The restauration of the 300 SL Coupé Aluminium 'Gullwing'
There is a feeling in the air somewhere between nervousness and eager anticipation. Every time that two parties are joined together, it is a unique event. All those present gaze intently at the two protagonists, because despite careful preparation, at the final moment of the 'wedding' things could still go wrong. We are not talking about a normal wedding here but about the wedding of a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Coupé 'Gullwing'. The altar is a workshop and the bride and groom are accompanied by a team of mechanics. After ten months of loving restoration, this is a truly romantic moment for lovers of classic cars.
In automotive jargon, the term “wedding” means the unification of the engine with the vehicle body. In this special case, the latter is made of aluminium. The “Gullwing” is thus an absolute rarity; only twenty-nine of its kind were ever made. In 1955 the designers of the 215 hp powerful engine preferred this delicate bodywork because it was lighter than steel and thus better for use in racing. But only a year later they were forced to undergo a painful separation. At a race in 1956, the 300 SL Coupé “Gullwing” had an accident and was badly damaged, particularly at the rear. Because there were no aluminium replacement bodies in existence at the time and no more were manufactured, from then on a steel body had to serve in its stead. In the course of the years, the original aluminium design sank further and further into oblivion.
When Adrian Gattiker from Switzerland, in search of a special classic car, purchased the 300 SL Coupé “Gullwing” in 2008, he had no idea what rarity was hidden in this exclusive car built in 1955. Experts of the scene pointed out the frame number to him. The digits 043 at the beginning normally stand for rare aluminium designs. Gattiker started doing his own research and in 2012 decided to consult the experts at Mercedes-Benz. The Head of Mercedes-Benz Classic, Michael Bock himself, personally supported the desired originality test. With the aid of the Mercedes-Benz unbroken archive, the professionals were quite certain: the car was indeed one of the only twenty-nine 300 SL Coupés “Gullwing” with aluminium bodywork ever to be built.
When its historical uniqueness had been confirmed, Gattiker decided to have the car restored. He found it particularly important that the car was not modernised at all but that its original condition should be maintained and the original quality should be revived as far as possible. That is why the 'Gullwing' was 'taken apart right down to the last bolt',as Michael Plag, technical head of the restoration project, related. It was possible to carry out such painstaking dismantling and reassembly thanks to the accurately kept Mercedes-Benz archive. In the historical documents listed there, every car is catalogued and described in fine detail.
Signs of the times
After it had been reassembled, the classic car was allowed to show signs of time. A team of experts worked lovingly and painstakingly for months, with fine attention to detail, just for this purpose. The aim was to bring the history behind the carback to life again. With all its ups and downs. But to bring history to life, the mechanics and restorers only had ten months for this extensive project. The 300 SL Coupé 'Gullwing' was to race in the Mille Miglia in the spring of 2014.
Driving at last
Adrian Gattiker is not frightened of having the car damaged at the Mille Miglia after all the work that had been done – but he still drives it with due respect. After all, it should be alive and not just gather dust in a garage. “It is a wonderful feeling for me to drive the car today – especially with the knowledge that interesting races were run with it in the past,” he said of his first test drive after the time-consuming overhaul. He was delighted with the work that the Mercedes-Benz staff had done. Michael Bock too was pleased that “the specifications of the past have been uncompromisingly adhered to.” Both parties were more than happy with the result and kept in touch with each other, particularly regarding the race through northern Italy. Adrian Gattiker confirms: “The car is now ready for the Mille Miglia.”
His aim for the race was: 'On the one hand to get through it, and on the other to have fun and finally, more than anything: drive, drive, drive!'