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  Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR Uhlenhaut Coupe

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Country of origin:Germany
Produced in:1955
Numbers built:2
Internal name:W196
Designed by:Karl Wilfert
Author:Wouter Melissen
Last updated:July 26, 2010
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Click here to download printer friendly versionOn May 1st 1955 Stirling Moss and his co-driver, the journalist Denis Jenkinson completed what has gone into history as one of the finest drives ever. Together they won the daunting Mille Miglia rally in a record breaking time of 10 hours, seven minutes and 48 seconds; an average of nearly 98 mph and all this on public roads. This record stands to this day and was the result of Moss' fantastic driving, Jenkinson's pioneering use of pace-notes and of course their exquisite steed; the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR.

The story of the 300 SLR began some three years earlier when Mercedes-Benz returned to racing, shortly after production had recommenced. In the years leading up to the War, the 'Silver Arrow' Grand Prix cars built in Stuttgart were virtually unbeatable. Many of the talented engineers that developed those cars were still employed by Mercedes, so it really was a matter of time before the company picked up racing again. It was a well planned effort, taking in account the modest financial means available.

Dubbed the 300 SL, the first all new racing Mercedes-Benz racing car was built for the 1952 sports car racing scene. Actually it was not all new as it used the running gear and suspension of the top of the range '300' luxury sedan. The existing parts were bolted to a bespoke tubular spaceframe and covered by an elegant two-seater coupe body. Despite its production car roots, the 300 SL was immediately successful winning the 1952 editions of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Carrera PanAmericana.

At the end of the year the 300 SL was retired from racing and further developed into the legendary 'Gullwing' road car. In the mean time the competition department continued their work around the advanced spaceframe. Next on the agenda was a Grand Prix car for the revised Formula 1 regulations of 1954. Dubbed the W196, it combined the spaceframe chassis with a bespoke eight cylinder engine. Piloted by the likes of Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss, the W196 absolutely dominated F1 in 1954.

In 1955 the Mercedes-Benz racing program was further expanded with the 300 SLR sports racer. It was effectively a two-seater version of the W196 and third development of the original spaceframe design. The chassis was not identical to its predecessors though as the 'SLR' used torsion bar springs both front and rear. The suspension was by double wishbones at the front and swing axles at the rear. Just like the W196, it sported in-board mounted drum-brakes on all four 'corners' to lower the unsprung weight.

What really set the 300 SLR apart from its competition was the fantastic W196 derived straight eight engine that was mounted steeply inclined to the right to lower the frontal area. What made it special was the use of both direct Fuel Injection and 'desmodromic' valve actuation. Unlike a conventional setup, which uses a spring to close the valve, a desmodromic system uses the camshaft to open and close the valve. The valve springs are usually the weakest link and without springs the engine could rev considerably higher.

Compared to the W196, the biggest difference was a displacement increase from 2.5 to 3 litre. Unlike the W196 engine, the 300 SLR unit was not cast but constructed from sheets of a silicon and aluminium alloy known as silumin. Depending on the state of tune and fuel used, it produced anywhere from 276 bhp to 340 bhp. All this power was transferred to the rear wheels through a five speed gearbox that was in unit with the final drive. Using this 'transaxle' design moved more of the car's weight to the rear end, creating a better weight balance.

The high-tech rolling chassis was clothed in an open two-seater sports car body. To save weight it was constructed from elektron; an alloy consisting mostly of magnesium. The rear deck doubled as an air brake. The hydraulically operated system helped preserve the brakes and also added some downforce on the rear-end during cornering. The slippery shape of the roadster resulted in an impressive top speed of 300 km/h. Two chassis were fitted with a coupe body but these were never used in competition. One of the coupes did make several appearances in practice sessions at the end of the season. That car was later used on the road by chief engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut.

Mercedes-Benz' successful Grand Prix drivers were given double duty in 1955 as they would also represent the German marque in the World Sports Car Championship. Still preparing the new cars, the German team missed the opening rounds. The SLR's debut came at the Mille Miglia where four cars were entered. Moss and 'Jenks' won the road race a staggering 32 minutes ahead of Juan Manuel Fangio, who amazingly drove solo in his SLR. Hans Hermann and Karl Kling both retired from the race after an accident.

The next round of the championship was the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This race will be forever associated with the 300 SLR as it was Mercedes driver Pierre Levegh that crashed heavily on the main straight. He could not avoid an Austin Healey that swerved to the left to avoid a car entering the pits. The debris from the SLR flew into the grandstands, killing 80 spectators and Levegh. The magnesium body burned for several hours. When news of the magnitude of the disaster reached the Mercedes team, the cars were immediately withdrawn. At the time, the Moss/Fangio entry led by over a lap.

During the final two rounds of the Championship in the fall of 1955, Mercedes-Benz returned to their running ways. At the Tourist Trophy in Dundrod Stirling Moss and John Fitch won handsomely ahead of two other SLRs. Moss won again at the Targa Florio, this time partnered by Peter Collins. They beat Kling and Fangio by four minutes and the third placed Ferrari was a further six minutes behind. Despite missing the first two races and withdrawing from the 24 Hours Le Mans, Mercedes-Benz was crowned World Champion at the end of the year. Fangio again reigned supreme in Formula 1.

The tragedy at Le Mans did cast a grave shadow over Mercedes-Benz successes and eventually led to the company's complete withdrawal from motorsport at the end of 1955. If they hadn't there is little doubt that the total domination would have continued for quite some time as both the W196 and 300 SLR were well ahead of their time. Desmodromic valves have never taken off in production cars while the direct Fuel Injection pioneered in these ground breaking racing engines is now finally being incorporated in road cars. The company's moratorium on international racing lasted for over three decades.

Both Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss have become icons of Mercedes-Benz racing history as has Moss' winning 300 SLR with start number '722.' The two drivers have often demonstrated these amazing cars around the world. In 2003 the SLR name was revived in the form of the front-engined Grand Touring road car that was built by McLaren. Special editions celebrating Moss' victory included the various '722' labelled models and more recently the limited 'Stirling Moss' version with cut down windscreens. Don't be fooled though, these cars are SLRs in name only and don't match the original for cutting edge technology or racing pedigree. Although none of the surviving 300 SLRs are in private hands today, they are considered to be among the most valuable cars in the world.

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