Skip to main content

Karl Ludvigsen

The sale of one of only two 'Uhlenhaut Coupes' ever built has rocked the classic car world. Historian Karl Ludvigsen traces the origin and significance of this pair of ultra-rare W196–S 300SLRs

Returning to postwar racing in 1952, Daimler-Benz engaged in half measures. Of that first season’s 300SL, which was cleverly built from production-car components to get an initial feel for post-war competition, the firm's technical chief Fritz Nallinger said, “We are just opening a little window on the motor racing scene.” Nevertheless, that first effort was good enough to win at both Le Mans and the Mexican Road Race.

When Daimler-Benz then resumed racing in earnest in 1954, the company felt obliged to live up to its exalted heritage. Both Daimler and Benz were rich with racing victories stretching back to the 19th century. From 1934 to 1939, the firm's Grand Prix cars were memorably successful, troubled only by the rear-engined Auto Unions. So, when new Grand Prix rules came into effect for 1954 allowing unsupercharged engines of 2.5 liters, Daimler-Benz managing director Wilhelm Haspel decided to participate.

Back to sports car racing

 Most companies would have found building and fielding a team of Grand Prix cars a sufficiently exacting task. For Fritz Nallinger, however, sports car racing also had strong appeal. He well remembered 1931, when Rudolf Caracciola won the Mille Miglia driving a Mercedes-Benz SSKL, the first non-Italian car and driver to triumph in the demanding classic.

Nallinger argued that with shrewd design most of the components of the W196 Grand Prix car could be used to build a sports-racing car, the W196-S. He envisioned both machines rolling out in the same season, with the sports-racer to debut in the 1954 Mille Miglia. Every sinew of the works at Stuttgart-Untertürkheim was strained to achieve this goal.

Like the 300SL, the engine of the W196-S displaced 3.0 liters. It seemed bold, even foolhardy to field a three-liter sports racing machine against the very fast 3.5 liter Jaguar D-Type – always difficult to beat at Le Mans – not to mention Ferrari's cars of up to 4.9 liters. But three liters was the most that could be squeezed into an up-rated version of the GP car’s fuel-injected 2.5-liter straight eight.

Creation of the W196-S sports racer paralleled work on the production version of the 300SL Gullwing coupe, a prototype of which made its debut in New York in February, 1954. Oversight of both projects fell to Rudolf Uhlenhaut, head of the Daimler-Benz Experimental Department, whose vision shaped the 300SL. 

Successful as head of racing engineering before the war, the half-English Uhlenhaut often tested the company's competition cars at speeds matching those of his professional racing drivers. Although Uhlenhaut did not design the machines, his was the final determination of the attributes that a Mercedes-Benz  racing car should have.

Common to both the W196 and W196-S were fuel-injected engines with desmodromic valve trains (to eliminate troublesome springs), rear-mounted, Porsche-synchromesh five-speed transmissions, torsion bar springs with parallel wishbones in front, and low pivot swing axles at the rear. All this was carried by a light and stiff tube steel space frame.

The engine sloped steeply to the right to allow a low hood line, while its drive line angled across the chassis in such a way as to require the driver to straddle the clutch and propeller shaft. Stirling Moss said that this helped him brace himself in the cockpit. At both front and rear, huge turbine cooled drum brakes were mounted inboard on the chassis.

Ready to race in 1955

The need to concentrate on Grand Prix cars for 1954 meant that a prototype of the W196-S – the 300SLR – only appeared on the test circuit late in that year; Nallinger’s ambition was not realized. However, Untertürkheim was well prepared for 1955, when the team won the World Sports Car Championship with victories in the Mille Miglia, Tourist Trophy, and Targa Florio. A works driver in two of those races, John Fitch, praised the 300SLR saying, “The durability of the SLR was unbelievable. As demonstrated at the Targa, it would stand up to incredible abuse and continue to operate perfectly. This highly developed sports racing machine was built like a tank, yet was as responsive as a jungle cat; a truly fabulous accomplishment in the field of automotive design.”

All the 300SLR’s successes, including wins in the Eifelrennen and Swedish Grand Prix, were achieved by cars with open cockpits. However, toward the end of the 1955 racing season loomed the Carrera Panamericana    the Mexican Road Race – which Mercedes had won in 1952 with its 300SL coupes. The team planned to field four cars   two open 300SLRs and two closed coupe versions. One of the coupes would be driven by Stirling Moss with navigator Denis Jenkinson, the same duo that had triumphed with record speed in the Mille Miglia.

Unsurprisingly, for most of the 1952 300SL’s successes were achieved by coupes, one of the earliest drawings of the W196-S, dating from March 1954, showed it as a coupe, which would have been ideal for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Like the 300SLR’s open versions, the coupes were styled to harmonize with the company’s 300SL and 190SL production sports cars. 

Heading body design at the Daimler-Benz Sindelfingen plant was Karl Wilfert, to whom most credit was given for Mercedes-Benz style. However, actual design work was under the direction of Walter Häcker, who had come over to Stuttgart from Horch before the war. Specializing in the sports models was Friedrich Geiger, who deserves the justified plaudits for the striking and distinctive lines of the 300SL and 300SLR.  

While its cars for 1955 were being completed, Daimler-Benz brought its drivers in to get their opinions on the cockpit layout and body design. Among them were such luminaries as Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss and Karl Kling. According to Denis Jenkinson, who as Moss’s racing partner had access to the works as well, the drivers expressed a preference for open cockpits. Accordingly, the coupes were put on hold for the time being. The first six chassis, all of which had open bodies, were raced throughout the 1955 season.

Tragedy at Le Mans

At the 1955 Le Mans, a 300SLR was involved in a horrendous crash on the pit straight, scything into the packed crowd after impact with cars approaching their pits. It was the instrument of death for its driver, Frenchman Pierre Levegh, and 81 spectators in the worst disaster in the history of motor racing. The fiery crash cast a pall over the race, which continued because ending it would have clogged access points needed to deal with the wounded and dying. With his Fangio/Moss 300SLR holding a two-lap lead, racing chief Alfred Neubauer conferred with his chiefs in Stuttgart and then withdrew his team’s two remaining cars as a gesture of respect to the fallen.

This shattering catastrophe forced a major self-examination by not only racing authorities but also governments throughout the world. In its wake, that season’s German, Swiss, French, and Spanish Grands Prix were cancelled. Switzerland went so far as to enact a permanent ban on racing on public roads. In the United States, the American Automobile Association withdrew from its traditional role as the sanctioning body for motor sports and record breaking. 

The 300SLR Coupe

During the forced hiatus of the abandoned races Untertürkheim and Sindelfingen completed a coupe-bodied 300SLR on chassis 007/55, using a frame that was welded of lighter-weight tubing for the first time. It was a strikingly handsome automobile with a star in its grille and chrome strips over its side air outlets. However, for road use its lines were marred by a huge silencer attached to its exhaust stubs.

With its interior not required to provide room for luggage, its greenhouse was much more compact than that of the 300SL. No rear quarter windows were needed while doors were – of course – of gullwing design to leave room in the sills for the frame’s tubular structure. Instead of the 248 liter fuel capacity of most roadsters, the coupe’s tank held 172 liters.

The coupe’s instrument panel was much like that of a 1953 300SL prototype, with a recessed oval at the center of the panel encircling the minor controls. It retained the cockpit position that was common to all versions of the W196-S, with the driver’s legs spread wide on both sides of the clutch housing and a narrow footwell for the passenger. Far more lavishly than the open cars, coupe 007/55 was trimmed like a roadgoing 300SL in blue leather with seat facings in matching tartan cloth. Bodywork of magnesium contributed to its light dry weight of 891 kilograms, just 1,965 pounds.

Trial by fire

On August 3, 1955, four days after the coupe had a brief shakedown on the experimental department’s rolling road, Rudy Uhlenhaut drove it to the Grand Prix at Sweden’s Kristanstad. Seven days later he was back, having covered 1,623 miles. During practice for the Swedish race Uhlenhaut drove 122 miles on the track at racing speeds. Geared for a top speed of 165 mph at 7,500 rpm, the brand-new 300SLR ran flawlessly throughout.

"The noise inside the coupe body was out of all proportion," said Denis Jenkinson, who hitched a ride in Sweden with Uhlenhaut. "The mechanical thrashing that came from the engine being due to everything running on roller bearings and the central drive to the camshafts, magnetos and dynamo and injection pump being an enormous train of tiny gearwheels. Uhlenhaut told me that it could be cured for a few pence and gave me a pair of ear plugs!"

Different final drive gears raised all the ratios, including top gear to 189 mph, for Uhlenhaut’s 681-mile return trip to Italy near the end of August. On the fast track at Monza the coupe covered 335 hard miles during tests of the sports and racing Mercedes as an overture to the Italian Grand Prix. Then the lowest gearing was fitted for practice before the Tourist Trophy in Northern Ireland, where 222 miles were covered by Fangio, Moss, Kling and Uhlenhaut while getting to know the unfamiliar and demanding road course.

The coupe’s trip to Belfast and return, a total of 2,456 miles, was handled on the outbound leg by a driver new to the Mercedes-Benz team, Count Wolfgang Berghe von Trips, with the aim of helping him get accustomed to this step up from the 300SL he had been racing. "Driving a 180-mph coupe across England from Dover to Liverpool was quite an experience for the young German Count," said Jenkinson, "it being fitted with an enormous silencer on the side of the body."

Final duty for 007/55 during 1955 was as a practice car for the Targa Florio on Sicilian roads so challenging that an even lower final drive was installed. For a change the car was trucked to Sicily where numerous drivers contributed to its total of 840 miles. Its outing ended at that distance when Moss smote a Sicilian rock with its right front corner. Damage to its suspension and frame was too heavy to be repairable with the means at hand.

With the cancellation of 1955’s La Carrera Panamericana, no immediate race duty awaited 007/55. After repairs it was thoroughly overhauled and readied for Rudy Uhlenhaut’s use at the end of December. At that time, it was joined by a sister coupe on chassis 008/55, identical for all practical purposes save for a red interior that was a welcome differentiation between the two coupes. 

The season that never was

Plans were going ahead for racing the 300SLRs in 1956, but not the Grand Prix cars. Only days after the most tragic Le Mans race in history the Daimler-Benz management board met to consider the future of the firm’s competition program. They decided to continue in Grand Prix racing to the end of the season and thereafter to call a halt to single seater activity. This decision was soon made public.

For the sports racing cars, on the other hand, preparations for the 1956 season were well advanced, with a new lighter construction, using outboard front brakes, and engine enhancements. The coupes were in the picture, for the racing department’s notes on the coupe that practiced at the Targa Florio said that ‘With respect to roadholding the car is better than the open car.’ 

This also summarized the views of the drivers after 19 laps of the sinuous circuit with its infinite variety of turns and surfaces. Attribution of the difference was not given, although such factors as weight distribution, stiffness of the body/frame combination, and aerodynamics with the coupe roof could have played a part.

On September 28, Fritz Nallinger confirmed in a note to Neubauer that the sports cars would compete in eight to ten events in 1956 and asked the team manager to let him have a list of suitable races for his review. But this was a false dawn. With the company’s post-war markets regaining momentum, the demands of racing were monopolizing the research and development skills needed for improved Mercedes-Benz production cars.

On October 22, the traditional end of season press conference was used to deliver the announcement that Daimler-Benz was withdrawing its sports cars, as well as its racing cars, from further competition “for several years” at least.

The 300SLR in retirement

In 1956 both coupes were readied for a comprehensive road test carried out by the respected Robert Braunschweig of Switzerland’s Automobil Revue. Equipment included the big external silencer used by Uhlenhaut and von Trips in 1955. While the blue number 7 was geared for a maximum of 181 mph, red number 8 had lower 162 mph gearing. Used for acceleration testing, the latter accelerated to 50 mph in 5.2 seconds, 60 in 6.8, 100 in 13.6 and 120 mph in 20.3 seconds.

Timed on the Autobahn between Munich and Ingolstadt, blue number 7 was clocked at a two-way average maximum speed of 176.47 mph. In all, Braunschweig covered 2,021 miles in 007/55, accompanied by either Uhlenhaut or works mechanic Grupp. The road trials confirmed the remarkable qualities of traction, handling, and braking that made the 300SLR so successful in competition.

The British journalist Gordon Wilkins racked up substantial mileage in the red coupe, often accompanied by Uhlenhaut’s lieutenant Walter Kostelezky – both parties amply supplied with ear plugs. Laurence Pomeroy, Jr. also had a chance to drive it at the Solitude circuit after being given a demonstration by Uhlenhaut. Late in 1956, Uhlenhaut and American racing driver Paul O’Shea covered 91 miles of Autobahn motoring at speed.

Both coupes fulfilled public relations duties for Mercedes-Benz. Number 7 appeared in Hong Kong in non-driving condition in 1964, while number 8 was used for demonstrations in 1959 and 1960 and shipped to the United States in running condition in 1961, not to return home until 1963. In 1967, it was driven on the works proving ground by members of a British party and demonstrated by racing engineer Erich Waxenberger. 

After being refreshed in the United Kingdom in 1986 by expert Tony Merrick, the coupes were allotted distinctive roles. Number 7, with its blue interior, was for exhibitions, while number 8, trimmed in red, was for driving. Wherever they appeared – as at Goodwood in 2010 – the coupes  provoked astonishment with their rakish proportions and race-bred underpinnings. They were far and away the most coveted road cars in the Daimler-Benz inventory. 

In a note written on September 28, 1955, Fritz Nallinger confirmed that the recently retired racing cars would not be sold. But he raised an even more intriguing possibility for consideration. Taking the longer view, Nallinger suggested that the company might consider making and selling, in one or two years, a small series of 300SLRs. The batch might amount to no more than 10 or 20 cars which would be priced very highly, he proposed, say $30,000 to $40,000. 

Nallinger's idea never bore fruit, but Stirling Moss’s comment certainly applied: “Thank God it’s not for sale. I’d hate to have to run against it!”

A record-breaking sale

Now we know that car number 8 has been sold for $142.6 million to the highest bidder from a short list of ten qualified parties. This was the result of an auction on May 5th organized by RM Sotheby’s. A week earlier a letter from Mercedes warned the bidders that the sale would have some conditions. One was that the winning bidder would have the keep the car for a decade or suffer a huge financial penalty. Also, Mercedes holds a right of first refusal over any such sale and has the option of topping any high bidder. This right carries over to any future purchaser.

Only Mercedes-Benz factory mechanics will be allowed to get their hands on the 300SLR machinery. Factory technicians will perform services paid for by the new owner. Additionally, the new owner has the obligation to make the car available for high-profile events at their own expense, including the cost of attending Mercedes personnel. Mercedes has the right to borrow the car for up to 10 days and 150 kilometers annually.

Thus, gorgeous number 8 isn’t lost to us entirely. In fact, we may see it more often than before at shows and exhibitions – a spectacular reminder of how far Daimler-Benz, as it then was, would go to win races.


Proceeds from the sale of number 8 are to fund a global scholarship program to encourage a new generation of engineers to follow in the innovative footsteps of Rudolf Uhlenhaut.