Mercedes SLR300 - last chance to see (and hear)
By Mike Hanlon
May 28, 2005
UPDATED May 29, 2005 The legendary Mille Miglia road race from Brescia to Rome and back started in 1927 and continued until the mid-fifties. The record for the 1000 mile journey was set in 1955 - ten hours, seven minutes and 48 seconds at an average speed of 97.96 mph. The driver was Stirling Moss and Juan Manual Fangio finished a Mercedes Benz 1-2 in the fabled Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR. The Mille Miglia has now been revived as a gentlemans rally, and this year Mercedes entered the car in the event for the last time, appropriately driven by Moss and F1 and Le Mans winner Jochen Mass. It will only have two more public outings before it retires to the Mercedes-Benz museum. - the Goodwood Festival of Speed (June 24 - 26) and the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance (August 14).
The Mille Miglia is the stuff of legends - the 1000 mile road race from Brescia to Rome and back to Brescia started in 1927 and in those early years when it was a genuine race, the winners included names like Ascari and Nuvolari and the race was held in the highest esteem by manufacturers and European public alike - a win in the Mille Miglia was worth a lot of sales over the following year.
The race continued on public roads until the mid-fifties when several tragedies made authorities realise that racing should be done on racetracks and not roads and the race was stopped.
By that stage, the record for the 1000 mile journey had been reduced to just ten hours, seven minutes and 48 seconds at an average speed of 97.96 mph.
The driver was Stirling Moss, and the car was the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, a thinly disguised Mercedes Benz Formula 1 car capable of 180mph. Only two were ever built and they finished first and second in the 1955 race with Juan Manuel Fangio driving the second car.
If that seems fast for 1955, there's a reason - the car was built using the Mercedes Benz Formula One car of the day as the basis. The 300 SLR is in the opinion of many, one of the most beautiful Grand Tourers ever to be produced.
The 300SLR jewel by the Stuttgart marque is maybe the finest and most sophisticated road car ever built by the three-pointed star. Don't be deceived by its name: this is not an evolution of the popular 300 SL, but of the W196, the model that scooped the F1 World Championship twice, in 1954 and 1955 with Juan Manuel Fangio at the wheel.
The 3000cc 8-cylinder engine was mounted sideways to improve aerodynamics and lower the centre of gravity and had desmodromic valve actuation. The engine produced 310bhp at 7500rpm, and weighed just 800kg dry. All this considered, four out of nine SLRs built were lined up at the start of the 22nd running of the Mille Miglia on May 1 & 2, 1955. Fangio, Moss, Hermann and Kling made up the driving team, but the English pairing of Moss and Jenkinson was to make history in more ways than one.
First of all, the better the understanding between driver and navigator in an event such as this, the better the result.
Journalist Jenkinson, who had passengered successfully for Eric Oliver during the World Sidecar Championship, had devised an extraordinarily method to memorize the bends, forks and dangerous downhill sections so that he and Moss could know exactly what the next second would bring.
It consisted of 3-metre-long notes written on three paper rolls that Jenkinson gradually unrolled to read the notes out to Moss, also making hand-signs, along the route.. So, the road-books and navigation notes that are used still today in rallies and historic regularity events came out of that record-breaking edition and out of Denis' ingenious invention.
Another secret of the success of the 300 SLR n°722 was the rapidity of the single technical stop made in Rome for refuelling (260 litres of petrol in less than a minute), spark plugs replacement, oil top-up and windscreen cleaning, all operated by the assistance staff headed by Mercedes great Alfred Neubauer.
During that two-minute stop, Moss got out of the car, went to the toilet, and ate a banana and an orange, while Jenkinson remained in his seat, absorbed in the preparation of the notes on the paper rolls for the next section of the route.
The third secret of Moss' success was his high-speed driving training: he had driven the 1955 Mille Miglia route in the 300 SL and SLR test cars fifteen times, had had two accidents and, during the race, he had multiple spin-outs and sideslips against straw bales. He even went off the road into a ditch while going down from Radicofani, fortunately with no consequences.
All in all, that record-breaking victory was due to the crew's extraordinary skill and to the reliability of Mercedes, which defeated Ferrari even if Piero Taruffi had been in the lead until he had to surrender near Florence, owing to mechanical problems.
Fangio's 300 SLR came second, some 32minutes in arrears.
The Mille Miglia has now been revived as a gentlemans rally, and this year Mercedes entered the car in the event for the last time, appropriately driven by Moss and ex Formula One driver and Le Mans winner Jochen Mass. The 300 SLR no.722 has participated in the Mille Miglia for the last time as it will find its place in the new Mercedes-Benz museum by the end of this year.
That means there are just two last chances to see and hear the glorious machine - the Goodwood Festival of Speed (June 24 - 26) and the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance (August 14).
With 310bhp, the 300 SLR has a top speed of 179mph and you can read all about it here