[E-Type] E-type Jaguar vs. Mercedes-Benz 300sl. First-hand Head-to-Head Comparo!

I wrote this comparison in 2005, about a year after I last drove a 300sl. The car in question was a 1957 300sl Roadster. While not as iconic as the coupe (aka “Gullwing”) the roadser was fitted with the performance-tuned cylinder head, and the crazy rear suspension that would swing the coupe around in extreme oversteer was fixed. Roadsters are preferred for “drivers” whereas coupes are coveted by collectors, in general terms of course. My father bought the car because he found one for an amazing “too good to pass up” price in 2001, and subsequently sold it in 2009. He had stopped driving the 300sl around 2007 because it had appreciated so much in value and he is in his late 70s and was terrified of crashing it. In the years that he cared for it, I was privileged to co-drive it in two 1000+ mile vinatge rallies, the Forza Amelia, and the Colorado Grand. In the former we had a “track day” and we actually had the 300sl out on a road course. I would guess that I’ve spent about
600 miles behind the wheel, and as many in the passenger seat of the 300sl.

While nowhere near the time and miles I’ve spent in the E-type, I think it was enough time to summarize the differences between the two and the highlights of the Mercedes-Benz supercar.

… Original Comparison …

Hard to find one of those for under a quarter of a million (worthless US dollars).
Even though they handle like a box car.

I’ve had the pleasure of driving one (a roadster) on both road and track, and I would not characterize the handling in those terms.

Somebody asked me last month to compare driving one vs. an E-type, so I guess no time like the present!

The Mercedes-Benz 300sl is a (slightly) heavy car, but it does handle well for a mid-50’s machine. It truly was state-of-the-art for the era. Having driven both a 300sl and an XK 120 I have to say that in all aspects other than “grunt” the 300sl beats the Jaguar hands-down. I imagine the straight-eight 300SLR that competed with the Jags of the era was tuned for torque since it seemed to keep up with the early XKs. The street version with the inline-six just doesn’t compare to the massive torque of the XK.

But, in terms of ergonomics, build-quality, fit & finish, and overall driving experience, the 300sl embarrasses any Jaguar sports car, even an E-type. The 300sl is a very comfortable machine, with exceptional engineering evident in virtually every aspect of the driving experience. Other than the use of some materials (there is virtually no plastic) you would almost think the 300sl is a “new” car. The seats are comfortable. The controls well laid out. It can accommodate a driver of almost any height. The top is a dream to raise and lower. The top stores away in a very nice, well engineered cover. It wouldn’t even DREAM of leaking a single drop of rain!

I have heard that the Gullwings are not as comfortable due to poor ventilation. (But then again, you hear the same about FHC’s and 2+2 Jags, n’est pas?)

The 300sl is a quiet car, at any speed, until you rev the engine past 4000 rpm, at which point is becomes amazingly loud. Disconcertingly loud to be honest. Additionally you MUST rev it that high in order to roughly approach reasonable Jaguar-like performance from the engine. Unlike the XK, which seems to have unlimited “grunt” in any gear, the 300sl requires forethought, planning, and good driver timing to get the peak out of its drivetrain. The gearbox (at least on the one I drove) seems to be setup for high speed (>110 MPH) cruising in 4th gear, so at more “reasonable” speeds is revs low and can’t deliver that instant “go now” torque for passing without downshifting into 3rd.

The car I drove has a synchro issue in 3rd, which required double clutching and careful throttle blipping to achieve an un-Moss (gearbox, not Stirling) like downshift, so it was never easy to perform an effortless pass.

It handles better than a 50s era Jag, but it cannot compare to an E-type. The E-type goes faster, stops faster, and handles better than a 300sl. I’ve likened driving the XK 120 to driving a “high performance tractor.” While it in no way appears agricultural, its suspension can not handle the engine. Not so an E-type, where Jaguar finally got the suspension and braking right and well-matched to the power-plant. If you were to put the 300sl on that scale it is actually closer to the E than the 120. That is saying a lot, but recall that you could buy four and a half Jaguars for every one 300sl. The amazing thing about Jaguar is how they were able to deliver state-of-the-art for a fraction the cost of the competition. The XKs of the 50s had the best engines imaginable, wrapped up in a gorgeous body. The 300sl gave you engineering of the future, at a price very few could afford.

In terms of styling, the 300sl coupe is instantly recognizable. It is an icon almost as famous and beautiful as the E-type. The E-type however is iconic in both OTS and FHC forms. The 300sl becomes just a nice old Mercedes in a drop-top form once they stopped production of the “Gullwing.” I think “Joe Average” would fail to recognize the fact that a 300sl is a 300sl without the hard top and funny doors. Actually I know it because I’ve observed it first-hand. =)

Any E-type, even a smog-choked one, could beat a 300sl in just about any race. The decade between them produced a leap in performance engineering. While you could “compete” in Vintage track and rally events in a 300sl, it would really be best suited to getting dressed to the nines and going out with a drop-dead gorgeous date. It is (sporting) elegance personified.

The scorecard, 300sl vs. E-type:--------------------------------
Overall Performance: E-type
Handling: E-type
Accelleration: E-type
Braking: E-type
Comfort: 300sl
Weatherproofing: 300sl
Ergonomics: 300sl
Build quality: 300sl

Style: Close call.
The E-type is more beautiful, but the 300sl is more elegant.

The above is all just my opinion, so take that for what it is worth.
And yes, I know I am a lucky bastard. :wink:

With a few more years to ruminate on it, I’d have to say that the 300sl certainly deserves it’s supercar/cult status. It was an amazing achievement in engineering, style, performance, and build quality. Literally ahead of it’s time (much like the E-type, but seven years earlier than the Jaguar.) Also like the E-type it was outclassed by the end of it’s manufacturing run in terms of performance, but never in terms of the original design.

The 300sl truly is one of those cars you should drive before your own motor seizes and you head off to that big pick-a-part in the sky. If only to appreciate how close to perfection the Mercedes engineers came back in 1954.

–chuck goolsbee
65ots, 1E10715
arlington, wa, usa

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