Tribute to a fine race performance that’s all too often overlooked
John Fitch. There can be few characters whose contribution to our sport and our safety have been more overlooked. A fighter pilot and one of few to have shot down a Messerschmitt ME262, post-war he won the Sebring 12 Hours in a Cunningham, was Pierre Levegh’s team-mate at the calamitous 1955 Le Mans and won the Tourist Trophy at Dundrod in a 300SLR (and was always scrupulously clear about the fact Stirling did the lion’s share of the driving). After retiring he forged a new career inventing safety barriers, doing the crash testing himself. Fitch’s impact attenuation systems line US highways to this day.
What has this to do with a new Mercedes-Benz SL with a matt-black paint job, red brake calipers, red wheel surrounds and red accents on the bumpers? Its full name gives it away: this is the SL 417 Mille Miglia.
You will know already about the 1955 Mille Miglia. But behind Moss, Jenks, Fangio and their 300SLRs came another Mercedes in fifth place, a showroom-standard 300SL ‘Gullwing’ model given the start time of 4:17am and therefore race number 417. Driven by Fitch, it won the GT class and beat some purpose-built prototypes too.
And it is that achievement this limited-edition SL seeks to honour. Just 500 will be sold around the world, though I think restricting it to 417 would have been more elegant (if less profitable). Oddly you can’t get one with the full-fat 577bhp 5.5-litre AMG motor, so your choice is between a 3-litre twin-turbo V6 version with 328bhp or a 4.6-litre V8 with 449bhp. Mechanically they are both the same as the cars upon which they are based.
I drove the SL400, which has the V6 motor, and its performance was actually quite impressive. Thanks to extensive use of aluminium, modern SLs are quite a lot lighter than they look. And I guess that as Fitch’s car also had six cylinders and displaced three litres, there is a parallel to be drawn. But the 400 is lacking somewhat in the theatrical department, doing its thing efficiently and effectively but without drama, which I thought rather a shame. The V8 SL500 has always been my favourite of the current generation and will I am sure do a far better job of doing justice to the Mille Miglia insignias on its carpets, and to the name of the very great man who stayed stuck in the shadow of Moss from Brescia to Rome and back. It offers not just real punch, but a thunderous soundtrack, without compromise to the comfort that has been a hallmark of SL philosophy for six generations and more than 60 years.
But if you’re happy just to cruise, as so many SL owners have been in this time, the SL400 does the job well, but not half so well as that other enduring talent of the species, which is to suck stares off every pavement you pass. I’ve driven Lamborghinis that attracted less attention than the matt-black SL with the red wheel surrounds.
If that’s worth approximately £12,000 over the price of a standard SL, feel free to proceed. Just be aware that you can buy a nice normal SL500 for £2200 less than the SL400 417 Mille Miglia.
It won’t have a matt finish, but it will be one of the best roadsters you can buy and – in one blast of its V8 motor – will come closer to evoking the spirit of Fitch and his Gullwing than any amount of paint and logos could ever manage.
Engine: 3 litres, 6 cylinders
Power: [email protected] rpm
Torque: 353lb [email protected] rpm
Transmission: seven-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Top speed: 190mph
CO2: 178 g/km