Most of the time when I take my cars for service to Mercedes Benz of Oklahoma city, his car is there, either on display on the showroom floor, or sitting outside the main entrance with engine idling. Have seen it so many times, I don't pay attention any more. Things have changed since yesterday, after I read "Gable's Gullwing" in June 2006 Motor Trend. Suddenly I want to go and spend some time with Gable's car.
By Arthur St. Antoine
"In this business you drive countless cars, most of them interesting and many of them thrilling and some of them unforgettable, but few of them are haunting in the fashion of the car you are sitting in now. It's a landmark machine, for one, a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL "Gullwing" Coupe, ahead of its time, one of the most acclaimed sporting two-seaters ever made, a pristine example from just 1400 produced between 1954 and 1957, a scrapbook trophy even for veterans of the car-testing trade. But this particular 300SL is more than that; much more. This was Gable's car.
To say "Clark Gable" would be redundant; "Gable" is enough. The King of Hollywood. The weatherworn man's man with the pencil moustache who uttered the most immortal line in movie history--"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn"--and then strode away into Hollywood's Olympus. The matinee idol of idols who starred with Jean Harlow in 1932's "Red Dust" and then, in 1953, joined Ava Gardner in the remake "Mogambo"--because, even after 21 years, audiences wanted no one else in the lead role. He sat in this very seat, adjusted these chromed controls, tipped his Kents and his Cuban cigars into this ashtray, grinned with the giddy gratification of owning something wonderful when he twisted the key and this 3.0-liter inline-six thumped to life. This was Gable's car. For today, it's yours.
Only weeks later Gable was gone--the victim, many said, of having overtaxed his hard-living, 59-year-old body by doing his own stunts in that final film ("How do you find your way back in the dark?" asks Monroe's Roslyn Taber at the movie's close. "Just head for that big star straight on," Gable's Gay Langland replies. "It'll take us right home"). Gable's body was laid to rest alongside that of his beloved third wife, actress Carole Lombard, killed in a 1942 plane crash while returning home from a war-bond campaign. Four months later, Gable's widow, Kay, gave birth to his one and only child, son John Clark.
Climbing aboard, you fold your cowboy boots back with your hands to keep from scraping the wide leather door sill (and Gable was an inch taller than you), but once you're seated the cabin is cozy. The dash is a riot of knobs and sliders--all unmarked, so you need to memorize what they do or you'll switch on the lights when you're trying to activate the ventilation fan. Strapped down behind your head is the set of optional fitted leather luggage that Gable ordered for his car (long ago, undoubtedly, the cases kept clean and neatly folded the size 44 Long suits he bought four or five at a time at Brooks Brothers in New York). Above your left leg, near the parking brake, protrudes a tube from engineer Rudolph Uhlenhaut's lightweight welded spaceframe (which blocks the usual passenger-door openings; hence the upward-raising gullwings). You'd normally find such tubes in a race car, of course, but at its heart that's what the Gullwing is, American Mercedes importer Max Hoffman having persuaded the German maker to build a road version of its Le Mans-winning 1952 300SL. The Gullwing weighs just 2850 pounds--and has no air conditioning.
Over the years, the Benz has been restored to perfection--current owner Howard has spiffed up the paint and the engine--but it's just as it was during Gable's lifetime. It was Gable who ditched the standard steel wheels in favor of the racing Rudge knockoffs the car wears now. The only item the star might not recognize is the steering wheel; in place of the standard white rim is an elegant, wood-and-chrome Nardi model. One picture of the car taken during Gable's reign appears to show the Nardi, but it's fuzzy. You trace your fingertips over the wood anyway, in case it was this wheel that decades ago twirled under the hands that once seized Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara by the shoulders while an angry Rhett Butler snarled: "That's what's wrong with you. You should be kissed and often--and by someone who knows how."
This Gullwing is rare and valuable enough that you ask for instructions before touching a thing. The car's handler responds that the engine likes a few seconds of fuel pump before you engage the starter. You oblige with a tug on the appropriate knob, then twist the key. The Gullwing was the world's first production car with a direct-injection four-stroke gas engine, and the inline-six lights off easily and settles into a confident thrum. Gable's car is alive again.
The door above your head is beautifully balanced--it stays raised until you want it closed, then drops with a gentle pull. It's hot in here; no wonder Gable liked to shower three times a day. The fully synchronized four-speed slips easily into first, the clutch releases smoothly, and you're off. You are driving Gable's Gullwing.
Naturally you're tentative at first--nervous, even--but the 300SL is so modern and forgiving in its control responses, you can't help but begin to let it run. It wants to run. Above 3000 rpm, the engine opens up like a floodgate: You're quickly up into third and have to back off hard for a turn; downshifts are sweet and easy, the giant finned drum brakes strong. You're back on the power, the engine growing happier after every climb up the tach. You're sure it could do 140-plus. Easy.
And now the Gullwing is finally beginning to speak to you. Now, it says, you understand why Gable loved it so. You hear the proud mechanical aria that Gable heard, your boots are squeezing the pedals his boots did, your eyes are watching the same instrument needles rise and fall, you're savoring the very engineering excellence the car showered on the movie star. This, you realize, is how it felt to be the King of Hollywood as he drove to work or raced across the desert or challenged a mountain road just for the joy of it. In here, alone in the cockpit of this remarkable automobile, you are just as he was.
Picture and content credits: Motor Trend, Google, MBOKC etc