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Mercedez-Benz 300 SL values are strong as car marks 70th year


The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL W198 has reached the ripe old age of 70. In early February 1954, this exotic new German model was unveiled at the New York International Auto Show where, on a raised plinth designed to tower over its smaller 190 SL sibling, the new car captured the attention of not just the public but also of the motoring press. In among a spectacular group of models that included Bertone’s Alfa Romeo BAT concept and its predecessor, the Abarth 1500 Biposto coupé, the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL was the car that all the feature writers of the day wanted to gush over.

One reason for the adulation was its phenomenal styling, dominated by the feature that has become synonymous with the model: the top-hinged ‘gullwing’ doors created by Rudolf Uhlenhaut as a neat solution to a tubular frame that required a very high sill. But when road-going test machines appeared, the press realised that the car’s good looks were matched by its phenomenal performance.

“The exterior form of the 300 SL is quite wonderful,” wrote Autosport, “and its performance almost unbelievable.” Road & Track agreed: “A comfortable interior, if complemented by remarkably impressive handling characteristics, quite incredible roadholding, light and precise steering, and performance levels which are up there with – and even an improvement on – the best cars the automotive industry has to offer.”

According to the playbook, prices should now start to fall – but a strange thing seems to be happening: average 300 SL prices are continuing to rise

According to the playbook, prices should now start to fall – but a strange thing seems to be happening: average 300 SL prices are continuing to rise

Over the years, there have been other spectacular car launches that dazzled the press – models that enthralled onlookers and entranced young children. Over time, these cars became collectable, and values started to climb. Then, as the decades progressed, those who remembered that initial magic of the launch started to drop away and prices started to fall.

After 70 years, even those kids who were entranced by the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL at launch are now of advanced age. If they were ever going to have enough money to own what has always been an expensive car, the chances are it’s already happened. According to the playbook, prices should now start to fall – but a strange thing seems to be happening: average 300 SL prices are continuing to rise, fast, up from $1.14m to $1.51m in the past two years. In January, Barrett-Jackson sold a 300 SL Gullwing for $3,410,000, a record for a non-alloy-bodied car.

So, what is happening? The aura around the blue-chip Mercedes-Benz models remains strong, thanks to a combination of company investment in its heritage operations and the landmark sale of the 300 SLR Uhlenhaut Coupé, with which the 300 SL shares a great deal of DNA. Plus, the company has been very adept at celebrating its competition roots while still competing at the pinnacle of motor sport.

On the face of it, these factors have made the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL a trend-beater, still attracting new buyers seven decades on from its arrival. But look a little deeper and things aren’t so clear. Recent 300 SL analysis by Hagerty’s John Wiley shows that there are 300 SLs and there are 300 SLs. Looking at repeat sale prices of cars, Wiley identified that those which appear on the market regularly tend to sell for less than the expected Hagerty Price Guide value, and those that have been tucked away in single ownership for a long time tend to achieve an above-average price. The latter, he noted, also tend to be of higher quality, and the price delta between these top cars and lower-quality examples is growing.

I think I understand what’s happened. The people who were blown away by the launch 70 years ago, who gathered enough wealth to buy one, did so at the peak of their earning capability, probably 20 or 30 years ago. They cossetted their ‘forever car’ and kept it, until the 300 SL’s heavy steering and legendary cabin heat became too much for them. Then these cars started being offered for sale. These machines – well maintained, original, with only a few owners from new – are the ones to have, and the new money, it seems, wants the very best.

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