My Mercedes-Benz 300SL

by Rob Walker

Many people have asked me why I prefer the 300SL to an XK140, and what the Mercedes has got that the Jaguar has not. Well, I don’t want to get involved in this sort of argument and, anyway, it would be unpatriotic.

But my general answer to this question is that I am a car-snob and I like to have something that is unusual but excellent. I believe in Hollywood you are all washed up if you haven’t got a Jag., and in France it is tres chic to have a Yaguar. (It reminds me of when one of the Dunkerque ferries broke down and only one was running, having to do both journeys to and from England and to disgorge all cars and passengers on the quayside at 3 a.m. so that it could make the return journey. A cockney porter was trying to explain this to a Frenchman, who could not grasp such barbarity and could only say, “but surely it is a yoke,” to which the porter replied. “Well, you can call it that if you like, sir, but I wouldn’t myself.”) I seem to be somewhat digressing from the point, but it would be a refreshing change to read an article on a 300SL which never mentions the subject at all.

My 300SL was the first one to be delivered to a private owner in this country, on December 31st, 1954, and was followed a week later by one delivered to David Brown. There are quite a few in the country now; in fact, I have to have my name on my number-plate so that I can find it in the car park at Goodwood.

It is most interesting to see the different ways in which people react to the 300SL, for practically everyone does in some form or other, even if it is only to spit on it. (This was actually done by a Frenchman in Le Mans, but when he saw the G.B. plate and realised it was not German he apologised and removed the spittle.)

The day I took delivery of the car I had only done about five miles — I was ambling along finding out how everything worked — when, as I passed the K.L.G. factory, I noticed a police car very close on my tail, but all was well, I had not exceeded the dreaded figure. I accelerated gently away out of the limit, and the patrol car dropped back a bit, but I was held at the first lights and it was behind me again. I thought I had better try a bit more steam, and this time it dropped farther behind, but again I had to stop at the next lights and the police car pulled up right behind me, but this time the passenger got out. I thought. “This is it,” but he just said, “Excuse me, Sir, but I have never seen a car like this before, I wonder if I could have a ride with you?” Needless to say it was with great delight and some relief that I took him as passenger, and we pressed on as far as the “Fox and Nichols,” leaving our escort far behind, where he later joined us, and we parted on the very best of terms.

I find that the usual reaction of paddock marshals at a race meeting is to sweep off their hats and make a deep bow to the car. Some motorists, on seeing it, will lean right out of their cars and give a thumbs-up signal. Then, when you are ambling along enjoying the countryside or going slowly because your wife likes you to drive that way, a few Triumph TR2 and Austin-Healey drivers will tear past making as much noise as possible, and after a few miles they will stop on some pretext or other and then do the whole performance again to prove it was not a fluke. Some Mark VII Jaguar drivers, on seeing the Mercedes-Benz in the mirror, suddenly press-on regardless, passing several cars on a bend, whilst Mother is saying to the small child in the back, “How many times have I told you not to talk to your Dad when he is overtaking on a blind bend?” I often wonder what they are thinking during these performances. Do they really believe that they are as fast as a 300SL when they take just about twice as long to accelerate from 0-100 m.p.h.? Or do they think, “This is a silly clot who can’t handle a beautiful car like that; he shouldn’t be allowed to have it; I will show him how it should be done.”?

On the other hand one meets very many more people who are enthusiasts, and as soon as they see you in the mirror they pull right over and wave you on, going into the ditch in the process. If they are following a lorry or some slow vehicle they will drop back to let you in between. This I find almost embarrassing — it is such good manners, and it happens very frequently. The steering, of course, has perforce to be on the left-hand side, as owing to the engine lying over at an angle of 45 degrees it is impossible to re-position the steering on the other side. I have often been asked if this is a grave disadvantage in this country, and I think I would say on the whole that it isn’t, because the average Englishman drives in the middle of the road and it is easier to see around his left side than his right. Of course, this is not always the case, especially in queues or with lorries, which usually keep well over. I had once just overtaken a Vanguard and came up behind a lorry which I could not for the moment pass as something was coming; just as I was edging out to see if all was clear the Vanguard hooted me into the side and then passed me and the lorry, whereupon I passed the lorry and the Vanguard. It was rather like a game of draughts with lots of huffs. Obviously he could see the clear road just that fraction quicker, and that is where the left-hand drive is at a disadvantage.

John Wyer has carried out exhaustive tests on David Brown’s 300SL and he has been good enough to discuss the results with me. When the cars first came over there was a little trouble with them spitting back when they got to 5,000 r.p.m. and above. John Wyer tried several things and then decided it could only be one thing — plugs; and so he got K.L.G. to make up a special plug, and this cured it immediately. I find that the engine only does it now if it had been running very slowly for some distance, and then one good belting up to 6,000 r.p.m. will cure it. The extraordinary thing was that the works in Germany did not know how to cure it, and they did indeed write a letter to John thanking him for his help in the matter. I believe several customers in America sold their cars as they could not cure it, and I can only believe that the works in Germany could never have encountered this trouble, owing to different fuel or something, because their efficiency and thoroughness in tests and research is such that they would never allow such a car to be sold like this.

John Wyer also did extensive and very gruelling tests on the brakes and came to some interesting findings. He carried out six runs, each with full braking from 100 m.p.h., with a one-minute interval between each run. I hope that I shall never have to do such drastic braking on the road. Anyway, the result at the end was that very considerable fade was being experienced, causing juddering and one brake coming on before the other or locking. Now the brakes are assisted by a servo — incidentally there is no foot-brake without the engine; a bad point I think — using a very hard racing lining 3 ½ inches wide, and they are cooled by turbo air fins — I dread to think what they cost. Well, on the first application one gets such terrific braking, owing to the power the servo gives you on the hard linings, that terrific heat is generated.

It is said that you can lock all four wheels from 140 m.p.h.; I have done it from about 90 m.p.h. in an emergency, just pressing too hard, and it is not funny, unless you have a peculiar sense of humour. If you continue to do such braking five or six times, such heat is generated that the linings just melt, and “Bob’s your uncle,” or he is mine, anyway; but he lives in Australia, but that’s beside the point. You may wonder whether this fade is peculiar to the 300SL, and John Wyer tells me that it would happen to any car provided you had a servo to give it such terrific pressure and also provided it was having an equally frequent and severe test from such speeds. He says the only cure is disc brakes, where you can get so much more cooling, and I can never understand why such a brilliant racing firm as Daimler-Benz do not use them, instead of fooling around with these air brakes, which surely can have no practical use on the ordinary road at all.

I have seen a variety of figures of-speeds that have been recorded by John Wyer, John Bolster, and one or two by myself; all of them differ slightly, but also go to show without any doubt that the car does not hang about. The figures I give are the best I have seen recorded and all done on the low axle ratio: 0-60 m.p.h. in 7.2 sec., 0-100 m.p.h. in 16.2 sec., 0-120 m.p.h. in 25.8 sec.; maximum, 140.5 m.p.h. John Wyer and I decided that, given suitable circumstances and also allowing for the growth of tyres, which he tells me makes quite a difference after 100 m.p.h., a maximum of 145 m.p.h. could be attained. On higher ratios figures of 157 m.p.h. and 162 m.p.h. have been obtained in Germany. I have done a standing ¼-mile at Gosport in 15.7 sec. and a standing-kilometre under very wet conditions in 30.8 sec., which I suppose would be about 3 sec. faster in the dry. On the road across Salisbury Plain I have had rev.-counter readings of an equivalent of about 135 m.p.h. when the speedometer has been reading 150 m.p.h. It is a great pity to me that such a wonderful car should have such an optimistic speedometer. Of all cars it needs it the least, and it seems surprising to me since the Germans are such precision instrument makers. Of course, it is fine if you want to shoot a line and say I have just been doing 150 m.p.h. along the by-pass, when really you were only doing 135 m.p.h., but I doubt if anybody would believe you either way. I must, however, say it is very satisfactory to have a speedometer that reads up to 160 m.p.h., then all the small boys can say, “Coo! Look, it does 160,” as small boys always think the speedometer shows up to the car’s maximum, but in my case they usually look at the rev.-counter and say it only does 80. At one race meeting two boys were looking at my Connaught, which has no speedometer, and one said in disgust, looking at the rev. counter, “It only does 70.” “No it doesn’t,” said the other, looking at the oil gauge, “it does 200.” So honour was satisfied.

When I first had the car I found cornering a little difficult. In fact, I had one or two distinctly uneasy moments when the car suddenly felt as if it was on ice and if you did not handle it very delicately it would have gone off; actually it never moved at all but just felt as if at any moment it would he away. I mentioned this to Stirling Moss, who told me that they handled very well indeed but the swing-axle takes a bit of getting used to, and I must say I don’t find any trouble now and never think about it. I think it was a question of coming from an Aston Martin 0B2, which it is almost impossible to make a mistake on, to a car in which you definitely need to approach a corner slower, but to go through it with plenty of engine and come out using full acceleration.

As far as reliability is concerned the Mercedes works do not expect to see the car again except for servicing under 20,000 miles, when it has the first decoke. Any English car I would first decarbonise at 5,000 miles. I suppose the Germans go on so much longer because of the very thin oil they use — an S.A.E. 10 about as thin as a bicycle oil, with all the advantages of low drag, immediate lubrication from starting cold, etc. I believe for some years on German motor-cycles they have got down to an S.A.E. of 5 and 2 ½.

I was unlucky with my car. It must have been a dud, because the windscreen wiper arm fell off in the first 8,000 miles. Fortunately, being a brilliant mechanic, if given a hammer, a chisel and a pair of pliers, I was able to do the nut up myself. Otherwise nothing has gone wrong at all. (Or are these fatuous last words? Last time I wrote about a car I said it had not been touched for 12,000 miles, and the next time I drove it the crankshaft fell out.) The servicing sheet of the 300SL is an absolute masterpiece to behold. At certain specified miles, usually spaced at 2,500-mile intervals, every possible detail that must be attended to is laid down, such as change all the wheels around and re-balance, grease the door-catches, etc.

Although few of these cars have been sold to English-speaking people and mine was the first in this country, every notice on the engine, such as how to release the header tank cap or check oil immediately after the engine has been running, is all written on transfers in English; whereas there are some French and Italian cars that have been sold in this country the past 30 years that still have the instructions in their own language.

The first competition I ran the SL in was the West Essex C.C. Speed Trial, a comparatively small event, and it did quite well, winning the class fairly easily. About three weeks later I received a letter from Daimler-Benz in Stuttgart saying that they followed the successes of their cars with great interest and they had read of my achievement and wished to offer their congratulations. I told Lofty England about this in the course of conversation, to which he replied, “Ah, if it had been a Jaguar you would have got a telegram the next day.” So mark what you have in store for you, Jaguar owners! I think the thing I love most about the 300SL is the complete silence and smoothness of it, for a car of its potentialities. You can motor down to 15 m.p.h. in top without a jerk or a judder and then put your foot hard down and, without a sound from the engine, it will smoothly pull away to 130 m.p.h. if you have the room, and even then you can talk to your passenger without raising your voice at all, if you can still talk; there is no wind noise at all.

My wife neither likes driving very fast nor being driven fast, which is not unnatural in a mother, but she loves driving the Mercedes and finds it as gentle and docile as any car could be. The only time she did not like it was when she had to close the track at Ibsley, driving Mike Hawthorn around. She said she was scared stiff she might start off in reverse.

So far quite a few notables have tried my 300SL, including the Duke of Richmond, Mike Hawthorn, Tony Rolt, Jack Fairman and Rodney Clarke, and all have expressed approval. Gilbert Harding has been taxied from his flat to Claridges, but he seemed upset that he could not find his space-helmet.

I could go on writing about this car endlessly; it is only my Scottish ancestry that saves the readers, because I don’t think my pay cheque is going to increase with the quantity I write, and if it is quality they want I am in for a thin time also.