Bill Vance: Automotive Historian Offered Readers Insights into Classic Cars

Dear readers: Bill Vance was very proud to be able to offer his dedicated, loyal and knowledgeable readers regular columns that were not only engaging and accessible, but also perfectly historically accurate and well-written. He was extremely grateful to have had that opportunity, and he wrote devotedly for you, his dear readers, until the end of his life.

Dad passed away on Monday, September 19, 2022 at the age of 86 as one of Canada’s most respected automotive historians. He had a feeling of peace from having written for people who enjoyed his writing and greatly appreciated the work of the staff of the newspapers that published his column.

His grandchildren will work to find a good home for Bill’s incredible and hard-to-beat library of automotive history. Dad’s favorite car was the Mercedes-Benz 300SL and here’s that column, originally written in 2015.

Rest in peace dad and thank you for everything you gave us.

With gratitude, Bill Vance’s family

After the devastation of World War II, it took until 1951 for Daimler-Benz of Germany, manufacturer of Mercedes-Benz cars and trucks, to introduce its new post-war 220 and 300 sedans.

With modern passenger cars in production, the company felt ready to pursue some of its pre-war racing glory. Daimler-Benz and its German rival Auto-Union had been nearly invincible in Grand Prix racing in the 1930s. But the war had taken its toll, and by the early 1950s DB was still neither financially nor unbeatable. nor technically prepared to compete in Grand Prix again.

As a stopgap measure, he created a sports racer using components from the MB 300 sedan. The 300 was not suited for racing, but its transmission and chassis components were robust enough for racing. The 3.0-litre, overhead cam, 12-valve, short-stroke, inline six-cylinder, robust forged steel crankshaft was fully counterbalanced and ran on seven generous main bearings. An aluminum bodied coupe with low aerodynamic drag (drag coefficient 0.25) was created, called the 300SL (for 3.0 litres, Sport and Light). Since the sedan frame was too heavy, a bridge-like “space frame” was made from small-diameter tubing. This was strong and light, but it extended halfway up the sides of the car, preventing the use of normal doors. The designers therefore raised the bottom of the doors and extended the top into the reinforced roof, where they were hinged near the middle of the car and lifted vertically. Quickly called gullwing doors, they were the 300SL’s most striking and imitated feature. A solution to an engineering problem turned into an iconic style signature. High sills made entry and exit difficult, so to make it easier for the driver to enter, the steering wheel was tilted down. Once inside it was snug and comfortable compared to open sports cars and had excellent visibility.

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The 300 sedan’s modestly stressed 2,996 cc engine produced just 115 horsepower at 4,600 rpm. But it was strong enough to reliably develop more than double that; when the production 300SL was introduced, it was rated at 240 horsepower. Carburetors were used during development, but the production model got mechanical fuel injection from Bosch, the world’s first four-stroke petrol-engined production car to have this feature. It also received racing-type dry sump lubrication, and to clear the low hood, the engine was tilted 50 degrees to the left.

The 300SL quickly made its mark on competition, winning, among others, the 1952 Le Mans, France, the 24-hour race, and the Carrera Panamericana (Mexican Race). He was also successful in rallying. After pointing the way to DB’s return to Grand Prix racing, the 300SL would likely have been relegated to the DB museum like other MB racers. However, before this happened, events took a turn with the intervention of Max Hoffman, the American Mercedes-Benz dealer based in New York. Hoffman was the czar of imported cars from the United States. He had a keen marketing sense, and his Manhattan dealership sold everything from Volkswagens to Rolls-Royces. Hoffman became a Mercedes dealer in 1952, and when he saw the Mercedes-Benz 300SL sports car, he knew it would sell in America. He implored DB to make him a production model and backed up his conviction by ordering 1000 of them.

The opportunity was too good for DB to pass up. The production Mercedes-Benz 300SL gullwing coupe and the less powerful four-cylinder 190SL convertible made their debuts at the New York Auto Show in February 1954. The 300SL was a sensation with the public and the automotive press, and the production began in the summer. 1954. The 300SL delivered on its performance promise. road track (4/55) reported that the 1,229 kg (2,710 lb) coupe accelerated from zero to 97 km/h (60 mph) in 7.4 seconds and to 161 (100) in just 17.2 seconds. It achieved an average two-way top speed of 216 km/h (134.2 mph). R&T he called it “…the ultimate as a complete sports car”, concluding that “The sports car of the future is here today”.

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The 300SL had a hefty price tag, around $8,000, a lot of money when you could get a new Cadillac for $5,000. This is, in part, probably why only 1,400 gullwing coupes were produced between 1954 and 1957. It was replaced by a roadster with a modified frame to allow for conventional doors, and with the pivot rear swing axle assembly low DB that replaces traditional swing axles. Four-wheel disc brakes arrived in 1961, and the roadster remained in production until 1963; 1858 were built. The Mercedes-Benz 300SL left an indelible mark because they had it all. Fuel injection was a significant engineering advance. It had exceptional performance, impeccable racing credentials and the prestige of those gullwing doors, which MB recently reincarnated in its SLS model.

The 300 SL is one of the great cars of all time, even though it was not originally intended for production. It has become a highly sought after and expensive collectible.

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