Up the Carretera a El Salvador in a Gullwing

written by Eduardo Linares Batres

1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing CoupeMore than a quarter of a century ago, a pal of mine lucked into acquiring a Mercedes-Benz classic, a used-but-babied 300SL “Gullwing.” To say that this is one of the all-time, absolute greatest cars ever made is, in my opinion, an understatement.

When it was introduced around 1952-3, it was as an all-out race car driven by the likes of Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio “El Chueco,” a five-time world champion, and racing great Stirling Moss. This car beat the daylights out of everything from a Ferrari and Maserati to an Aston Martin and Alfa Romeo—the Lotus, Cooper and Porsche weren’t even players in those days.

A couple of years later Mercedes put out a half-tamed version; the Gullwing nickname came from the way the doors opened, up toward the roof. The bodywork looked so beautifully modern that, even very few cars, if any, can better esthetically express fast and furious power.

A few days after my friend purchased the Gullwing, he took me for a ride up the Carretera a El Salvador, which at that time was a two-lane road. It was around five in the afternoon in the rainy season, but not raining, and the air was crystal clear as can be, and as golden as the sun, falling toward the hills to the west of the Valle de la Asunción, could make it. “Technicolor” doesn’t even begin to describe the beauty of the nuances of such an afternoon.

We passed every car in sight going up the hills—not that in those years there were a lot of cars; on a crowded afternoon, from valley’s bottom to top of the hills, you’d pass perhaps a dozen cars at most. Additionally, around that epoch was the very first time when one could actually choose the music one wanted to hear in a car, instead of having to hear what was coming through the radio.

There were two music-reproduction formats: 8-track cartridges (older) and cassettes (newer); in the couple of days since he’d gotten the car, my pal had put in a cassette tape-deck and, as we raced up the Carretera a El Salvador hills, we were listening to the Beatles’ Back in the U.S.S.R., full blast. Aside from the idiotic lyrics, I still think that its beat and rhythm is the best rock music to pound the road in a very fast car. Another piece, Runnin’ Down a Dream, by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, runs a close second.

A bit after El Mirador—the lookout to the valley—a car appeared right behind us on a curve. It was a race-prepared BMW 2002 Alpina—2002 was the model, not the year. The BMW was going to the racetrack up on the highland for a late tryout, where there was to be a formal race the next day, a Sunday.

Instantly, the race was on, the music became much more syncopated, with the banshee wail of the engines perfectly complementing the rock music, and the colors of the afternoon becoming way more intense.

The Alpina was about 15 years newer than the Gullwing, but that Merc was THE Merc of all time. My friend was a good driver, but much more prudent than the racecar driver in the Beemer. The other guy passed a truck on the wrong side, squeaking through an impossibly narrow slot, and gained the advantage on us. But he couldn’t get away; we stayed on his bumper, at very high speeds, all the way to the entry to Los Volcanes raceway. We went on, while the Beemer went in. The whole time the Beatles were pounding away and Back in the U.S.S.R. kept coming up.

Adrenaline rush? Hedonism? Youth? Magic on an afternoon? I think all four. I’m grateful we survived the experience. And so I’ll close by recalling a quote that seems apropos, “you only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”

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