Mercedes-Benz couldn't have known it at the time. But from the moment the SL300 flashed its novel gullwing doors at the New York auto show of 1954, this sports car began building Mercedes from an American obscurity into the luxury powerhouse it is today.
Mercedes hadn't planned to build street versions of the SL race cars that heralded its triumphant postwar return to motorsports. But after securing a promised order for hundreds of cars from Max Hoffman, the influential New York-based importer who also convinced Porsche and BMW to create sports cars for Americans, Mercedes approved production of the SL.
That coupe, followed by a roadster, became a Hollywood star through associations with celebrities like Clark Gable and Natalie Wood. Movie cameos followed, from the SL's appearance as a race car in Elvis Presley's "Viva Las Vegas" to Grace Kelly driving Frank Sinatra in one in "High Society."
A year ago, a rare alloy-body SL300 Gullwing fetched a record $4.6 million at a Gooding & Co. auction in Arizona. Like Mercedes itself — or Elvis in a jump suit — the modern SL has grown fat, rich and happy. Now sold exclusively as a hardtop convertible, the SLs of today are powerful, technically advanced two-seaters with V-8 or V-12 engines. Yet they are to sports cars as the Vegas Elvis is to rock 'n' roll — a flashy, bulging facsimile, as much about comfortable seats for patrons as about hip-shaking performance.
In other words, the SL is as establishment as it gets. If the message isn't clear, the big Mercedes star on the front drives it home like a silver-plated belt buckle.
Then there's the price: $106,405 to start, rising to $123,445 for the SL550 that I tested.
Entering its sixth generation, the 2013 SL is 2 inches longer and wider than the previous version. Yet even Mercedes has realized that the SL has raided the fridge too many times. Its new aluminum chassis and body - the first mass-produced aluminum structure in Mercedes history — trims 275 pounds compared with the departed model.
That still leaves the SL550's claimed weight at just under 2 tons, about 600 pounds more than, say, a Corvette. Yet this new version actually feels more agile and less ponderous. Thank the aluminum diet, suspension trickery and the sort of overwhelming power once reserved for high-performance AMG editions.
That aluminum structure is a science fair's worth of cast, extruded and sheet pieces; just 10 percent of the car's weight is conventional steel.
The new twin-turbo 4.7-liter V-8 amasses 429 horsepower, up from 382 horses of the bigger, naturally aspirated 5.5-liter in the 2012 model. The bigger gain is in torque, which rises to an almost ridiculous 516 pound-feet, a 32 percent increase. (For full-bore ridiculousness, the SL63 AMG version makes up to 557 horsepower).
Lashed to a discreet-shifting seven-speed automatic transmission, even the base-model SL550 scampers to 60 mph in barely four seconds, on virtual par with last year's SL63 AMG model.
Like one of its main rivals, the BMW 6 Series, the Mercedes feels impervious. This SL's light but strong structure barely quivers over railroad tracks or potholes. Its steering is protected from unwanted intrusions like a hip-hop mogul surrounded by bodyguards. And like a nightclubbing star, the steering rack seems lubricated with a rare, expensive brand of liqueur.
So yes, the SL550 drives as a six-figure, grand-touring convertible should: beautifully. It's too bad the beauty ends there.
Sneak up from the side, as though the SL were a grazing thoroughbred, and this Benz still looks awfully good. The profile is low and lean, with classic long-hood, short-deck proportions.
But to quote Cher Horowitz, the deceptively canny Valley Girl in "Clueless," the SL is a full-on Monet: from far away, it looks all right; up close, it's a big old mess.
Practical concerns drive some of those visual issues. The SL's rear end has thickened over the years, in part to make room for the motorized sandwich of the retracted hardtop. The front end's tall, bluff shape is partly demanded by Europe's pedestrian-safety regulations.
But regulators can't be blamed for the SL's disjointed appearance, especially a front and back that are the design equivalent of a blind date: these two strangers aren't about to get along — especially if the rear end should ask, "Does this composite deck make me look fat?"
The interior is much easier on the eyes, including the test car's sumptuous three-way of red and black leather with black-ash wooden trim. The seats are eye-popping and back-comforting. A stubby metal joystick of a shifter is new.
A standard Harman Kardon sound system nestles enormous 7.9-inch subwoofers inside the footwells, using the enclosures to amplify the bass. Wind buffeting in the cabin is minimal.
The Airscarf system, with headrest fans to warm your neck on chilly top-down days, is standard. The roof opens or closes in less than 20 seconds.
Another $2,500 brings Magic Sky Control, which darkens the clear glass sunroof at the touch of a button. A stop-start system shuts down the engine, to save fuel, when the car is halted. The federal fuel economy rating is 24 mpg on the highway and 16 in town.
Electric power steering, a first on the SL, has a variable ratio, delivering faster response over the first few degrees of steering input. That makes for quicker turn-in when you first crank the wheel and for easier low-speed parking maneuvers.
Adaptive cruise control with pre-collision braking, blind spot monitors and a lane-departure monitor are part of a $2,950 Driver Assistance Package.
Given all the advanced engineering, it's amazing that some simple details slipped Mercedes' attention. For years, critics have complained that it's too easy to confuse the turn-signal stalk with the adjacent cruise-control lever.
This SL fails to remedy the situation. And now a third stalk is wedged onto the column to tilt and telescope the wheel electrically. The three stalks together create a kind of unholy Jenga arrangement.
Some other longtime SL annoyances remain, including triangle-shaped rear side windows that you barely notice — until you return to the parked car to find they've been open for hours, leaving your car vulnerable to thieves. That mistake happens, invariably, when you close the roof and forget to retoggle the window switch after the main glass rises. You'd think Mercedes would discover the wonders of a universal windows-up switch, like the one in Audi cabriolets.
The cup holders are shallow and often powerless against rising G-forces. Hermetically sealed java is in order when a driver treads on the gas. The SL is explosively quick, and the optional Active Body Control ($4,090) pins it to the pavement.
Yet both despite and because of electronic distractions, the SL still doesn't drive like a Porsche or other pure sports cars. The throttle can feel indecisive, granting too little or too much power, the latter upsetting the balance. The Benz feels supersonic over twisty roads, but can also feel as if it weren't fully connected to the pavement. That's largely due to the active steering, which is quick but smothers road feel in pools of digital butter.
None of this will surprise the doctors, athletes and entrepreneurs who choose the SL for what it is: a classic, comfortable roadster that confers instant status.
For such buyers, the SL's irreproachable status has long been a key. I'd say "more power to them," but the SL has that covered as well.