by: COURTESY PHOTO - Mercedes-
Benz's gullwing
icon started as a
race car before
it hit the road.
On July 15, the
car that won Le
Mans will visit
Forest Grove.
A fabled 1952 Mercedes-Benz will be a centerpiece of the annual classic car show on July 15

It's not hard to see why the 1952 Mercedes-Benz W194 300SL was picked for the poster for the 40th annual Forest Grove Concours d'Elegance, which celebrates the fabled German automaker. It's not just one of the most impressive Mercedes in the world. It's also one of the most significant automobiles ever built by any manufacturer.

Anyone who sees the car, which will be one of 300 cars on display at the July 15 show, will appreciate its classic style. But for car buffs, this particular Mercedes is extra special.

"This is one of the most historic Mercedes-Benz automobiles in the world," said Allen Stephens Jr., president of Portland's Mercedes-Benz Club of America. "We are very fortunate to have this incredible automobile as the centerpiece of the Mercedes-Benz display at the Forest Grove Concours."

The specific car coming to the show won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1952 heralding Mercedes' triumphant post-war return to sports car racing.

The W194s and the other 300 SL's campaigned that year included distinctive gullwing doors and other features that inspired the road-going "Gullwing" 300SL's produced from 1955 to 1957 - a true automotive icon that Mercedes recreated with the glamorous SLS AMG in 2009.

"With its tubular space frame, gullwing doors and lightweight construction, its design was way ahead of its time," said Stephens, whose father, Al, helped launch the Forest Grove car show, now one of the most prestigious on the West Coast, 40 years ago. 

Those are among the reasons why the 1952 300SL is the obvious choice to promote the 2012 show, which honors Mercedes as its featured marque. The exhibition is scheduled to include a special display showcasing 60 years of the SL, beginning with the 1952 race car and including every generation from then up to the all-new 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550, which will also be featured.

The 1952 300SL is entered by noted collectors Bruce and Jolene McCaw of Seattle. The car could easily have been lost for all time, a fate that befell far too many important race cars from that era.

Instead, the 300 SL has been meticulously restored to the specifications that won Le Mans, its most significant configuration.

Created as Chassis 194/07, it was the first of the second group of Type 194 cars constructed by Mercedes in the late spring of 1952 for use in the Le Mans race for that year. SL stands for "Sport Leicht" (Sport Light), the first use of the designation that continues to this day.

The six-cylinder engine that powered the type 300 was modified into a new racing engine with a new cylinder head and triple Solex downdraft carburetors. A lightweight but strong tubular frame was designed and an aluminum body was built that required twin doors hinged at the top. The engine was canted at a 50-degree angle to the right, allowing a lower hood line. The result was graceful masterpiece that also allowed the driver more comfort than other contemporary designs.

On the weekend of June 14 and 15, driven by the team of Hermann Lang and Fritz Riess, the car won Le Mans, the first victory in the legendary race for Mercedes. For the subsequent Nurburgring race, it was modified into a roadster and also finished first with Lang driving. The car was later shipped to Mexico, where it served as a practice and promotional car for the Carrera Panamerica.

The 1952 cars so impressed fabled American automobile importer Max Hoffman that he persuaded Mercedes to build a road version. The company responded in 1954 with the striking 300SL two-seat sport cars, complete with the distinctive gullwing doors. Intended for the booming post-war American market, it was introduced at the 1954 New York Auto Show, unlike previous models that were introduced at either the Frankfurt or Geneva shows. Changes included the first direct fuel injection system ever offered on a four-stroke engine. The fastest production cars of their day, they were sold only as roadsters from 1958 to 1963, when they were succeeded by the 230SL.

Following the Carrera event, the car returned to Stuttgart, where it was given to one of the Mercedes directors as a personal vehicle. The conversion involved replacing the original body with an alloy gullwing version and swapping the carburated Type 194 engine with an injected motor. The car eventually was sold to private ownership, and was owned and used for many years by photographer Jesse Alexander.

The car was finally purchased by Bruce McCaw (who, with his brother Craig, pioneered the cell-phone industry) and sent to Mercedes Benz Classic Center in Fellbach for restoration back to its original W194 configuration. The original frame and suspension were carefully restored and a new body was constructed to original specifications. Engine #194/21 - the only known original type 194 engine in private ownership - was obtained. All evidence suggests it is the actual engine run in the car at Le Mans. It was reunited with its original chassis, and the car was finished in authentic Le Mans livery.

The McCaws agreed to display their important 1952 Mercedes-Benz W194 300SL at the 40th annual Forest Grove Concours d'Elegance. It is one of only two W194 autos owned outside of the Mercedes Museum, the other being chassis 194/06 (the "Airbrake" car), which they also own.

Several local car enthusiasts worked to obtain the car for the Forest Grove show. One was Keith Martin, publisher of Sports Car Market and American Car Collector magazines.

Martin is the emcee of this year's show and has been helping with the planning. Martin personally reached out to Bruce McCaw and secured his commitment to display the 1952 300SL W194 at the Concours this year. Robert Ames, another local car collector, also knows McCaaw and has worked to bring cars from his collection to Forest Grove in the past, including the historic 1929 Bentley affectionately known as "Old Number One."