Soaring Seagull - 1952 Mercedes-Benz W194 300SL
The early 1950’s were a very difficult time for the world of motorsport. World War II had put an immediate halt to the rapidly developing and increasingly professional sport. With the outbreak of the war in 1939, the exceptionally fast Grand Prix machines were silenced for good. The massive expenses of the war effort left a lasting effect on the world as a whole, clearly it would take some time to recover.
Faced with food shortages, a lack of raw materials and numerous other troubles, one company decided to make its return to the top echelon of sportscar racing in record time. Just six years after the war the newly West-German Mercedes-Benz company planned a prototype that was supposed to blow the endurance racing scene away.
The proposal was given to Mercedes’ chief development engineer, Rudolf Uhlenhaut. Uhlenhaut had been with the company since 1931, and was responsible for all its winning Silver Arrow Grand Prix cars. Due to constrictions in his budget, Uhlenhaut opted to use the 150 horsepower 3.0L SOHC straight six engine from the stately 300 Adenauer limousine. With a bespoke diagonal cylinder head and three Solex carburetors he managed to push the unit to a modest 170 horsepower. The power was handled by a specially made dogleg 4-speed manual transmission.
With the underpowered engine in mind, a futuristic welded aluminium spaceframe chassis was drawn up to save as much weight as possible. The chassis itself weighed only 50 kg (110 lbs) but possessed amazing rigidity and strength. To further help the engine along, Uhlenhaut designed a curvaceous aluminium-magnesium ally body with an amazingly low drag coefficient of 0.25. It’s sleek lines were so low that the straight six engine had to be slanted at an extreme angle to fit under the bonnet.
The body looked great on paper, but posed an interesting problem. The nature of the spaceframe design left no room for conventional doors at all. In a stroke of practical genius the decision was made to make the doors hinge upward. When both doors were open, the shape reminded the engineers of a seagull flying in the distance. The famous “Gullwing“ was born.
Since Uhlenhaut had done everything in his power to make the W194 as light as possible, the car was named Sport Leicht, German for Sport Light. The SL suffix was then paired with the 300 series number, giving the car its world famous 300SL designation. For a 1950’s design, the car handled like a dream. Its light weight (1060 kg/ 2336 lbs), precise steering and unique four wheel independent suspension setup put it at the forefront of technological prowess.
Though an engineering marvel, the car was far from perfect. The unusual swing axle rear suspension had a tendency to induce snap oversteer. The system was jointed at the differential rather than the rear wheels themselves, which could cause a sudden change in camber during harsh driving.
Another sinister issue was the the dramatic influence of varying fuel loads on the car’s handling. The massive fuel tanks helped the 300SL cover great distances, but as the tanks drained the nervousness of the chassis increased exponentially.
Endurance racing in the 1950’s rarely involved actual permanent racetracks. Instead the events were more akin to a modern rally raid on tarmac. One such event was the infamous Mille Miglia, a 1600 kilometer (1000 mile) Italian race from Rome to Brescia and back again, exclusively on closed off country roads. Along the way there were no barriers or tire walls to speak of, and the drivers did not use helmets or seat belts.
Mercedes-Benz hired seasoned veterans Rudolf Caracciola (GER) and Paul Kurrle (GER) for the #613 entry, leaving #623 to the equally experienced Karl Kling (GER) and Hans Klenk (GER). Because of the massive racing distance, the drivers would switch seats along the way. The 300SL’s debut turned out to be a major success, with both cars finishing the race. Kling/Klenk drove to an amazing 2nd behind the works Ferrari 250 S Berlinetta Vignale of Bracco/Rolfo, with Caracciola/Kurrle in a very respectable 4th.
Next on the calendar was the Bern-Bremgarten Grand Prix, held at Switzerland’s premier motor racing circuit. The 7.3 kilometer track consisted of a never ending barrage of high speed corners twisting through a thick forest. The course lacked a true straight, which forced the drivers to concentrate on an inhuman level. The thick unforgiving trees lining the track caused parts of the road to be poorly lit, which coupled to the lack of guardrails and an ever changing road surface made for an exceedingly deadly cocktail.
Undeterred the now four car strong Mercedes armada swept the race with a blitzing 1-2-3 finish. Karl Kling took the checkered flag in front of Hermann Lang (GER) and Friz Riess (GER). Despite its obvious power disadvantage, the 300SL was more than a match for the established Ferrari, Aston Martin, Lancia and Jaguar entries. It wasn’t all good news though, as Rudolf Caracciola failed to finish due to an accident.
The legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans was next on the agenda for the enterprising team. Theo Helfrich (GER) and Helmut Niedermayer (GER) were selected to pilot the #20 machine, with Hermann Lang and Fritz Riess partnered for #21. By this time the cars had already received an update which brought the power up to 180 horsepower. The extra oomph was very welcome, but still not nearly enough to match the vastly more powerful 250+ horsepower opposition.
The drawback did little to hamper the little coupe though, as its lighter weight, streamlined silhouette and superior handling propelled it to a surprise 1-2 victory at its maiden Le Mans event. The cars had only reached 9th (Helfrich/Niedermayer - 2nd) and 10th (Lang/Riess -1st) on the grid, but their superior design and reliability netted Mercedes its first and only Le Mans victory as a constructor. In the process it had set a new average speed record with 155 kph (96 mi) over 24 hours.
After another dominating 1-2-3-4 finish at the Nürburgring Eifelrennen, Mercedes took the 300SL overseas for the first and only time. It entered three 300SL’s into Mexico’s daunting Carrera Panamericana road rally.
The five day, nine stage event was founded in 1950 by the Mexican government to celebrate the construction of the Pan American Highway, which meant the rally followed the full 3507 kilometer (2178 mile) stretch of road. Like all races in the 1950’s, the roads were not secured in any discernible way, which lead to the odd fatality or two.
The SL’s faced the usual competition from Italy and Britain’s finest, but was also met with a sea of Detroit iron entering the fray. Lincoln, Nash, Ford, Chrysler, Oldsmobile, De Soto, Mercury, Dodge, Hudson, Packard and Cadillac all had a stake in the torturous motoring marathon. But no matter what they tried, the thundering American V8’s couldn’t hope to keep up with the svelte Mercedes.
In a true display of immaculate form, the 300SL’s recorded another 1-2 finish. The familiar driving team of Karl Kling/Hans Klenk had again delivered the win, with Hermann Lang and Erwin Grupp (GER) taking second spot. The third roadster-bodied car didn’t get to share in the glory, as the John Fitch (USA)/Eugen Geiger (GER) entry was disqualified for illegal repairs. With the season over, Mercedes-Benz had thoroughly put itself right back on the map in the sportscar racing scene.
The Mercedes-Benz W194 300SL was an innovative design born in a turbulent time. In a country still recovering from the war, Rudolf Uhlenhaut managed to craft a spectacular machine that would take the racing world by storm. A return to motorsport had seemed like an impossible task, but Uhlenhaut’s engineering brilliance broke with all outdated preconceptions. Rising from the ashes, the seagull had become a true phoenix.
The 300SL’s amazing success inspired the company to try even harder with the exotic 300SLR three years later. But just a little earlier the W194 chassis spawned another great legend when USA importer Max Hoffmann convinced Mercedes’ management to develop it into the world’s first road going supercar.