Start­ing life as a 300 SLS Le Mans works racer, this pro­to­type 300 SL was later used by a leg­endary war pho­tog­ra­pher for a fa­mous road trip across the Alps. Today we recre­ate that jour­ney

Classic Cars (UK) - - Driven - Words MAS­SIMO DELBÒ

It’s a glorious sun­rise on an early spring day when I ar­rive at the shore of Lake Como in North­ern Italy. I’m about to take an amaz­ing drive on the Stelvio Pass to cel­e­brate a leg­endary pho­to­jour­nal­ist and a one-off car. The pho­tog­ra­pher was Amer­i­can David Dou­glas Dun­can, now 101 years old, best-known for his World War II com­bat pic­tures but also a mo­tor­ing en­thu­si­ast. The car is a 1952/1955 Mercedes-benz 300 SLS, and the pair were last to­gether, here, in 1956. This Mercedes is the orig­i­nal 1955 pro­to­type used to de­velop the 300 SL Road­ster for which Dun­can, aka DDD, was to pro­vide cru­cial pub­lic­ity in the US. And it has lived a very full life, hav­ing started as a 1952 300 SL rac­ing car, chas­sis 00009/52. Orig­i­nally built as a Coupé and wear­ing the W83-3786 num­ber plate, it was en­tered into the 1952 Le Mans 24 Hours, with rac­ing num­ber 20. It fin­ished sec­ond over­all in the hands of Theo Hel­frich and Hel­mut Nie­der­mayr, and was clas­si­fied just one lap be­hind the win­ning sis­ter car of Her­mann Lang and Fritz Riess.

Then, on 3 Au­gust the same year, it was en­tered with an open body as num­ber 22 in the 1952 Sport­wa­gen Grosser Preis von Deutsch­land at the Nür­bur­gring. Driven by Riess, it fin­ished in sec­ond place, another Mercedes one-two be­hind Lang’s car. It was then en­tered as car num­ber 6 in the 1952 Car­rera Panamer­i­cana with John Fitch and Eu­gen Geiger. Mercedes scored yet another epic one-two here, but the Fitch-geiger No 6 failed to fin­ish. This was its fi­nal works race, be­cause at the end of the sea­son Mercedes with­drew from com­pe­ti­tion. The 300 SL had proved it­self, though.

Close up, you can spot the small dif­fer­ences from a stan­dard 300 SL. While it ap­pears to be a reg­u­lar 300 SL Road­ster, there isn’t a sin­gle panel that’s iden­ti­cal to the pro­duc­tion ver­sion. ‘It looks stan­dard, but it’s not,’ says proud owner Al­berto Ce­fis, pres­i­dent of the 300 SL Club of Italy and my co-pi­lot for the trip.

‘Dif­fer­ences start from the ma­te­rial used for the body – this is the only 300 SL Road­ster body to­tally made in steel, doors in­cluded, with­out a sin­gle al­loy com­po­nent.’ As soon as we open the doors, we enter a new world – and it’s a low and re­fined one. The whole cock­pit is made up of spe­cial parts, many of them unique, from the steer­ing wheel and the ash­tray to the door

‘At Le Mans it fin­ished just one lap be­hind the win­ning SLS sis­ter car’

‘There are pic­tures of John O’shea test­ing the car, paired with Uh­len­haut, at the Soli­tude and Monza race tracks’

han­dles and po­si­tion of the in­stru­ments. The seats are dif­fer­ent too, with only the driver’s one ad­justable. The start­ing pro­ce­dure is al­most dis­ap­point­ing be­cause of its sim­plic­ity. Con­tact, a few sec­onds to al­low the fuel pump to pres­surise the sys­tem, and a loud bark erupts around me. I move off slowly, wait­ing pa­tiently for the tem­per­a­ture nee­dles to rise, but I im­me­di­ately recog­nise the fa­mil­iar feel­ing of a nor­mal 300 Road­ster be­neath me.

We enter the first tun­nel on the twisty lake­side road tak­ing in the in­tense sound­track, round and full, as the revs climb. My ex­pres­sion clearly shows my ap­pre­ci­a­tion. ‘You should hear it with the open side-exit ex­haust,’ says Al­berto, re­fer­ring to the sys­tem used in pe­riod rac­ing. ‘It takes a lot of heat from un­der the car and from the cock­pit… but it’s not strictly ho­molo­gated.’

The drive to reach our des­ti­na­tion takes a cou­ple of hours, giv­ing me plenty of time to learn more about this unique car. Its chas­sis is very sim­i­lar to the one ul­ti­mately adopted by the pro­duc­tion ver­sion. Although I’m not about to push it hard enough to iden­tify distinct han­dling nu­ances be­tween the de­vel­op­men­tal and fi­nal ver­sions, cor­ner­ing is pleas­ingly level and the ride is firm with­out be­ing overly harsh. It’s com­monly ac­cepted that the road­ster’s han­dling is bet­ter than the coupé be­cause of the ad­vanced rear sus­pen­sion that this very car pioneered.

The engine is the reg­u­lar six-cylin­der, although it sounds slightly more ag­gres­sive than in pro­duc­tion form. It pulls so strongly from 2000rpm that I’m able to over­come even the steep­est gra­di­ents in sec­ond or third, and still leave a 1000rpm sur­plus of me­chan­i­cal sym­pa­thy be­fore the 6400rpm red­line. Pressing on across the passes, I’m grate­ful for the Dunlop disc brakes in­her­ited from the later coupés.

The clutch is also mer­ci­fully light too – though, un­like the pro­duc­tion cars, the gear lever is a long item that stems from be­neath the dash­board, and as a re­sult it’s slower and has more play. But stir­ring it is an emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence, be­cause it’s a direct re­minder of this car’s rac­ing pedi­gree. Over­all, the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is 98% the same as a reg­u­lar 300 SL, but that re­main­ing 2% pro­vides an en­joy­able raw­ness.

There are nu­mer­ous doc­u­ments from when this SLS was in Mercedes-benz own­er­ship. The first pri­vate Ger­man owner, in 1965, knew about the ori­gin of the car, but we are not so sure about the sec­ond, who bought it in 1969. What we do know is that its ori­gins came as a com­plete sur­prise to the third owner, an Amer­i­can col­lec­tor. He had been able to track its his­tory thanks to Mercedes-benz his­to­rian W Robert Nitschke.

The car was sold again, in 1987, to US re­storer Scott Grund­for, who dug fur­ther into the car’s his­tory, re­triev­ing pho­to­graphs and sam­ples of the orig­i­nal paint and leather along the way.

Since the very be­gin­ning of the project to pro­duce a road-go­ing ver­sion of the 300 SL, Max Hoff­man, the Amer­i­can im­porter for Mercedes, had been push­ing for an open ver­sion. In Septem­ber 1953 Ru­dolf Uh­len­haut, the tech­ni­cian in charge of test­ing the new ‘Gull­wing’ coupé, asked where the 1952 rac­ing 300 SLS had got to. In an of­fi­cial re­ply he was told that one, iden­ti­fied as chas­sis 9, had been as­signed to Hans Rot­tweiler, head of the fu­ture de­vel­op­ment de­part­ment. In June 1954, just a month af­ter pro­duc­tion of the 300 SL Gull­wing had be­gun, the Mercedes board gave a green light to the de­vel­op­ment of an open 300 SL, fore­cast­ing the man­u­fac­tur­ing of three pro­to­types.

The first Road­ster was com­pleted on Oc­to­ber 29, 1955, shown to the board on Novem­ber 2 and reg­is­tered two days later. Within a cou­ple of days there was an in­ter­nal re­port out­lin­ing the need for mod­i­fi­ca­tions – among them the soft-top open­ing mech­a­nism, the po­si­tion­ing of the in­stru­ment clus­ter and tweaks to the chas­sis to si­lence a few squeaks. The note also re­ported a smell of fuel when the car was driven with a full tank.

As the man in charge of dy­nam­ics, Uh­len­haut first tried to mod­ify a 300 SL Coupé chas­sis, but with­out the rigid­ity of­fered by

‘There’s a three­hour drive back home, but no­body’s upset’

the roof, and with the sill low­ered to al­low the use of nor­mal doors, it flexed too much. He then re­placed most of the tubes form­ing the chas­sis, but in do­ing so, the over­all weight in­creased by about 100kg – that was just too much. From there on, a mul­ti­tude of chas­sis were de­signed and tested in a bid to find the best com­bi­na­tion of rigid­ity and weight. A note dated July 2, 1956 shows the test re­sults of five dif­fer­ent chas­sis. Just one, the third, achieved the de­sired rigid­ity and that was the one in­stalled on the Road­ster for a 6000km road trial.

Even though the chas­sis has changed, this SLS re­tains some of its orig­i­nal rac­ing com­po­nents, such as the lighter front sus­pen­sion re­served for the rac­ing cars. This pro­to­type was the car used to study the shape and the de­tails of the in­te­rior of the 300 SL Road­ster, and has many dif­fer­ences from what be­came the stan­dard pro­duc­tion car.

In late spring 1956 the car was re-reg­is­tered, and re­ceived the num­ber plate W27-4603. But du­ties for the pro­to­type – most likely the only one built be­cause there are no traces of the other two planned cars – were not yet over. In Oc­to­ber 1956 Amer­i­can racer Paul O’shea vis­ited Europe to de­fine the spec­i­fi­ca­tion of his rac­ing car for the fol­low­ing sea­son. There are pic­tures of him with the car, paired with Uh­len­haut, at the Soli­tude and Monza race tracks. Test­ing must have gone well, be­cause he asked Mercedes to make two SLSS for him to use in the 1957 Amer­i­can rac­ing sea­son. In 1965 this car was sold as an O-series (in­ter­nal code for pro­to­type).

Early in 1956 DDD was due to col­lect his new black 300 SL Gull­wing in Stuttgart, the car that be­came his daily driver and is now bet­ter known as ‘Pi­casso’s 300’. The M-B press de­part­ment pounced on the op­por­tu­nity to have the renowned war pho­tog­ra­pher’s cov­er­age of the new 300 SL pub­lished in the USA, the mar­ket for which the car was in­tended.

The prob­lem was the new car wasn’t ready, so in­stead, the pro­to­type was used. The ar­ti­cle was pub­lished in Col­lier mag­a­zine in Oc­to­ber 1956 and in Road &

Track in March 1957. Unusu­ally for the time, some of the pic­tures are in colour – and they’re of the car on the Stelvio, driven by leg­endary Mercedes en­gi­neer Ru­dolf Uh­len­haut and chief de­signer Karl Wil­fert.

The arm-twist­ing climb to the top de­mands all of my at­ten­tion – there’s no time to look for the van­tage points used by DDD 60 years ago. Af­ter 48 hair­pin bends it’s time to let car and driver cool down. We’re sur­rounded by on­look­ers, at­tracted by the 300’s shape. Among them is a fam­ily vis­it­ing from the Nether­lands, with their dog. Luck­ily, it’s more friendly than Uh­len­haut’s Ger­man Shep­herd which, lore has it, tried to bite DDD.

We take the op­por­tu­nity to use him as a model, be­fore slowly driv­ing down on the other side of the Stelvio. The scenery here has barely changed in 60 years and nor have the roads – save for mi­nor im­prove­ments in places such as widened tar­mac, and new stone walls and guardrails.

This is the sec­ond-high­est road in Europe at 2557 me­ters above sea level. The SLS re­mains in­dif­fer­ent, thanks to its clever fuel in­jec­tion sys­tem which au­to­mat­i­cally com­pen­sates for the re­duced at­mo­spheric pres­sure. When we do find what we be­lieve are the same photo lo­ca­tions, we ap­pre­ci­ate how brave DDD must have been to achieve those speeds.

When the day and the du­ties are al­most over, we find our­selves on the ‘wrong’ side of the Pass. It’s a three-hour drive back, but nei­ther of us is com­plain­ing – and the car feels even more ea­ger to go than we do. In fact, we are still driv­ing top down when we hit a light shower. The aero­dy­nam­ics are good enough to keep us dry as long as we stay above 35mph, and that’s easy enough on the straights – less so on the hair­pins of the fi­nal stretch of the Stelvio. We’re en­joy­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence so much that we carry on re­gard­less. We bet DDD and his crew would have done the same.

The pe­riod ar­ti­cles were so suc­cess­ful that Mercedes re­ceived sev­eral or­ders, with let­ters re­quest­ing the car in the same Metal­lic Blue DB353 paired with Blue leather 333. Back in the garage, we re­alise we’d driven the all-steel pro­toype all day long with­out re­fu­elling, us­ing nearly all its 110 litres. Once topped up, another of the car’s orig­i­nal fea­tures re­turns – the heady whiff of petrol.

Pho­tog­ra­phy MAX SERRA

There are few me­chan­i­cal dif­fer­ences be­tween pro­to­type and pro­duc­tion 300 SL

There have been very few changes to the scenery in six decades, pe­riph­eral street fur­ni­ture aside

Repli­cat­ing the pace of Uh­len­haut seen in the Col­lier ar­ti­cle (be­low) is no easy feat

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