rear to follow suit and take a set, then gently, gently get back on the power until the road goes straight and you give the straight-six its due.

The noise from the SL’s all-aluminum, 3.0-liter engine is intoxicating – you find yourself giving it more gas, not just to get moving quicker but more to hear the thing sing its way up the tachometer one more time. It’s a hard-edged mechanical rhapsody, less complex than something like a four-cam Ferrari V-6, but more guttural. It’s a powerful noise reminiscent of the W194 sports touring cars that scored race victories at Le Mans, the Nurburgring, and the Mille Miglia, although the engine itself actually began life in the 300 “Adenauer” sedan. In fact, the 300 SL road car has even more power than the racing version thanks to the use of an innovative Bosch mechanical fuel injection system instead of twin Solex caburetors.

Despite the SL’s race-bred pedigree, it’s a surprisingly comfortable car to spend time in. It rides well, soaking up all but the largest surface imperfections. Even with two grown men inside, there’s plenty of room in the cabin and the fixed-back bucket seats are supportive. A bit of heat gets past the firewall from the engine bay, but with the top down, it’s barely felt. This is another Roadster advantage, as I’m told Gullwing cabins can get a little toasty. One of the Gullwing on the tour was even fitted with an aftermarket air-conditioning system.

This being the Rockies, weather is unpredictable. We drive with the top down most of the time, powering through rain and even light hail with the top stashed neatly beneath its hard tonneau cover. Later in the day, as the skies get darker and the rain picks up again, we decide we’re not ready for another soaking – especially Mike; at 6’ 4” tall, he has most of his forehead exposed above the windscreen. The top is completely upright in half a minute and is easy to operate, with two main chrome handles securing it to the windscreen bow.

The last two days of driving fly by and it occurs to me on the last morning, climbing into the car, how normal it’s become to drive a 300 SL each day. It’s not just that the car is essentially a race car underneath its steel and aluminum body. It’s not just that the car we’re driving is worth somewhere over $1 million in today’s market. It’s not even that the car was built in 1957 and we’re putting several hundred miles on it day after day without feeling much worse for the wear or suffering any breakdowns. It is the combination of those things that is truly amazing.

There are several other 300 SLs on this rally – both Gullwings and Roadsters (and a 190 SL too) — and it’s clear why the car is so popular for this type of event. There aren’t a whole lot of other cars of this level of performance from the 1950s that would allow such care-free driving in such comfort. The 300 SL masters the Grand Touring concept – it feels like we could easily drive the car back to California when this whole thing is over.

And it’s over before we know it. Walking away from the car back in the Vail hotel parking garage is bittersweet, but I’m assured by Mike that I can come visit “our” 300 SL anytime I like at the Classic Center, an offer that I’m sure he’ll live to regret.

Additional photography by Mercedes-Benz Classic Center

1957 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadster Specifications

Cost New: $7,463
Value Now: $1,100,000 (Hagerty insurance average value)
Engine: 3.0l SOHC I-6/215 hp, 228 ft- lb
Transmission: 4-speed manual
Drive: Rear-wheel
Front Suspension: Control arms, coil springs
Rear Suspension: Swing axle, coil springs
Brakes F/R: Drums
Weight: 2,950 lbs. (est)

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