'Mercedes 300SL – The car of the century' book review

A new volume places the 300SL in a the milieu of the wealthy and glamorous as well as on-track success, says Gordon Cruickshank

Mercedes 300 SL

An SL on chains: Schock and Moll after winning the 1956 Sestrière rally

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Whether the 300SL is ‘the car of the century’ is debatable – where do Mini, VW Beetle, or Model T stand? – but it does have a very special place. Clever engineering, terrific performance, unmistakable looks and its then-unique gullwing doors mean everybody knows what it is, and the fact that variants of the engine also powered sports cars and grand prix cars to victory marks it as being pretty special. So are our authors: Kleissl is a devotee and restorer, while Niemann once ran the Mercedes-Benz archive, and they offer an immense amount of information and detail. But it’s not all nuts and bolts: there are histories of the triumvirate who made the car happen, of drivers, and lesser-known car variants – the SLS, a coupé with a huge airbrake on the roof, the very early roadster versions, a hard-top roadster with little gullwing roof panels.

They do like to go in deep: one photo of a bicycle speed record behind an SL (127mph!) leads to several pages of the rider’s back-story,  but every subject is accompanied by such gorgeous photos that each spread is a new delight. Often it’s about the glamorous rich who ran these cars: Rubirosa, de Portago, von Karajan, the Aga Khan; Picasso used to borrow a friend’s. Normally I shun the word ‘celebrities’ but rich black-and-white shots of the cars with Anita Ekberg, Sophia Loren, Steve McQueen and Romy Schneider convey a sense of period and just what a style impact these cars had, quite apart from winning races. One British reporter called the SL, “Beautiful in a terrifying, intimidating, threatening way.”

Rather than give you all the development story up front, this book mixes it up: a bit of history, some racing, a look at the suspension, a trip over the Alps, early sketches, back to racing. It’s a good scheme, and enriched by some terrific pictures: Kling passing his pit with all the crew in perfect close-up; Alfred Neubauer in enormous trousers perched on an SL bonnet and showing a sexy ankle to rival the Italian lady he’s posing with. But I did find the layout slightly confusing with pictures often well away from the relevant text.

Race results and car specs complete a heavyweight volume that I expected to be a bit prosaic but which turned out to be an unexpected if costly pleasure.

Mercedes 300SL – The car of the century

Hans Kleissl and Harry Niemann

Dalton Watson, £115

 

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