The gull of Mexico

It was one of the most brutal races ever, yet Mercedes conquered the Carrera Panamerica with a car of stealth, grace and precision. Fifty years after its momentous triumph, Andrew Frankel drives it - and is impressed

The road runs straight and true for a few hundred yards and, momentarily, I become Herrmann Lang. Along here, Germany's third-greatest racing driver would have had his right foot pressed hard to the floor, gunning his works Mercedes 300SL across the Mexican desert towards the mountains as he headed for a second place in the 1952 Carrera Panamericana. Well, my foot is where it should be, I am on the Carrera's course, and my carriage is the very same 300SL, preserved to perfection by Mercedes for the last half-century.

The straight-six, 3.1-litre engine is spitting its snarling music through the single stub exhaust pipe exiting underneath the passenger door and the speed is rising, faster than you would ever credit a car with just 180bhp. What they say about the aerodynamics of this `Gullwing' is clearly true, but more on this shortly.

For now, I'm rapidly disengaging the Lang-drive and returning to rather more conventional Frankel-steer. We have reached the end of the plateau and the road is suddenly twisting for the sky. Thoughts of drum brakes, swing-axles, a million-Euro insurance rating and damaging this utterly original car soon make reality bite. We don't exactly pootle up the side but I make damn sure that we stay far from that twilight zone where the rear suspension suddenly leans into positive camber and starts to play all kinds of tricks on you.

"You had to know what you were doing to drive this car fast," an elderly American had opined to me just before I'd climbed in. This was John Fitch — and he would have come third behind the 300SLs of Lang and outright winner Karl Kling had he not been disqualified over a technicality.

Sadly, Fitch is probably best known as Pierre Levegh's team-mate that terrible day at Le Mans in 1955, but as a racer he is not to be underestimated. Indeed, his average speed over the final section of the Panamericana course was faster even than Kling or Lang — fastest of all, in fact. He drove in grands prix, too, in both HWM and Maserati, co-drove the victorious 300SLR with one Stirling Moss at the 1955 Dundrod TT, contested Le Mans half a dozen times and continued to race at Sebring with Briggs Cunningham until his 50th year, in 1966.

Back in the 300SL, the road is now swaying to and fro in a never-ending series of second-gear bends punctuated by third-gear curves. When I'd climbed aboard, the Mercedes engineer whose baby this car is had given no instructions save how to start it (push in ignition key, thumb adjacent button), nor laid down rules as to how it should be driven. And it is absurdly easy — the clutch is gentle, the gears are smooth. It steers precisely and eagerly, and feels tight enough to be brand new.

Then again, its works career was not long. Its first duty in 1952 was to contest the Mille Miglia, returning Rudolf Caracciola back to Brescia in fourth place overall, in what would be Germany's second-best racing driver's final serious racing result. Rudi then drove it in the sportscar grand prix in Berne, where something — a locking brake drum according to his autobiography — sent him careering headlong into a lamp-post, smashing a thigh and ending his career.

Come Le Mans the car was still being repaired — it was left to Lang in one of its sisters to clean up — and so its next, and final, outing was the 1952 Carrera. Which means that Lang and Caracciola were the only people ever to drive this car in anger. As driver pedigrees go, it's up there with the best. From a mechanical standpoint, however, the 300SL is altogether more humdrum. It is to be remembered that this car was Mercedes's first postwar racer and that funds were extremely restricted: a bespoke machine, like the 300SLR that would follow it in 1955, was out of the question. For while the SLR was effectively a W196 grand prix car with enclosed bodywork and an enlarged 3-litre engine, the W194 that is to say this 300SL took its cues from something rather more homespun, the basic 300 saloon.

It nearly meant the project didn't happen at all. As early as 1951, Alfred Neubauer put it in writing that if Mercedes was to have any chance of beating the opposition (consisting mainly of 4.1-litre V12 Ferraris), an engine output of 200bhp and a five-speed racing gearbox should be considered the bare minimum. And when you consider that the Ferraris had 280bhp, you can see why.

But another legend of Mercedes racing history engineer/driver/designer Rudi Uhlenhaut - knew Neubauer's demands were not going to be met. The Carrera regulations had been relaxed to allow prototypes to enter (in 1950, one rule stipulated all cars must have at least five seats), but Mercedes's budget still meant that if any car was going to be built, it would have to use both the gearbox and engine from the 300 saloon. And this meant four speeds and 170bhp even though the motor was expanded to 3.1 litres specially for the Carrera, bringing another precious 10bhp.

So Uhlenhaut found another way to give the 300SL a Ferrari-matching performance. First he designed an ultra-stiff and light spaceframe chassis and clothed it in aluminium so thin it would dent if you did much more than sneeze on it. The result, despite an awkwardly heavy engine and gearbox, was a car weighing around 870kgs, compared to the Ferraris that came in at around the tonne.

But that was not the SL's secret. Uhlenhaut knew that the real key to winning long-distance events such as Le Mans and the Carrera Panamericana was not power but speed, and just because he lacked the former, it did not mean he should be denied the latter. So he took models to the wind tunnel at Stuttgart University and returned with the famed gullwing design and a drag co-efficient of just 0.25 - a staggeringly low figure even by the standards of 2003. The 300SL would not need to barge its way through the air — it would slip past almost unnoticed instead. Speed tests proved the rightness of the design: even with the 170bhp engine, the 300SL would reach and hold 150mph — enough to keep it sufficiently in touch with the Ferraris along the straights to allow its superior handling on the twisty bits to endow it with a decisive advantage.

And so to the Carrera.

The 1952 event was one of the less gruesome of the five races held between 1950-54, but lives were still lost. In his rather understated autobiography Grand Prix Driver — penned just after the race — the unflappable Lang wrote about what he entitled The Mexican Adventure: 'Enthusiastic spectators lined the road and, in their excitement, were forgetting to consider that cars followed in swift succession, and thereby were endangering the drivers — and also themselves.

'Kling, who was slipstreaming [Luigi] Villoresi, caused such excitement that I suddenly found myself approaching a narrow lane lined with wildly cheering Indian spectators, at some 150mph. Only the penetrating Bosch horn and some quick avoiding action averted a catastrophe.'

Lang's race was also dogged by bad luck. On the first stage he hit a dog so hard — that part of Mexico remains littered with the corpses of these feral hazards to this day — he had to cruise along until he was sure nothing had been bent. Even so, he had to count himself lucky compared to Kling and his hapless co-driver Hans Klenk, who had the very dubious honour of receiving a vulture in the face at 150mph. Klenk was saved by a windscreen that took most of the blow before disintegrating. One can only imagine the scene in the car at the time: pictures of the blood-soaked but grinning Klenk at the next stop tell a story of their own.

Meanwhile, Lang was having a fairly torrid time himself: 'We shot off again on a long-distance hillclimb, the type of which is never seen in Europe.' And this is a man who drove pre-war 600bhp GP Mercs up the Klausen and Grossglocicner passes! 'There, over 20km of bends, curves and hairpins, the road climbed non-stop past sheer drops of hundreds of feet where even 18in of oversliding meant certain tragedy. Drivers tried to pass each other wherever possible — and impossible — and the 60km descent to Mexico City was no different.'

The Mercedes suffered punctures and, on the last day, one of its beautiful gullwing doors was ripped off by the blast of air passing over it. By now in the freezing north of Mexico, this turn of events did no favours for either the 300SL's aerodynamics or the living conditions inside.

It finally crossed the line 37min after Kling and ahead of the rival Ferraris, Lancias, Porsche and Jaguar that made up the rest of the top 10. Lang notes with understandable satisfaction: 'The conclusions that the team came to were satisfactory: barring unforeseen accidents, the 300SLs had the measure of the Ferraris and Lancias.'

Clinging to the same elegant, alloy-spoked, woodrimmed steering wheel that Lang had twirled so deftly 50 years ago, I can now see why: the 1952 Carrera Panamericana was a triumph of Mercedes brain over Ferrari brawn. I have been lucky enough to drive one of the actual Ferrari 340 Mexicos that lined up against the SLs at that race and remember its awful handling and non-existent brakes even more keenly than I do the power of its sublime engine. It felt like a truck and, compared to a 300SL, a very old truck at that.

By thinking that little bit harder, extracting the absolute maximum from what it had, cash-strapped Mercedes had beaten the best and returned to motor racing in the same manner as it had departed in 1939 — the undisputed best in its field. Point proven, now there would be no stopping the Three-Pointed Star.