It is encouraging, when difficult times like this are upon us, to remind ourselves just how quickly we humans are capable of rediscovering the path of progress and well-being. In 1945, Germany was a pile of smouldering rubble. A mere ten years later, it dominated the circuits all over the world, both in Formula and sports categories, with cars so advanced they are extraordinary to this day. The first of these, in 1954, was the Formula 1 single-seater named W 196 made in both traditional, open-wheeled and faired versions. A year later came the sports car, with the 8-cylinder in line engine now enlarged from 2500cc to 3000cc.
Its name, linked to the SL acronym used by Mercedes on its Gullwing road car, was the 300SLR, where the R stood for racing. The car, best known for Stirling Moss’ heroic victory and his unbeaten record at the 1955 Mille Miglia, came with a magnificently low stance – as a result of mounting the engine tilted – with desmodromic valve actuation to avoid valve float, and direct injection.
Not only that, the drum brakes were inboard to reduce unsprung weight and were assisted by a dynamic rear air brake (a kind of DRS used oppositely to how it’s employed today, or rather to assist braking) and a perfect weight distribution guaranteed by a transaxle system and the rear-mounted transmission block. An incredibly low weight, just 880kg, was obtained by using light metals and an ultra-light Elektron magnesium-alloy bodywork.
As with the 300SL Gullwing, the most breath-taking aspect of this car is the elegance and originality of the bodywork. The design, created within Mercedes, is in itself the foundation of its success: harmony and compactness make it truly unique. Mercedes immediately dominated the circuits, With Fangio winning the Formula 1 World Drivers’ Championship in 1954 and 1955 and the World Sports Cars Championship in 1955. A tragic year for Mercedes due to the appalling Le Mans crash when Jean Pierre Levegh’s 300SLR flew into the packed spectator area in front of the grandstand, killing 83 spectators and the driver.
But it also dominated with successes at the Tourist Trophy, Targa Florio and Mille Miglia. And so it was that this magnificent car competed for just one year: after initially dominating everything, Mercedes was hard hit by the horrific Le Mans accident, withdrew from racing and the 300SLR never raced again…