NUMBER OF THE BEAST
It may be the most valuable car in the world – the Mercedes-benz 300 SLR Stirling Moss drove to victory in Italy in 1955.
IT MAY BE THE MOST VALUABLE CAR IN THE WORLD – THE MERCEDES-BENZ 300 SLR STERLING MOSS DROVE TO VICTORY IN ITALY IN 1955. STORY AND PICTURES BY ROYCE RUMSEY.
“Seven twenty-two.” Just speaking that number out loud brings reverential nods from the automotive cognoscenti. And with good reason – because the 1955 300 SLRS were indomitable in motor racing that year. And the ultimate statement of their superiority was Stirling Moss’s astounding victory at the Mille Miglia in car number 722 (starting-time: 7.22am). His remarkable record of that year still stands 60 years on. Recently, at an elegant Southern plantation-style estate near Jacksonville, Florida, a special car transporter arrived in the dark, predawn hours. Attending the transporter was Mercedes-benz master technician Gert Straub. He spoke in quiet but knowing tones as he supervised the unloading of the 722. This vaunted car, deemed by one London newspaper as “the most valuable car in the world”, was to be part of the 2015 Amelia Island Concours d’elegance, whose Grand Marshal would be Sir Stirling Moss himself. He would not only be reunited with his victorious 1955 steed but would actually drive it in the opening ceremony. The 1955 “722” 300 SLR (“Sport Light-racing”) was the result of an elegant, three-year evolution from the original 1952 version. Underneath the beautiful silver Elektron ultra-light magnesium-alloy skin, with its distinctive dual teardrop headrests, was a lightweight, high-strength tubular steel frame cradling a 3-litre straight eight with up to
340 bhp and 235lb/ft of torque. Similar to the MercedesBenz W196 of that era, the car’s low-profile hood featured a distinctive right-side bulge that was the result of the engine being canted 33 degrees to that side. The 722’s remarkably light weight of 880kg was offset somewhat by a huge 70-gallon (around 300l) tank in the rear carrying a high-octane fuel mixture of 65 per cent gasoline and 35 per cent benzene. Stirling Moss won the 1955 Mille Miglia at an astounding average speed of 157.65 km/h (97.96 mph in those days) over 1,600km. He was ably assisted by British motor-racing journalist-cum-navigator Denis Jenkinson, who crafted a unique scrolling note device to progressively inform Moss of upcoming routes and conditions as they tore through the Italian countryside and villages. Famous Mercedes-benz teammate Juan Manuel Fangio finished a distant second in another 300 SLR. The dominating 300 SLRS scored additional onetwo world championship victories in the Ireland TT, the Eifelrennen at the Nürburgring in Germany, the Targa Florio in Sicily and the Swedish Grand Prix. Not surprisingly, Mercedes-benz won the 1955 World Sportscar Championship. Now that the 722 had been unloaded, Herr Straub went through a sizeable checklist of preparing it for an early-morning drive and photo shoot in a rustic setting of
UNDERNEATH THE BEAUTIFUL SILVER ELEKTRON SKIN WAS A LIGHTWEIGHT TUBULAR STEEL FRAME CRADLING A 3-LITRE STRAIGHT EIGHT WITH UP TO 340 BHP AND 235LB/FT OF TORQUE.
pine trees, saw grass and Spanish moss. The dawn quiet was punctuated by precise sounds of fasteners opening to access the 3.0l straight eight under the bonnet and the massive fuel tank in the boot. Straub hovered over these areas to confirm all was in order. Then, the left-side half-door swung up and Straub lowered himself into the purposeful surrounds of the 722’s cockpit. His mental checklist continued as Mike Kunz, Nate Lander and Constantin von Kageneck, of the Mercedes-benz Classic Center USA, who had arranged for all of this, looked on approvingly. With the ignition key turned, the fuel pumps hummed and Straub pushed the start button. With that, the 110db exhaust notes bursting from the twin exhausts shattered the placid ambience. The mechanical “tick-tock-tach” hand jumped from 1,500 to 3,000 to 5,000 rpm as Straub massaged the throttle to warm up the engine. Donning a vintage driving helmet, he swung the door down and launched the 722, accelerating down the narrow plantation road. Each aggressive gearshift brought a bark from the exhausts, which resounded off of the surrounding trees. A quick left turn and the car barrelled out of sight, only the fading exhaust note reporting its progress. The assembled team stands with silent and approving grins. A glance at a watch shows the significantly appropriate time of – yes – seven twenty-two.
OPPOSITE PAGE: The number 722 denoted the starting time – 7.22am – of Stirling Moss’s winning 300 SLR at the 1955 Mille Miglia. CLOCKWISE FROM BELOW: Sir Stirling Moss in the cockpit of the 722 60 years on; the car’s record-breaking 3.0l straight eight; Moss driving the 722 at the 2015 Amelia Island Concours d’elegance.