The Masterpiece Known as Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR (W196S)
It is indeed rare when cars are remembered as ‘mechanical masterpieces’ and record-breaking machines way ahead of their times. However, it is even more rare to find cars that are known for their performance and at the same time have the unfortunate distinction of being some of the most tragic cars ever produced. One such incredible, yet tragic automobile is the Mercedes Benz supercar of the fifties, Rudolf Uhlenhaut’s masterpiece and 60-year-old Mille Miglia record-holder, the 1955 W196S 300 SLR.
Mercedes Benz 300 SLR was the pinnacle of German engineering
Born as a hybrid of the iconic 300SL and the equally famous 1954 Formula 1 Silver Arrow, the 300 SLR was destined to be a star from the start. Its engineer, Rudolf Uhlenhaut, decided to build the 300 SLR using a light but stable tubular frame. The inline eight engine was sourced from the F1 car, but the displacement of the new engine was increased from 2.5l to 3.0l, delivering as much as 300 horsepower to its rear wheels.
One of the features that put this machine way ahead of its time was the emergency anti-lock braking aid used by injecting oil onto the surface of the brakes. However, it was not the only car to have this feature: the 1955 Le Mans saw a hydraulic pump-operated air brake fitted to the rear of the car way before modern supercars had such a setup in them.
A personal 300 SLR jet for Rudolf Uhlenhaut
A total of nine W196S chassis were built, with two of them converted to hybrids of the 300 SLR and 300 SL coupé. After the 1955 Le Mans disaster, Rudolf Uhlenhaut kept one of them as his personal car. This Uhlenhaut’s bespoke machine featured gullwing doors similar to the ones of the famous road-going sports car, with the rest of the bodywork being more similar to the 300 SLR. At the time, it was the fastest road-going car in the world, with a top speed close to 290 km/h.
1955 – a glorious season that ended in disaster
The Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR was planned to be introduced in 1954, but wasn’t ready until 1955. It was subjected to a series of demanding challenges, testing its durability for endurance racing, and only when the engine, bodywork, mechanics, and chassis proved to be unbreakable, 300 SLR was deemed ready for all challenges. It missed the first two races of the 1955 World Sportscar Championship season, but quickly rose to fame when the 25-year-old Briton Stirling Moss started the 1955 Mille Miglia at 7:22AM, finishing it in 10 hours and 7 minutes.
Accompanied by a journalist named Denis Jenkinson, Moss won the race and broke the all-time race record. Their Mille Miglia win was notable for the pioneering use of pacenotes, Jenkinson’s invention and a solid contribution to the world of racing. As Mille Miglia was cancelled in 1957 after a deadly crash of Alfonso de Potrago, the 1955 record stands to this day.
A month later in Le Mans, one 300 SLR was involved in the most tragic disaster in the history of racing, thus ending the Mercedes-Benz racing program. The car won two more races, the RAC Trophy and Targa Florio, both with Stirling Moss behind the wheel, but the 1955 Le Mans disaster ultimately sent it to history. Sadly, its full potential was never reached, but due to its success in the sole 1955 season, the 300 SLR still remains one of the best racing cars ever produced.