1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL
New Haven, CT
Date(s) of Construction
Original Owner and Use
Briggs Swift Cunningham II
Palm Beach, FL
Road use and sports car racing
Present Owner and Use
New Haven, CT
Display and exhibition
Designer / Engineer / Builder
Dr.-Ing Fritz Nallinger, Technical Director, Daimler-Benz AG
Rudolf Uhlenhaut, Engineer, Daimler-Benz AG
Alfred Neubauer, Racing Director, Daimler-Benz AG
Mercedes-Benz – Builder
The 1954 Mercedes-Benz Type 300 SL (W 198) coupe with serial number 198 040 4500003 is nationally significant based on its relation to four criteria. First it is associated with important events in automotive and American history as the first Mercedes-Benz 300 SL imported to the United States. The Mercedes-Benz Type 300 SL (W 198) coupe was significant as the first foreign mass-produced automobile built for and launched in America. Second, it is associated with important persons in automotive and American history. This automobile’s first owner was Briggs S. Cunningham, a prominent American businessman who achieved international success in automobile and yacht racing. This automobile was also associated with Maximilian E. Hoffman, an importer of foreign automobiles. Mr. Hoffman was responsible for persuading the management of Daimler-Benz to build a road version of the Mercedes-Benz Type 300 SL racecar and instrumental in the introduction and importation of many other foreign manufactured automobiles to the American market. Third, the Mercedes-Benz Type 300 SL (W 198) coupe features significant design and construction value. It was the first production automobile to use fuel injection. It featured a lightweight tubular space frame chassis, an advanced aerodynamic body design and unique “gullwing” doors that open vertically and became a hallmark of the model. Fourth, 198 040 4500003 was the first Mercedes-Benz Type 300 SL (W198) coupe to be sold to a customer. This car is an early production car and as such has certain components, materials and finishes that were later changed as production continued.
The 1954 Mercedes-Benz Type 300 SL (W 198) coupe, serial number 198 040 4500003, is a steel-bodied sports car built upon a triangulated tubular steel space frame. The car is powered by a longitudinal, front- mounted, gasoline-powered, direct fuel-injected 2,996 cubic centimeter displacement inline six-cylinder engine, which was rated at 240 horsepower at 5800 revolutions per minute (rpm) by Mercedes-Benz. The engine is naturally aspirated, with a compression ratio of 8.55:1. It is tilted to the side at a 50-degree angle and equipped with a dry sump oiling system. Power is transmitted via a manual four-speed synchronized gearbox. The car is equipped with four-wheel independent suspension featuring unequal wishbone configuration in the front and a swing axle setup in the rear. Stopping power comes from “turbo-cooled,” finned, four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes, and the car rides on 15-inch bolt-on stamped steel wheels. The body is painted Mercedes-Benz “Silvergrey DB180” paint, matching the original color when delivered in 1954.
The 1954 Mercedes-Benz Type 300 SL (W 198) coupe with chassis and body number 198 040 4500003 was constructed in the summer of 1954 at the Daimler-Benz AG factory in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim, Germany and delivered to the United States on August 23, 1954. Mercedes-Benz distributor Maximilian E. Hoffman, owner of Hoffman Motor Car Co. (New York City, NY) sold 198 040 4500003 to Briggs Swift Cunningham (Palm Beach, FL) on September 15, 1954.
The 1954 Mercedes-Benz Type 300 SL (W 198) coupe was largely based on of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL (W 194) race car that debuted March 12, 1952. In 1951, Mercedes-Benz reinstituted a sports car racing program, building the 300 SL (W 194) race car featuring a repurposed passenger car engine, innovative space frame, and vertical opening doors. The car was a success on the racetrack capturing many victories including an overall win at the 1952 Le Mans 24 Hours race. Mr. Hoffman, an influential car dealer and distributor in the United States, met with the board of Daimler-Benz AG in 1953 to secure the construction of a production road-going Type 300 SL coupe to sell in the United States. Mr. Hoffman successfully convinced the board and placed a significant order for vehicles, as he believed a road-going Mercedes- Benz sports car would be successful in the growing U.S. car market. Mr. Hoffman’s order was the reason the of the Type 300 SL (W 198) coupe was produced.
A prototype was created based on the meeting with Mr. Hoffman and unveiled by Mercedes-Benz at the New York International Motor Sports Show on February 6, 1954. It was dubbed a “gullwing” by the media and public based on the vertical opening doors required by the race car based space frame chassis. While never officially recognized by Mercedes- Benz, the name remains closely associated with the 300 SL (W 198) coupes and is their primary identifying feature. The New York launch of the Type 300 SL (W 198) coupe marked the first time in the history of Daimler-Benz AG an automobile debuted outside of Europe.
Daimler-Benz AG became the first foreign manufacturer to successfully mass-produce and launch an automobile expressly for the American market. The vast majority of Type 300 SL (W 198) coupes manufactured were sold in the United States. 1,400 Type 300 SL (W198) coupes were built from 1954 to 1957.
198 040 4500003 is the first production Mercedes-Benz Type 300 SL (W 198) coupe that left the Mercedes-Benz factory and the first Type 300 SL (W 198) coupe to be sold in the United States. Its serial number is the third serial number in the production series of Type 300 SL (W 198) coupes. Serial numbers 198 040 4500001 and 198 040 4500002 were completed after 198 040 4500003.
Mr. Cunningham exhibited 198 040 4500003 at the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Concours d’Elegance on September 17, 1954 where the car was awarded first prize in the “Sports” car class. Subsequently, Mr. Cunningham entered 198 040 4500003 in the NASCAR Daytona Beach Speed Week from February 20 to 27, 1955. Famous American race car driver Phil Hill was photographed sitting in 198 040 4500003 with Mr. Cunningham standing next to the car at the event. In the photo, the car features race number A18. The car reportedly did not fully participate in the event due to an engine failure (engine number M198.040 4500007). A replacement engine (engine number M198.040 4500019) was fitted at some point after the event, and the Type 300 SL (W 198) coupe was sold to William Fleming (Westport, CT) in 1955. Mr. Fleming campaigned the car in the 1956 Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) season, finishing third in the national points for that year. Fleming won his class in the 198 040 4500003 at the Mount Equinox Hill Climb on June 17, 1956. Fleming was one of many early adopters of the 300 SL in sports car racing. Mercedes-Benz Type 300 SL (W198) coupes dominated their class in SCCA racing in both 1955 and 1956.
Victor J. Stein (San Carlos, CA) purchased 198 040 4500003 in 1959. Mr. Stein owned the car until February 1972 when he sold it to James Hein and Peter Henning (Darien, CT). Mr. Henning eventually sold out his share to Mr. Hein who owned the car until 2013. Dennis Nicotra (New Haven, CT) purchased the car from Mr. Hein and had it restored in 2014 by HK – Engineering (Polling, Germany). Mr. Nicotra has since exhibited the car at concours d’elegance events around the country. It is currently used for display and exhibition only.