Motorsport has been in the DNA of Mercedes since the beginning of the 20th century, when the company was not yet merged with Benz. Mercedes was the first name of the daughter of Emil Jellinek, a car enthusiast and powerful businessman who did much to promote Daimler through motor racing.
Nicknamed “Mr. Mercedes”, he inscribed his daughter’s first name on the race cars he drove or raced. These, ahead of their time, won many victories and attracted attention, so much so that Mercedes replaced the Daimler name on the radiators. Consider that in 1902, the Mercedes Simplex was already approaching 100 km / h!
And while other cars were still very often horse cars with equipment and engines, it showed what would be a modern car, low, long and easy to use (hence its name, Simplex). Mercedes had brought one to the Le Mans Classic, and started it in front of our eyes, a process that took several minutes: cars of those years needed a lot of adjustments before racing, even if the process is easier on the Simplex than on the others.
One of the technicians told me that he was followed while driving, during a communications operation, by a modern Mercedes carrying a photographer. He pushed the Simplex, and the followers revealed to him that they had read 95 km / h on their GPS! He also explained that he braked a bit…
Several racing models were shown around the Simplex, a single seater W198, a 300 SL from Carrera Panamericana, a 190 from DTM, a C111 and two Formula 1 cars. Obviously, one that interests us is the 300 SL, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary. In addition, immediately after its appearance, it signed twice at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Like the 1902 Simplex, the 300 SL, numbered W194, stands out for its extreme modernity.
A good job, because if Mercedes wanted to mark its return to competition, there was no question of the budget to create Formula 1. Instead, we prefer an endurance car, not too expensive to produce, which Rudi Uhlenhaut’s team will be incredibly successful. Indeed, the 300 SL benefits from a solid tubular frame, a very advanced solution at the time.
The reinforcement of this structure rises very high, which prevents the installation of traditional doors. The problem is, there is a roof, in order to sit on the board, the pilot must open the window and enter through this narrow opening. Claustrophobes, stay away! More seriously, this poses security issues, so we have to find another solution. It’s easy, we will expand the opening by removing part of the roof, where its search will be located: this is how the butterfly door was born. It is a bodywork with very detailed aerodynamics.
It is through the choice of mechanics that we realize the budgetary constraints imposed on the development team. This is the engine-transaxle assembly of the 300 S limousine, the SL also takes the broken rear axle, steering and brakes, and minor modifications. 3.0 l 6-cylinder, fueled by carburettors, increases from 115 hp to 171 hp, and allows better performance. Launched in March 1952, the 300 SL won the Mille Miglia that year, the 24 Hours of Le Mans as we saw it, and the Carrera Panamericana. I’m sorry!
In 1953, Mercedes engineers did not cross their arms, on the contrary, they replaced the direct injection for the 300 SL, replacing carburettors. As a result, power jumps to 215 hp. The suspension is tuned, the wheelbase is shortened, the body is tuned for better aero, the Cx drops to an impressive 0.36…
But the manufacturer is now looking at Formula 1, and this model remains unique. Only Max Hoffmann, who has successfully sold European sports cars in the USA, sees the 300 SL. And he immediately understands his commercial potential, so much so that he offers Mercedes to buy 1,000 of them! It was not the original call of the car, but the godsend cannot be ignored, so the manufacturer agrees to develop the road version. Once again, an outsider, 50 years after Jellinek, comes to set the fate of the star.
Development began in late 1953, and the car was presented at the New York Auto Show in early 1954, almost complete. Coded W198, it has a 215 hp injection engine, chrome and a few decorations, but it remains very close to the racing model. It can travel from 235 to 260 km / h depending on the selected axle ratio, which makes it the fastest car in the world, attractive with its butterfly doors (“Gullwing” in English) and relatively sophisticated, the 300 SL achieves great success. . Between August 1954 and March 1957, 1,400 were sold, including 29 with an aluminum body. In 1957, it was followed by the 300 SL Roadster, with a significantly changed design and improved rear suspension. Again, this is Hoffmann’s idea, which will sell 1,858 units until 1963.
At the same time, Mercedes sold, between 1955 and 1963, the 190 SL, with a look largely inspired by that of the 300 SL but technically close to the sedan 180. 25,881 were sold, again a great success. And it’s this that Mercedes will take over, giving birth to an SL range that has nothing sporty about it. The excellent W113 Pagode replaced the 190 SL in 1963.
Delicately designed by Frenchman Paul Bracq, it got its nickname from the shape of its hard part, curved towards its center. After 48,912 units were produced, it was replaced in 1971 by the SL R107, designed with safety in mind to appeal to the American market. It would also be a huge success, as it would be sold until 1989 with around 230,000 units. Dallas, Dangerous Love, even Columbo where it was rarely seen, contributed to its popularity, while it was a car designed above all in terms of safety, and not interesting to drive (except maybe in 500).
Then comes the technological R140, of which we tested 600, replaced by the beautiful R230 in 2001, with looks inspired by Formula 1 and a retractable hardtop. The R231 succeeded him in 2012, with the same but bad concept, which will continue until 2020. There, it is a disturbance, his successor R232 kept the Mercedes-AMG badge without being sold until 2022. a bit with the sporty genes of the W198, in which Mercedes gave me the opportunity to driving on the Le Mans circuit.
Not behind the wheel, which will be held by former DTM champion Kurt Thiim. The current passes immediately between the Danish sexologist and me. We are sitting in a 1955 300 SL Papillon, wearing helmets. The interior is gorgeous, full of beautiful chrome accessories, such as clocks or light controls that Kurt would be hard pressed to find. He discovered the car at the same time as me! The incredible crowds that crowd the Le Mans Classic tracks, even at 10pm, delay the departure, so that we have to wait half an hour before reaching the circuit. And when it stops in the 300 SL, it gets very hot very quickly.
Why? Because the windows do not go down, the only possible ventilation remains a small deflector that half opens … So, we open the doors, to the great applause of the audience. Finally, we left, on a magical journey. 300 SL Papillon, Roadster, SLS, W194… Amazingly, I fit easily on board with my helmet, the headroom being generous.
Even if the cars are old, even if they’re preceded by a Mercedes-Benz dedicated to photographers, we speed down the track. Only, Kurt refers to the brake pedal that only reacts in the middle of its travel. I understand his stress, because the engine, in addition to giving a beautiful tune, pushes very hard! The cadence increases, and I see the tachometer needle pass 180… A seemingly normal movement for a 300 SL.
We drive up close, with the orange tone of the high-end evening light caressing the sporty curves of the Mercedes. A magical vision! I hold as much as I can in turn, try to take a few pictures on the board, but most of all I want to enjoy the show. Especially since the ending takes place before the main stop, which includes, with the last rays of the sun, a bright image. This 300 SL Papillon surprised me with its power and modest sophistication, its only fault being the temperature on board.
The roadster that I ride the next day at noon corrects. At the wheel, Kurt looks even happier: it brakes correctly! And just walk hard. The midday sun crushes everything, preventing the magic of the previous day from happening again. However! Direct contact with the air gives another feeling, strong too, especially when approaching 180 km / h.
Ultimately, if I could afford a 300 SL, it’s probably the Roadster I’d choose, for its greater ease of use and improved steering gear. In addition, Mercedes always provides parts, you can almost service it at local dealers. The guard to give me this machine for 1 million euros?