It’s a summer evening to dream of.
The latter two represent the crème de la crème of the mid-’60s, the first is a superstar of the ’50s, and we’ve already covered many road miles in all three to get to the circuit, thanks to a generous collector who thought it was time his showpieces stretched their legs.
In the 1960s, a 300SL would never have been subjected to a comparison with a 275GTB and a DB5.
It had been out of production for half a decade by the time those two direct competitors came on to the market, but today the cards are stacked rather differently.
All three of these cars are now blue-chip exotics, and their dates of birth hardly matter to an enthusiast who can easily shell out a million or more for a classic toy.
The more pertinent question is which of the three appeals most as a driving machine.
With great memories of an epic Gullwing road trip years ago still fresh in the mind, I don’t hesitate when asked which car I want to drive first.
Getting into this 1954 300SL feels very familiar, but I’d forgotten how huge the steering wheel is – at a lap-encroaching 42cm diameter.
The cockpit is cosy: the Mercedes is the widest of our three cars, but interior space is restricted by the high, wide sills needed to accommodate the 300SL’s tubular spaceframe construction.
The doors that give the Gullwing its name open all the way up, and once inside you’re faced with a fantastic dashboard, packed with chrome-rimmed VDO dials fronted by a rev counter that reads to 8000rpm, although the recommended maximum is 6400.
The speedometer reaches a formidable 180mph, even if the highest theoretical speed is 163mph.
A metal strip runs the width of the dashboard, containing the slider controls for ventilation and heating, plus a row of rotary switches and pushbuttons without any indication of which functions they control.
As those famous doors clank shut you feel like a pilot in a historic fighter plane, with the solid hinges directly above your head and the small quarterlights providing minimal ventilation.
The 300SL is a car that very quickly gets warm inside, so fortunately the side windows can be completely removed and stored behind the seats.
There’s room for a custom luggage set on the rear shelf, which you’ll need because the boot is almost entirely taken up by the spare wheel and a massive 100-litre fuel tank.
Today, the 300SL stands as a symbol of the tremendous resilience of German industry after WW2.
The still-recovering Mercedes-Benz decided to return to motorsport in 1951, but was not yet financially ready to dominate Grand Prix racing in the way it had in the 1930s, so instead opted for sports cars.
Development chief Rudolf Uhlenhaut mated a lightweight tubular spaceframe chassis to a modified version of the powertrain from the big 300S saloon, wrapped in a not particularly appetising but very slippery body.
Compared to the competition, this first 300SL was not particularly powerful, with around 170bhp, but it made up for it with its aerodynamics and reliability.
The car brought the marque resounding victories in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Carrera Panamericana in 1952, swiftly followed by a clamour from American importer Max Hoffman, among others, to come up with a production version.
The result was the iconic W198 Gullwing, with a shape that was far prettier but rather less aerodynamically efficient than the racer’s.
The technology of the 300SL is a curious mix of old and new.
For budgetary reasons, the front and rear axles of the 300S were used, along with its straight-six motor and four-speed ’box, albeit with different ratios.
The biggest innovations, however, came under the bonnet where the 3-litre unit was canted over to keep the frontal area as small as possible, dry-sumped and given newfangled mechanical fuel injection, long before it became commonplace.
Daimler-Benz had gained considerable experience with direct injection for aircraft engines during the war – the Heinkel He 100 fighter’s DB601 inverted V12 had delivered up to a monstrous 2730bhp – and a special cylinder head was created to employ the new system, jointly developed with Bosch.
Mercedes had tested its 3-litre unit with carburettors, making 185bhp on Webers, but with injection it immediately made a big leap towards the 240bhp claimed for production.
As soon as the straight-six catches, you can tell that in this form it was not developed for motorsport.
It sounds muscular, but the soundtrack is more muted than melodic, responding well to the throttle but only really starting to pull with vigour above 2000rpm.
Spinning up and down the rev range is not its forte: this engine is not an nimble and nippy athlete, but more of a powerlifter – albeit one that is at the very top of its game.
At the time, Mercedes-Benz claimed acceleration from 0-62mph in 7.6 secs, which is credible with only one gearchange needed to get there.
Engine aside, the Mercedes lives up to its Sport Leicht name: that spaceframe weighs just 82kg, and at 1295kg the SL is considerably lighter than the Aston Martin, whose 1468kg heft seems to argue with the ‘Superleggera’ tag that adorns its bonnet.
Despite that, the 300SL responds languidly to the wheel.
Turn in and it rolls a touch on its suspension before obeying your command.
The pedal positioning makes it virtually impossible to heel-and-toe, and the Benz is the only one of our trio to do without disc brakes, instead sporting large aluminium drums.
They are servo-assisted, but still demand a hefty shove to quickly shed speed.
The SL is also the only car here equipped with swing-axles at the rear – again borrowed from the 300S.
They give a degree of independence compared to a rigid rear axle, the disadvantage being that the track width varies during vertical movements of the body, forcing the wheels into an inclined position and reducing the tyres’ contact patch – leading to severe oversteer in extremis.
Mercedes’ engineers did their best to reduce this trait by carefully matching the large coil springs and dampers, and adding an anti-roll bar at the front.
Travelling two-up with luggage and a full tank of fuel on board, the rear feels pretty stable.
Solo around Zandvoort at high speed, however, just a slight lift of the throttle is enough to feel an uneasiness behind you, and you instinctively know this is a car that must be handled with care – not least because the steering is too heavy for a quick dab of opposite lock.
Nevertheless, through the famous circuit’s recently revamped corners the straight-six demonstrates a brutal work ethic.
It feels fantastic to dive into the bowl of Arie Luyendyk, level the throttle and feel the Mercedes being pressed into its springs as it storms to the end of Zandvoort Straight in full voice.
There is plenty to enjoy about the SL on a track, as long as you employ plenty of anticipation and refrain from abrupt steering movements and load changes.
Like the Mercedes, the DB5 is a beautiful car, in this case a quintessentially English GT whose appeal extends far beyond the classic world after being immortalised by its role in the James Bond films.
The narrowest and the heaviest of the three, despite Carrozzeria Touring’s famed ‘super-light’ construction, its mighty straight-six, fed by three sturdy SUs, has an extra litre of displacement and trumps the SL with 67bhp more power.
It’s also the obvious choice if practicality is a consideration. The DB5 has a rear seat on which you can stow your luggage – or your friends – and there is a decent boot despite the fact that the spare wheel is located there. Its 86-litre fuel tank can be filled on either side, too, which comes in handy at the pumps.
Built in 1965, ‘our’ DB5 welcomes its drivers with at least as much ceremony as the 300SL.
The tactile, wood-rimmed, three-spoke steering wheel fronts a grille-shaped dash boasting an arsenal of Smiths and Lucas instrumentation.
You can easily get in and out, the cabin is light and uncluttered, and the slimmer nose makes the car easier to place on the road.
It’s a completely different machine to drive, feeling a lot lighter – which it isn’t – and more effortless to pedal quickly.
The clutch is similarly weighty, but the ZF five-speed gearbox shifts so sweetly and precisely that it must have been a revelation compared to the rather obstreperous four-speed David Brown unit it replaced.
The Aston Martin gives you an excellent sense of what’s going on underneath, its more traditional set-up of double wishbones up front and a well-located live rear axle inspiring instant familiarity.
The Tadek Marek-designed 4-litre twin-cam ‘six’, too, is full of surprises. Initial impressions are of a smooth and civilised unit, but if you push your foot to the floor, it takes a deep breath and past 3000rpm offers a knockout punch – enough to keep even the flyweight Ferrari in its sights.
Around Zandvoort, the DB5 communicates clearly what the suspension and tyres are doing and doesn’t overreact to fast direction changes.
The steering is sweetly sensitive and the servo-assisted Girling disc brakes have the instant bite you miss in the Benz.
This is the consummate long-distance GT yet, alongside the Mercedes, the DB5 feels downright frisky: it’s agile, reacts quickly and can be driven with more precision – and less fear of repercussions – than the more complex German.
It would be churlish to argue that the Ferrari 275GTB is anything other than a fabulous machine, but to my eyes it’s the least attractive of our trio.
It’s often referred to as Pininfarina’s masterpiece, but that does a disservice to the 250GT SWB, GTO and Lusso that came before it, with the 275’s muscular and slightly too-tall sides giving a certain clumsiness that makes its roof look low and its wheels appear too small.
It’s possible that Enzo Ferrari was not completely satisfied with the 275GTB, either, because production was halted after four years.
When Il Commendatore saw an – unsolicited – design for a potential successor, he immediately gave the go-ahead to develop it for production.
That car became the 365GTB/4, better known as the Daytona, and its shape came from the pen of Leonardo Fioravanti, then working for Pininfarina, who had embarked on the design as an evening project after being unhappy with the appearance of the 275GTB.
Nevertheless, it remains an imposing and impressive sight as it looms in your mirrors coming out of Zandvoort’s twists and turns, like a hungry predator baring its teeth as it slowly but surely reels you in.
The snug interior of the Ferrari comes as a bit of a disappointment after the 300SL and DB5: simple and functional, it gives the appearance of an expensive Fiat rather than a glamorous super-GT.
The Veglia instruments make some impressive promises, however: the speedometer reaches a heady 300kph (186mph) and the rev counter is redlined at 7600rpm.
That focus on performance continues as you settle into bucket seats that give more support than their rivals, and look out over the long bonnet that stretches away above the elegant, wood-rimmed steering wheel with its evocative yellow-and-black logo.
Behind your back there is only a parcel shelf, and a large proportion of the boot is occupied by the spare wheel and tool roll.
The real magic of the 275GTB is to be found under the skin, because this was the first series-produced roadgoing Ferrari with independent rear suspension.
It is also the only car here to have a transaxle transmission to improve weight distribution, counteracting the heft of the 3.3-litre V12 up front.
Fed by three twin-choke Weber carbs, it produces a fraction less power than the Aston, at 276bhp, and the unusually oversquare unit can’t even better the Mercedes in its torque output: this is an engine that thrives on revs.
To improve performance, in 1966 Maranello introduced the 275GTB/4 with quad overhead camshafts, six Webers and an extra 20bhp. Even in two-cam form this is a spectacular engine.
Once the warm-blooded and symphonic sound of the V12 hits your ears, you know you’re in for something special.
Moving the gearlever through the classic open gate is a bit stiff, confirming that you are driving a large-calibre machine, but the pedals are perfectly positioned for heel-and-toe shifts and the engine’s flexibility belies those on-paper figures.
It calmly accepts low revs when necessary, but always prefers to behave like the Italian thoroughbred it is in heart and soul.
Bury the throttle and the V12 will treat you to one of the finest automotive soundtracks, accompanied by a shove in the back that keeps on coming all the way to the redline.
The steering is unexpectedly low-geared, but the Ferrari turns in eagerly and with real precision.
Its independent rear end and Michelin XWXs will accept you piling on the power out of the faster bends of the Zandvoort track – this is a car that immediately gives you the confidence to drive very quickly.
On the road, there is little to separate the DB5 and the 275: the Ferrari is a car born to pound the autostradas of northern Italy or the wide, open country roads of the Mille Miglia.
But on the track the GTB soon shows itself to be far superior when the going gets twisty, its significant weight advantage and higher rev range giving you more flexibility.
Returning to our hypothetical wealthy collector and their buying dilemma, which of this trio to recommend?
Despite its lower weight, the Italian car feels heavier and less fleet of foot than the DB5.
The Aston Martin comes from an era when Britain was not yet criss-crossed by today’s web of motorways, when long distances were covered on two-lane roads through a wide variety of landscapes. This kind of winding asphalt ribbon remains the perfect place to demonstrate its talent for speed.
In contrast, the Ferrari feels like a more brutal machine, one that sees the road as a reluctant opponent which must be forced into submission.
That the Mercedes is outgunned on the race track comes as no surprise, yet it deserves to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with its younger rivals – after all, this was what Road & Track called: ‘The sports car of the future.’
It’s also a machine whose enormous personality offers the greatest sense of theatre from behind the wheel, and one whose shape is impossible to take your eyes off.
There is no fault on the 300SL; no line, no curve or surface could have been drawn better.
It demands the utmost commitment and skill from its driver, but rewards with enormous satisfaction.
All three are stars, but it’s the three-pointed star that shines brightest.
Images: Luuk van Kaathoven/Onno Blaauw
Aston Martin DB5
- Sold/number built 1963-’65/1059 (including 123 convertibles)
- Construction steel platform chassis, aluminium body over tubular steel frame
- Engine all-alloy, dohc 3995cc straight-six with triple SU carburettors (Webers on Vantage models)
- Max power 282bhp @ 5500rpm
- Max torque 280lb ft @ 4500rpm
- Transmission ZF five-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by double wishbones, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar rear live axle, trailing arms, Watt linkage, adjustable lever-arm dampers; coil springs f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs, with servo
- Length 15ft (4570mm)
- Width 5ft 6in (1676mm)
- Height 4ft 5in (1346mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 2in (2489mm)
- Weight 3236lb (1468kg)
- 0-60mph 8.1 secs
- Top speed 142mph
- Mpg 14.7
- Price new £4048
- Price now £500,000-1m*
- Sold/number built 1954-’57/1400
- Construction tubular steel spaceframe, steel and aluminium body
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, sohc 2996cc 45º slant-six, Bosch mechanical fuel injection
- Max power 240bhp @ 6100rpm
- Max torque 217lb ft @ 4800rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones, anti-roll bar rear swing axles; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering recirculating ball
- Brakes Alfin drums, with servo
- Length 15ft (4572mm)
- Width 5ft 10½in (1791mm)
- Height 4ft 3¼in (1302mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 10½in (2400mm)
- Weight 2855lb (1295kg)
- 0-60mph 8.8 secs
- Top speed 154mph
- Mpg 21
- Price new £4393
- Price now £1-1.5m*
- Sold/number built 1964-’66/c450
- Construction steel body, tubular steel chassis
- Engine all-aluminium, sohc-per-bank 3285cc 60º V12, three twin-choke Weber carburettors
- Max power 276bhp @ 7600rpm
- Max torque 217Ib ft @ 5000rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual transaxle, RWD
- Suspension independent, by unequal-length wishbones, coil-over dampers, anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering worm and roller
- Brakes discs, with servo
- Length 14ft 2¼in (4325mm)
- Width 5ft 8in (1725mm)
- Height 4ft 1in (1245mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 10½in (2398mm)
- Weight 2734lb (1240kg)
- 0-60mph 6 secs
- Top speed 160mph
- Mpg 12
- Price new £5590
- Price now £1.3-2m*
*Prices correct at date of original publication