Alfred Peyton Jenkins – my father – was born on May 11, 1900 in Richmond, Virginia, just fifteen years after Karl Benz created the Benz Patent Motorwagen. Pete, as he was called by his friends, was the youngest of five children of a highly successful book manufacturer. His first car was a 1920 Mercer Series 5 Raceabout that he drove back and forth to the University of Virginia, where he graduated in 1922.
My father’s first European sportscar was a very attractive ivory 1937 AC 16-80 Competition Roadster, one of only 27 examples manufactured. He purchased the car new from the AC stand at the New York Auto Show in October of that year. After 10 years of ownership, he sold the AC to Frank Lloyd Wright, who kept it until his death in 1959.
A few years after the war, my father began traveling to England and the Continent on a regular basis. In the early 1950s, he began spending summers at the Brenners Park Hotel in Baden-Baden, Germany with friends from Palm Beach. Thus began the story of our 300SL Roadster.
While in England during the summer of 1952, my father saw a newspaper advertisement for the 1951 Lancia Aurelia B50 Pininfarina Cabriolet Geneva Motor Show Car. The ad had been placed by the estate of a woman who had purchased the car from Lancia after the 1951 show. After purchasing it, my father and his wife, Kathryn, used the car to travel through Britain and Europe; this included a trip to Germany where he toured the Nürburgring and AVUS circuits. This trip may have been when he first became interested in Mercedes-Benz.
After attending the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, my father traveled to Germany again, where he purchased his first Mercedes-Benz, a silver over green leather 1953 300S Coupe, from the Mercedes-Benz agent in Münich. This 300S remained in our family until 1997 when it was purchased by Dan Davis and is now a part of the Brumos collection in Jacksonville, Florida.
Sports car racing had come to post-war Florida with races in Palm Beach Shores in 1950 and 1951; and at the 12 Hours of Sebring, Nassau Speed Week, and the Cuban Grand Prix. While spending winters at his home in Palm Beach, my father became friends and socialized with a number of fellow automobile and motorsports enthusiasts. Among these were Jim Kimberly, Bill Spear, Harry Schell, Commander Jack Rutherford, and Briggs Cunningham. As a result of these friendships, Pete and his wife attended many races as part of the various teams, chronicling the action through his photographs.
In pursuit of a Gullwing
In February 1954, my father and his wife traveled to Manhattan to attend the New York International Auto Show as a guest of Mercedes-Benz to witness the world debut of the 300SL Gullwing. Apparently, it was love at first sight and he immediately wanted one. On February 5, 1954, the same day he saw the car during the pre-show Press Day, he wrote the factory expressing interest in purchasing one.
The factory responded to his letter on March 11, 1954 in which they confirmed his interest in a Gullwing. Although they indicated that production “will be initiated now”, they were unable to commit to having one available for him in June 1954 when he was returning to Germany for the summer. They did, however, apparently place him on the waiting list.
Pete Jenkins was nothing if not persistent. On March 16, he inquired about a July delivery of a 300SL in Germany. Once again, the factory indicated that they could not commit to a summer 1954 delivery. In fact, the first customer car did not leave the factory until August 23, being delivered to his friend, Briggs Cunningham, in New York on September 15. This car would ultimately play a role in my father’s decision to purchase a Roadster.
From Gullwing to Roadster
My father did return to West Germany for the 1954 summer season. While there, he attended the European Grand Prix held at the Nürburgring on August 1 as a guest of Daimler Benz. As a result of his background in publishing and his skills as a photographer, he had been recently appointed European Fashion editor for Gentry Magazine, a monthly upscale gentleman's publication during the 1950s. This enabled him to acquire press accreditation to the event as well.
Now able to avail himself of his personal connections to executives at Mercedes-Benz, as well as employ his official press credentials, he had unfettered access to the pit lane at the Nürburgring, allowing him to take some wonderful photographs and spend time with the Mercedes-Benz team drivers – Juan Manuel Fangio, Hermann Lang, Karl Kling, Hans Herrmann, as well as team management, including legendary racing director Alfred Neubauer.
Over the course of the race weekend, a number of significant events occurred in relation to his eventual 300SL acquisition. First, he saw a Gullwing prototype at the circuit – this exotic vehicle had been driven to the Nürburgring from Untertürkheim by Rudolf Uhlenhaut. Second, my father had lunch with Karl Wilfert, Head of Body Testing in Sindelfingen and driving force behind the new 300SL Roadster.
It was during this luncheon that my father became aware of the development of a 300SL Roadster prototype. On June 2, the Mercedes-Benz Board of Management had given the green light to building two test cars and one presentation car.
At the end of the summer my father sailed back to the United States without a 300SL but more determined than ever to eventually own one.
Change of heart
During the fall of 1954, Mr. Cunningham’s brand-new 300SL Gullwing made its way back to his West Palm Beach race shop. When my father returned to Palm Beach for the 1954-1955 winter season, he had an opportunity to spend time with his friend Cunningham and drive the Gullwing. It became clear to my father that the Gullwing was more suited to winning races on the track than for driving to lunch at the Bath and Tennis Club or golf at the Everglades Club. It was at this point that my father decided to forego purchasing a Gullwing. Instead, he decided to hold out for the 300SL Roadster he had learned about from Herr Wilfert.
Although the new W198 was still on my father's mind, several months passed before he corresponded once again with the factory in Untertürkheim about acquiring a 300SL Roadster.
Meanwhile back in Stuttgart, the Roadster project continued. Earlier in 1955, Herr Wilfert had procured one of the 1952 300SL race cars (chassis no. W194/009) for use in building the prototype. The test mule (possibly a static version) was reportedly completed in mid-September 1956.
Once again – with uncanny timing – on October 6, 1955, my father wrote a letter to Director Otto Richter inquiring about the possibility of acquiring a Roadster version of the 300SL. Herr Richter's response in his October 24 letter to my father is quite interesting.
"In regards to the 300SL there is…no mood to build an open body, which is only to be used at the 300SLR."
The timing of this response from the company is also noteworthy, as an internal memo dated November 28 indicated that the prototype had actually been completed on October 29 and less than a week later – on November 2 – the 300SL Roadster prototype was shown to the Board of Management for the first time.
The board's response to the prototype was reported to be very favorable. Although not yet approved for series production, they did greenlight continued development in the Special Construction Department.
One can only imagine if my father’s recent inquiry had played a supporting role in this change of heart.
Roadster order placed
Once again, many months passed before there is a record of communication between my father and Stuttgart. Despite lack of such evidence, there must have been correspondence and/or meetings between them as he was in Germany during the summer of 1956 and most likely saw the prototype for the first time during one of his trips to the factory. It was also during this time, July 15 to July 21, that David D. Duncan took his famous photographs of “The Secret (300)SLS" at the Stelvio Pass.
I am not sure exactly how my father formalized his order at the time, it could have been written or verbal. However, based on the Confirmation of Order sent to his Palm Beach address on May 15, 1957, the order date was July 19, 1956.
This would be three months prior to the first pictures of the 300SL Roadster being publicly seen in the October issue of Collier's magazine; almost eight months prior to its public unveiling on March 3, 1957 at the Geneva Motor Show; and ten months before series production of the Roadster was scheduled to begin. Based on this information, we can assume that this was one of – if not the very first – confirmed orders for a 300SL Roadster. What we do know is that Herr Will sent a Special Delivery letter dated August 21, 1956 to my father at the Brenners Park Hotel in Baden-Baden. The letter confirmed receipt of Mr. Jenkins’ letter dated August 19 and acknowledged his $500 deposit for a 300SL Roadster. Notable in the letter is that the productions dates were unknown, however, they requested his "exact specification for your car".
A letter from Stuttgart dated December 7, 1956, confirmed that the company had received my father’s letter of November 27 in which he indicated that he wanted his Roadster to be delivered in “red DB 520 paint finish and leather natural beige 1068 and top beige 702”. The December 7 letter also included a press photo of the Roadster prototype and stated that "As per your request we certainly shall enter for you one of the first cars that are being produced of this model."
Decisions regarding the Roadster specifications continued into 1957. Based on the factory's March 15 response to his letter date March 1, it appears that he asked about gear ratios and had second thoughts about his previously selected color choice, as he inquired about color samples from the prototype - Light Blue Metallic (DB535) with Blue Leather interior (333) - the combination he ultimately chose.
The letter also mentions the available gear ratios and associated top speeds, as well as noting the engine’s SAE rating of 250 horsepower. Further, the car’s final price had still not been set. To put this in context, this was only two days before the car's Geneva unveiling.
As delivery day for the 300SL approached, correspondence between my father and the factory intensified. In the letter dated April 11, Herr Wilfert stated “the price of our model 300SL roadster will be DM32,500” and that production “will start in June or July”. Once again, “you may rest assured that one of the first cars will be delivered to you.”
Insight into the first production Roadsters can be gleaned from this letter. First, the car “will only be delivered with the standard cam”, although Gullwings and later, Roadsters were available with the sport cam. Second, “our engineers suggest that you take the rear axle ratio 1:3,42” - a taller gear than the 3.89 ratio my father indicated to the factory he favored. A week later, on April 15, Herr Will sent a letter redacting the preferred ratio, stating “The most suitable rear axle ratio for all around road use is 1:3,89, and not, as stated in our previous letter…1:3,42”.
At long last, on July 12, 1957, the factory in Untertürkheim sent a telegram to my father stating his car would be ready for pick up on July 19 in Stuttgart. Arriving in Le Havre, France aboard the French Line's SS Liberté on July 17, my father made his way directly to Germany to pick up his new Roadster.
On Monday morning, July 22, 1957, my father and his wife drove from the Brenners Park hotel in Baden-Baden to Stuttgart to take delivery of his new Roadster. When the car was presented to him, he had a commemorative photograph taken of the long-awaited moment using his ever-present Minox camera. That evening, my father drove back to Baden-Baden at the wheel of his superb new car after three and a half years of waiting.
Thereafter, my father drove the 300SL on a holiday throughout Europe for the remaining days of the summer before once again returning to the United States onboard the Liberté. Along with him on the homeward voyage were his very special new car and numerous boxes of spare parts, all listed as personal baggage and secured safely in the ship's hold.
A second part of the ongoing story of Alfred Jenkins's 300SL Roadster will appear in a later issue of The Star.