With the European racing season getting under way towards the end of March, there was much to get organised and quite a bit of motoring to do before one could be ready to set off to cover the 1955 racing events in Europe. In addition to this there was an offer to be passenger to Stirling Moss in the Mille Miglia, an offer, needless to say, which was accepted (quicker than these words can be written).
Unlike some people who enter the Mille Miglia. the Mercedes-Benz team are out to do their utmost to win, fielding four cars, to be driven by Fangio, Kling, Moss and Herrmann, and as early as February we made a quick flight out to Brescia to begin practise. As is well known, the Mille Miglia covers 1,000 miles of Italian roads, from Brescia in the north, down the Adriatic coast, as far us Pescara, over the mountains around Popoli and Aquila to Rome, then north up the Apennine Chain, crossing the Radicofani, Futa and Raticosa passes to Bologna and back across the plains of Lombardy to Brescia. On race day the whole of this 1.000 miles of normal roadway is virtually closed to the public, but it is quite impossible to close any of it for practise, so that any laps done before the race must be on open roads amid the hurly-burly of Italian motoring life. Arriving at Brescia we were shown the “practice car.” which was a 300SLR Mercedes-Benz, and at 7 a,m, we set off on a practise lap, there being no intention of going fast, for the object of the operation was to see how the chassis and its components stood up to 1,000 miles of rough Italian roads.
It might be worthwhile here to clarify the various types of 300 Mercedes-Benz cars built. The 300 as such is the single o.h.c. six-cylinder 3-litre touring limousine, built on conventional lines, having coil-spring, and wishbone i.f.s. and swing-axle rear suspension. A shorter version of this is made in two-seater form, with fixed or drop-head coupe body, and this is known as the 300S. Then there is the mutch-coveted 300SL, almost identical with the cars raced at Le Mans in 1952, but, now having fuel injection. This model has a multi-tube space-frame. a tuned 300 engine tilted over to the left. Similar suspension to the two models, and the prettey coupe, two-seater body with the gull-wing doors. Now Mercedes-Benz have made the SLR which bears no relation to the above cars apart from being of 3 litres capacity. The 300SLR is mechanically the same as the Type W196 Formula 1 car, with the eight-cylinder engine enlarged to 3 litres and running on normal fuel. The driver has been moved to the left, astride the prop-shaft, the gear-change positioned centrally in the cockpit and a passenger seat fitted on the right. As the driving position is similar to the Grand Prix cars, with the pedals very wide apart, it is a good thing if the passenger has small feet and short legs.
It was the prototype 300 SLR which was given to us in the early hours with the instructions not to exceed 170 m.p.h. in fifth gear, always fill the tank with Agip Supercortemaggiore petrol, not to hurry, to take two days over completing the first lap, and not to drive in the dark. Following us were Kling and Hermann in a 220 Mercedes-Benz and another similar car full of technicians and mechanics. After a preliminary plug-check we got into our stride, our personal object being to make notes about the road conditions as we went along. Moss found that this rennsportwagen as the Germans so aptly name this type of machine, is as quite happy cruising between 145 and 155 m.p.h. amid the general run of Italian traffic. The acceleration from 50 to 150 m.p.h. gave the feeling of being absolutely constant, there was no kick in the back, no sudden surge forward, but a constant increase of speed. While the suspension was so comfortable and the road-holding such that the rev-counter reading and gear-lever position were the only guides to m.p.h. Quite literally anything under 100 m.p.h. was a pace at which to make notes and regard the scenery, while waiting for the road to clear so that we could go on into fourth and fifth gears. The noise, both of the engine and gearbox, was identical to that of the Grand Prix car, while the exhaust note from the two short pipes just in front of my right ear was only a few decibels down on last year’s Grand Prix racers. It was interesting that the volume of noise hardly seemed to vary with the r.p.m. of the engine, once the throttle was open the noise came in with a decided bang, whether we were doing 2,500 or 7.500 r.p.m. The brakes retarded the car with a deceleration that was as deceptive as the acceleration. accompanied by the most vile smell of burning brake-linings, for with inboard brakes all the heat and smells waft up into the cockpit. On two occasions Moss had to make rapid stops and then the cockpit filled with blue smoke from the linings and hot drums.
While we were not going at racing Mille Miglia speeds, for Moss refused to take any chances, at no time using more than his own half of the road and never squeezing through gaps, we were still averaging over 90 m.p.h., including obeying traffic lights and going round all the islands. Having reached Pescara by lunch time, the average still being well in the eighties, we stopped to eat, the car not protesting at all at being driven round the town in search of a reasonable restaurant, and then being parked outside between an Aprilia and a Fiat 1900. It was a fully equipped sports car with starter, dynamo and lights.
By this time, of course, the populace were delirious, and Luigis Giovannis and Vittorios were appearing from all directions. We were forced to lunch in semi-darkness as the windows of the restaurant were blacked out by inquisitive faces eager to see the “Inglese Sterlinee Morss.”
Soon on our way again, we wound up into the mountains around Popoli and on the way to Aquila we cruised for many kilometres across a plateau at just over 160 m.p.h. It was a most fascinating experience to look sideways at the driver at this speed, to see his youthful face looking as relaxed as most people’s do when sitting in front of the fire after a good meal; but behind the goggles the eyes had a comforting look of complete concentration and confidence. There was nothing for me to do except give a quick look at the instruments, do some sums to convince myself we were doing more than 160 m.p.h., and then watcht the scenery go by. Naturally, over the mountains the average speed was forced down, for even Moss in a Mercedes-Benz cannot average much more than 60 m.p.h., but down into Rome the roads improved, as they did out again, northwards to Viterbo. At that town the light was beginning to fade so we packed up and once more motored about relatively quietly looking for the pre-arranged hotel, for the 220 Mercedes-Benz cars were now about three hours behind us.
Next morning we were again of to an early start, and that day provided for me one of my most memorable motoring experiences. It is not difficult to find someone to drive you along a straight road at 150 m.p.h., or for that matter to do it yourself, providing the conditions are favourable, but to be driven over three really arduous mountain passes in a car of the potential of the 300SLR by a driver whom I can only describe as an “artist,” is something to which mere words cannot do full justice. The Mercedes-Benz’ handling calls for sharp corners to be taken with the power on. Which provokes rear-end breakaway, and this is counteracted with the steering wheel. A left-hand corner, for example, means that you arrive on a normal line, lock over to the left and open the throttle, and then immediately put on right lock, but only to an amount to counteract the tail-swing caused by opening the throttle. If done correctly the car leaves the corner under full power with the driver feeding-off the right lock back to a straight position as the car accelerates. To do this the car must have three vital things : a tendency to oversteer, sufficient power to be able to provoke breakaway on the rear wheels at will, and a steering ratio that allows the driver to go from lock to lock without moving his hands on the rim for there would not he time. To say that Moss has mastered this technique, which can only be applied on sharp corners, would be an understatement. He threw the SLR round the hairpins and through the multitude of S-bends in a series of controlled flicks and slides, and on the dry roads the car skated about as a Morris Minor would on snow at 20 m.p.h. driven by a rally-driver. We crossed the mountains in this manner, the car being whisked round the bends and corners, with the driver complete master of the machine. Up the Pass it was nearly all done on accelerator pedal and steering wheel, second gear being ideal for the whole climb, while down the other side only occasional dabs on the brake pedal were required.
In no time at all it seemed this living with the gods was over and we were in Bologna, though actually it had taken nearly two hours, and all at an average of over 60 m.p.h. From Bologna back to Brescia was normal fast Italian motoring, mostly around 120-130 m.p.h., as the traffic was pretty heavy, and arriving back at the garage well before dark we left the car by the bench, as there were no mechanics in sight, and returned to the hotel for a much-needed bath. Our overall running average had been nearly 75 m.p.h., and some idea of the safety limit to which Moss drove when traffic was about can be gained from the fact that never once did I press my feet on the bulkhead or clutch wildly at the scuttle. In less than an hour we went back to the garage and found the car on four axle-stands, the wheels off, the tyre-wear measured, the front brakes dismantled completely, the lining wear measured, the under-tray off, the engine checked over for oil leaks, etc., the transmission and clutch dismantled and checked, and the two engineers and six mechanics waiting for Mr. Moss to return from his bath and tell them if the car was to his liking—and every nut on a Mercedes-Benz is splitpinned !
Next morning the car was ready for its second lap and we got off to a fine start, but after averaging 95 m.p.h. for the first hour and a half, fate stepped in and it is best that a veil is drawn over the details of that second lap. First the rain came, then a stone punctured the radiator, and after the mechanics had rushed another one to us and fitted it, the snow started. We struggled on for another 200 miles in weather conditions which ranged from hail to three inches of slush on the roads, with ice forming on the windscreen and goggles faster than we could rub it off. Nearing Rome the weather cleared up and conditions were perfect once again but shortly after Rome we were passing a flock of sheep at 70 m.p.h. when the attendant shepherd struck one of them with a hefty stick and it leapt sideways into our left-hand headlamp. While the dead mutton flew up into the air we spun and, in going into the ditch, a rear wheel struck a low concrete bollard and that was that. Shortly after, Kling and Herrmann arrived in their 220 and we continued the second lap in the rear seats. Next day the snow covered the whole of central Italy, which put paid to any further practice or testing.
Returning to England for a few days, I saw arrangements completed for the delivery of a new Porsche 1500, for 1955 race coverage, to replace the Lancia Aprilia used last year. This meant a quick flying trip to Stuttgart to take delivery, and that trip was one long succession of rear engines and swing-axles. A Porsche mechanic collected me from the airport in a Volkswagen and took me to the friendly little factory north of Stuttgart. Along the autobahn we saw a 300SL going the other way, and it was with a noticeable national pride that the Porsche chap pointed it out to me, there being no question of it coining from a rival firm.
The next day saw lunch with von Frankenburg, one of the works team drivers, our transport being his own private Porsche, still proudly wearing the 1954 Mille Miglia seals on the steering column, and then I took over the blue fixed-head coupe that will be my home for the next six months and 30,000 miles.
Returning to Belgium along the autobahn it was kept at 3,000 r.p.m., an indicated 65 m.p.h., as Porsche advise not exceeding that speed while running-in.
First impressions of a car cannot always be relied upon, but suffice to say that to me the Porsche represents another step forward towards my personal idea of the perfect motor car. The choice of such a car was not made on sales talk and reading road-tests, but after a 400-mile drive to Devon in the A.F.N. Ltd. demonstration model, the demonstrator saying : “I’m not going to try to sell you this car; just drive it and find out for yourself.” Having found out, he demonstrated an average of well over 60 miles in the hour on wet roads in the dark, during which time we talked motoring in normal tones with the speedo sitting on 95 m.p.h. After 20,000 miles perhaps I shall be in a position to give an opinion on the Porsche 1500 as a modern means of travel.
Leaving the car in the capable hands of Andre Pilette, the Gordini racing driver, he took me to the air station in a rear-engined 4 c.v. Renault, where I boarded a rear-engined Chausson motor bus to the airport. Just for a change the aeroplane had the engines at the side, but back in England, to collect some more luggage, the Editor took me home in his Volkswagen. The first thing I did was to open a weekly paper to see a description of the new rear-engined baby Fiat ! Can it be that we’ve been wrong all these years ?—D. S. J.