The Fate of a 300 SL Roadster That Swept a Princess Off Her Feet

Story by Massimo Deblò • Photography by Dirk de Jager

Every now and then, a coincidence arises that is so uncanny, so unlikely, that it seems preordained. Was fate pulling the strings all along, nudging you along a predetermined path?

Certain cars seem to have destinies of their own, like this Mercedes-Benz 300 SL roadster. It may seem like just another beautiful car with fine details and an interesting mechanical layout. But pry into its ownership history and origins, and it’s clear that this machine was meant for big things. 

Once Upon a Time

It was 1952, a stellar year for Mercedes-Benz in motorsports. The factory’s “Gullwing” 300 SL racing effort had just endured Mexico’s grueling Carrera Panamericana and grabbed yet another title, but already the competition department was turning its attention to the next racing season. 

A new version of the 300 SL was under development, featuring a more aerodynamic body, a more powerful engine, and deDion rear suspension.

But the project was shelved. 

Rising development costs for F1 competition caused the board to shut down its program for sports car racing. To make use of those seemingly outdated 300 SL race cars, Mercedes-Benz decided to send them on some promotional tours. In September 1953, one was sent to a parade held during a race weekend near Bridgehampton, Long Island.

The car had a very special parade driver: Max Hoffmann, the East Coast importer for Mercedes-Benz since 1952. Hoffmann, who is still credited for introducing the United States to European exotics, immediately understood how well the car could sell in America. He went to Mercedes-Benz with an unexpected request: Make a street version of the 300 SL. 

He quickly placed an order, put down a deposit to show that he was serious, and waited for the cars. Mercedes technicians rushed to begin the challenging task of turning a capable race car into something that could cruise to the grocery store–oh, and pound around a race track on the weekends. The planned upgrades for the shelved 300 SL race car no doubt helped them make improvements.

In May 1954, the street-legal version of the 300 SL–project No. W198, better known as the Gullwing coupe–entered production. It immediately became a legend. 

Inspired by the car’s strong sales, Max Hoffmann spotted another lucrative opportunity. He went back to Stuttgart only five months later with another request: Make a convertible version of the 300 SL.

If the racers are buying the coupe, Hoffman reasoned, then the more sedate drivers will prefer the convertible. As a result, the open version had to be more refined and feature smoother handling, especially for those Southern California coastal cruises.

To fulfill this request, the Mercedes-Benz board assigned chassis No. 9 of the 1952 racing 300 SL, an open-top version, to Hans Rottweiler, named manager of the future project department. His team would deal with the technical issues, while the company stylist Freidrich Geiger would handle the aesthetic challenges. 

Even though the resulting roadster looked like a cut-down coupe, that was far from the complete story. The two models had a slew of unshared features, including their hoods, their lights, the sides of their fenders, and even the curves of their trunk lids.

The roadster immediately became another sales success. When 300 SL roadster production finally ended in 1963, Mercedes-Benz had produced 1858 examples. Coupe production ended in 1957 after only 1400 units were built. 

Chasing the Spotlight

One of these roadsters is the car featured on these pages. It was the 224th example built, and its date of birth is May 16, 1958.

This example was delivered new in Sindelfingen, which means it was collected directly from the end of the production line. The owner paid a considerable amount for the privilege: 32,500 Deutsche Mark.  

Its owner was something of a VIP: Patricia Anne “Honeychile” Wilder, later known as Princess Patricia zu Hohenlohe of Mittersill, Austria.

Patricia Anne Wilder was born in Macon, Georgia, in September 1913, even if she’d always claim that her birth year was 1918. She grew up with 12 brothers and sisters. When she was still a teenager, she decided to take the reins of her destiny and move to New York City. She was a vivacious, beautiful young girl. 

A few days after her arrival in New York, she sampled the stage as a showgirl and immediately discovered that she was born for the limelight. She soon became a Broadway celebrity, and even if she always kept her strong Southern accent, she was always able to transform herself into a British lady, a New York girl, or whatever the script demanded. One of her most successful roles was as “Honeychile” in a Bob Hope show, and that nickname remained with her for the rest of her life.

Whirlwind Romances

In 1936, Patricia moved to Los Angeles to act in Hope’s movies and appear on radio shows. Her star didn’t burn as brightly as she’d hoped, and after working in a handful of films, she retired from the silver screen in 1938. 

Even if she never became a household name, she had romances with a few–Clark Gable and Tyrone Power included. Meanwhile, she became a leading New York City socialite, a femme fatale, and even an international hostess. Millionaires and famous artists befriended her, even if their wives weren’t very happy about it. Honeychile had her own namesake drink at 21, the famed New York club, plus reserved tables at El Morocco and the Colony. 

In 1941 she went bankrupt, but she finally married somebody capable of bankrolling her lavish lifestyle: Argentinian millionaire and beef baron Alberto Cernadas. They traveled the world together, and in 1949 they visited the Kingdom of Egypt. Just after the war, this was the place where millionaires would meet–away from home and from the destruction of Europe. 

While in an Egyptian nightclub, Patricia met a freshly divorced King Farouk, and immediately they were both smitten. The Egyptian king eventually remarried–someone else, we should note–prompting Patricia to divorce her Argentinian husband and return to her role as a leading figure in European and American society. 

Soon after, she found her next husband. His Highness Prince Alexander Konrad Maria zu Hohenlohe-Waldenburg-Schillingsfurst, age 33, was part owner of an exclusive Austrian Alpine skiing resort, Schloss Mittersill. They got married in 1951, moved back to Europe, and embarked on a life surrounded by a who’s who of the era’s royals and jet setters. 

Naturally, Honeychile needed a car with status to match, so she chose what was considered the best car at the time: the 300 SL roadster. She traveled Europe in the car before selling it in 1971.

Must Have Been Fate

The car must have been destined to travel, since its next owner was also quite worldly. Mr. Jones was an American living in Zurich; when he moved back to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1984, he took the car with him. 

In 2003 he sent the car back to Europe to the Kienle Automobiltechnik, a classic Mercedes-Benz specialist. The ocean crossings would continue, as Mr. Jones relocated to Malaga, Spain, in 2008. The 300 SL went with him. 

In 2009, after 38 years together, he sold the car to the third owner who, in 2012, sold it to Tonnie van der Velden from the Netherlands. “I bought it because I fell in love with its history,” says Tonnie. The car was largely original, ran perfectly, and easily sucked up the miles. “I used it almost as an everyday car for a while,” he says. Only once did it leave him stranded–from an oil cooler leak. 

Tonnie is new to the classic car world, but he got hooked when his brother bought a 300 SL. “I loved the 300 SL,” he says, “and after a while I decided to go looking for one for myself. 

“When I saw this one for the first time, it belonged to a friend,” he recalls. The price was a little too high, so he walked away. 

And then destiny kicked in–and he started dating a girl. “When I discovered that her surname was Wilder, I got curious and discovered that she was a relative of the first owner of the car.” The 300 SL was still for sale, so he bought it.

While many stories begin with “Once upon a time, there was a princess,” in this case both the princess and her Mercedes were real. And the car is now living happily ever after.

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12/1/20 5:08 p.m.

IMO, The 300SL development race car was equipped with a low pivot point rear axel, not the de doin as you stated.

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