It can easily be said that the automobile is the most important sculpture of our time. It sure is the most prevalent everywhere. Over the years, notable cars have become design icons and emotional objects. One of these is the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL.
Afghan-American photographer and director Daniel Malkiar interpreted the 1950s masterpiece in an art project commissioned by Mercedes-Benz. The photo series, accompanied by a short film, evokes the unforgettable aura of these machines in stillness and motion. Although Malkiar is only 27 years old, he is no stranger to vintage cars. When asked what the 300 SL he finds particularly appealing, the photographer explained, “Growing up, my dad drove an ’86 E 300. There was just something about the feel, smell, and sound of that car that connected me with a Mercedes-Benz. Paying respect for the 300 SL was icing on the cake. satisfactorily.”
There is no doubt that the 300 SL is fun to look at. The “Gullwing” coupe was built from 1954 to 1957, and featured a bright 3.0-liter inline-six that produced around 215 horsepower in street style. It used 12 liters of oil and fuel ingested through mechanical fuel injection from Bosch – a system as complex as any invented at the time. In fact, the entire car was a rolling test of the future. Its tubular structure was as intricate as the Eiffel Tower, draped in a sensual structure informally named for its doors that spread upward like wings. However, getting in, out and driving can be quite a challenge, especially on warm days, when the side windows cannot be lowered, and without air conditioning, things get warm inside.
Mercedes-Benz built 1,400 models of the 300 SL Coupe over four years before switching to convertibles in 1957, making 1,858 models of those during 1963 (with three special orders completed in 1964). More user-friendly than its “Gullwing” counterpart, the Roadster drives like a much newer car, and it just might be the most modern and fun classic car from that era. In either version, reliability and build quality are key features that have kept model variants at the top of collectors’ wish lists for decades. The number available in the market at any time is sufficient to keep interest alive. The only barrier to entry is price, and the cost of a full rollback can easily creep towards seven figures.
The photographer did not lose the value of the 300 SL, not to mention three of them. That’s because when Mercedes-Benz commissioned Malchiar to photograph a trio of them on public streets, the cars arrived from the Mercedes Classic Center in Irvine, California, on a tanker, accompanied by three professional drivers, a full file of street closure permits and law enforcement personnel to ensure safety and drive with caution – but without restrictions -. Those were the 1954 “Gullwing” in light blue metallic, the 1955 in white, and the 1963 Roadster in black.
It’s rare to see a single 300 SL on a concours park. Seeing a trio driving in an idyllic setting is an order from another world. “This project was a really crazy experience,” Malkiar says. “Mercedes only made 1400 Gullwings, so having two of them with a roadster pulling the aft along the empty Malibu coast at sunset was a fantasy.” So what is the ideal environment – and road – for a car like this? “My intention was to make the dream ride in SL, one that includes beautiful scenery with no one on the way.” says the photographer. “Locations were carefully explored, and road closures allowed us to evoke the sheer driving feeling of Sunday, 60 years ago, while capturing the soul of the car . . . the spirit of the brand.”
As a static body, the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL certainly inspires, but when it becomes a kinetic sculpture, enhanced by the sounds and smells of internal combustion, it spreads its wings and comes alive. “My goal every time is to capture a car quickly. You can represent how the car feels better when you do what you do best,” says Malkiar, who acknowledges that freezing his subject while in motion in photos is very different from photographing him when he is still — on the tarmac or in the lawn. “It’s also more technically more difficult. You have to shoot at slower shutter speeds, and veer off a moving chase car. I focus on the details, and that requires a lot of precise aiming. It’s more satisfying too.”
But the advantages of still photography have been fully exploited with the 300 SL project as well. Malkiar explained, “When you shoot cars, it gives the photographer absolute control, doing things you couldn’t do while in motion. Still photos allow you to take photos of the car perfectly.”
Despite the images, Malkiar produced an interesting video documenting the moving vehicles, as well as showing behind-the-scenes footage of the photographer during filming. The photographs will be released as fine art prints available exclusively through Santo Gallery in Los Angeles.