A Gullwing and a prayer

In 1952 Mercedes scored a one-two in the fearsome Carrera Panamericana with the 300SL Gullwing. Its new successor proved just as capable on the still-daunting highway

Karl Kling was rocketing towards a long right-hand bend at around 125mph when they hit the vulture. The bird, weighing over 25kg, shattered the 300SL’s windscreen, demolished the right-hand side of the cabin and knocked co-driver Hans Klenk unconscious. Despite the impact and the carnage in the cabin, Kling didn’t lift. When Klenk came round some minutes later, he wiped his blood-covered face, turned to Kling and yelled, “Keep going!” For 20 minutes Kling drove at full pace to the next scheduled fuel and tyre stop. While the car was tanked and tyred, Klenk washed his cut and badly swollen face and helped Kling remove glass shards and remnants of the bird from the coupé’s cockpit, shouting instructions to their engineers to fashion some sort of protective grille to cover the windscreen to prevent injury should they hit another bird. The Mercedes-Benz crew then set off on the next 200-mile leg of the race as if a near-fatal bird strike was par for the course. But then this was no ordinary race – this was La Carrera Panamericana, the world’s most dangerous race.

Sixty years ago Mexico finished its leg of the Panamerican Highway. Covering almost 2000 miles, it would form part of the world’s longest road, a chain that would eventually link Tierra del Fuego, South America’s southernmost tip, to the frontiers of Alaska in North America. Rather than opting for a simple ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the road’s completion, Mexican president Miguel Alemán Valdés devised La Carrera Panamericana – a 1930-mile road race which would run from one end of Mexico to the other, and become one of the most infamous races of all time.

But the Carrera Panamericana’s notoriety came not just from its punishing length. In this marathon of gutsy and instinctive racing, the drivers would cover up to 600 miles a day from Tuxtla Gutiérrez in the tropical south to mountainous Ciudad Juarez in the north, on a route that ran from sea level to an altitude of over 3300 metres and took in temperatures from 40deg-plus in the day to 5deg at night.

As if that wasn’t enough, this fearsome race became renowned for its fatalities. The newly-laid roads were open to wandering livestock, wildlife and inquisitive pedestrians, while the long sections often meant crashes went unnoticed for many hours. The result was that in the five years the annual event was held, 27 drivers and spectators lost their lives, giving it one of the highest mortality rates per race in motor sport history and ultimately resulting in its cancellation. But not before it had attracted the world’s top drivers, racing the most advanced sports cars across Mexico under the scrutiny of the global media.

The 300SL race car – which was known internally as the W194 – may have been developed on a shoestring and in record time, but it was a winner. It was designed by the legendary Rudolf Uhlenhaut around some of the underpinnings of the 1951 300 saloon, and he put agility and lightness ahead of outright power – hence its ‘Sport Light’ badging.

He designed a sophisticated tubular spaceframe chassis, which featured deep side sills for enhanced torsional rigidity, high flanks that resulted in the design of the iconic gullwing doors. The chassis was suspended by a front double wishbone and a rear swing arm set-up and wrapped in wind-cheating aluminium sheet metal.

It was powered by a 3103cc straight-six engine, loosely based on the unit from the 300 saloon. Fitted with a trio of Solex down-draught carburettors, a relatively high 8.0:1 compression ratio and an aggressive camshaft, the M194 power plant developed 173bhp at 5200rpm and 189lb ft at 4200rpm. It drove the rear wheels through a four-speed manual transmission, again borrowed from the 300. Uhlenhaut canted the engine over by 50 degrees to create a low bonnet for a drag coeffi cient of just Cd 0.25.

The W194’s combination of superb aerodynamics, low 870kg kerb weight and a close-ratio gearbox meant it was searingly quick. With muscular in-gear go and a 140mph top speed, it was fast enough to take on – and beat – more powerful endurance racers. It was an amazing accomplishment, made all the more remarkable by being carried out from start to finish in just 20 weeks.

In its first major competitive outing in 1952 the car took second and fourth places in the Mille Miglia, quickly followed by outright victory in the Le Mans 24 Hours with Hermann Lang and Fritz Riess at the wheel – the first time a German car had won the French classic. This was followed by victory in the daunting Eifelrennen race at the Nürburgring. The works team – run by experienced racing manager Alfred Neubauer – then turned its eye to Mexico to compete in the Carrera Panamericana. It was the car of the moment.

Much like its spiritual successor, the SLS AMG. This new ‘redux’ Gullwing marks AMG’s rise from Mercedes’ in-house performance arm to a bona fide supercar manufacturer. And like the 300SL, it’s brimming with cutting-edge technology. Under that low and broad snout sits a naturally aspirated 6208cc V8 (ignore the misleading 6.3-litre badges on the flanks), a bespoke all-alloy unit assembled by hand at AMG’s HQ in Affalterbach. It develops 563bhp at 6800rpm, and 479lb ft of torque at 4750rpm. Enough muscle to propel the 1620kg ‘supercoupé’ to 60mph in just 3.8sec and onto an electronically controlled 197mph top speed. Pity the Germans wouldn’t let it crack the double ton…

Don’t be fooled by the car’s nose-heavy profile – the SLS achieves almost-perfect weight distribution by positioning the engine right up against the cabin firewall, balanced by the seven-speed double-clutch transmission which is mounted over the rear axle. The chassis is suspended on track-honed double wishbone suspension, there are huge brake discs at each corner (carbon-ceramic discs are an option), and the steering delivers pin-sharp responses.

But it’s the muscular styling hiding all this technology that really turns heads, bringing the 300SL’s iconic silhouette up to date. And those doors are a great finishing touch, a design hat-tip to the original. It’s the perfect car to retrace Kling and Klenk’s tyre tracks. My route follows parts of the original race course, a 500-mile run from the colonial city of Puebla south west to historic Ouxaca, and then on to the Pacific coast town of Huatulco.

Slicing through Puebla’s chaotic early morning traffic (never underestimate the power of a £157,500 supercar to clear a lane through even the densest gridlock) I reach the city limits, pick up some speed and peel off onto Route 125 and deep into the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains. It’s like stepping into a Spaghetti Western film set. Treacherous rocky passes are interspersed with vast plains filled with comically straight and spiky Cardon cacti, and the road shimmers in the heat haze.

The SLS revels in the snaking roads, its big-lunged engine, ultra-quick gearshift, talkative steering and powerful brakes working together to create an incredibly fast and engaging ground-coverer, and one blessed with a thunderous soundtrack. Despite the appalling nature of the road surface – it’s less a road and more of a collection of potholes, ridges and ripples, held loosely together by coarse, poor-quality asphalt – the SLS feels stiff and strong, shrugging off intrusions that would leave other more fragile exotica rattling and shaking. The faster I go, pushing deep into three-figure speeds, the more fluid and poised the car feels.

Following the path of those hallowed Mercedes racers is one thing, but trying to get anywhere close to matching their pace is quite another. Kling and Klenk, winners of the 1952 race, took just 18hr 51min 19sec to complete the 1930-mile course, clocking up a 102mph average speed. Unbelievable, given their bird strike. Over a 100-mile stretch I try to match Kling’s pace, but fail miserably as I slow down to drink in the epic landscape: lush sub-tropical forests, arid scrublands and snow-capped volcanoes.

I stop overnight in vibrant Oaxaca, and over a meal of mole negro catch up with Mercedes works drivers John Fitch and Hans Herrmann, both Carrera Panamericana veterans. “Well, it was a hell of a race – really violent, you know,” says the sprightly Fitch. “And it was long. Some stages were 600 miles in length. The cars were superb. They were light, they were fast with a top speed around 150mph, and boy did we fly. On some of the sections – the long straights – we were flat out for mile after mile. Jeez, when I think about it now…

“The 300 was easy to drive. You just pointed it and it went. Only thing you had to watch for was when you got low on fuel – the empty fuel tank over the rear axle meant the tail got pretty frisky. Although I was pleased for the team when Kling came in first and [Hermann] Lang second, I was disqualified on a timing technicality. Personal feelings count for a lot in racing and after the adrenalin has cooled off, you know, I was glad for the team, but personally I was real disappointed.”

Herrmann’s memories are of the dangerous conditions – not that it stopped him from racing. “The Carrera Panamericana was terrifying. Unlike the circular Mille Miglia, which was half the length, you couldn’t really learn the Panamericana because it ran in one direction. So you just woke up in the morning and drove each section the best you could.

“Was I scared? No, but I had huge respect for the road and for what could happen. All the drivers used to look at each other at the start of the race and wonder if we’d all be there at the end. Too often, we weren’t. I lost at least two friends a year in the 1950s.”

The next morning I trundle through mid-morning traffic and hit Highway 125 towards Huatulco. This is easily one of the finest and most demanding roads I’ve ever driven, made all the more memorable by the amazing vistas. Never straight for more than a few hundred yards, it winds its way towards the Pacific in a seemingly endless combination of corners, from hairpins to long, sweeping arcs.

Unleashed, the Gullwing feels fast and secure, no matter how tight the turns and how fast the sprints in between. It seems to be welded to the road, yet quick-witted enough to change direction with a flick of the steering wheel. The composite brakes deserve special praise – they’re more than a match for the engine’s raw power.

It’s just as well the anchors are up to scratch because they get put to good use as the day progresses. Most of the wildlife seems suicidal, every type of beast and bird inexplicably keen to have a close look at the Gullwing’s front bumper. Apart from the would-be roadkill, there’s also the ever-present threat of topes, the killer speed humps that punctuate Mexican roads.

Intended to clamp down on speeding through towns and villages, these giant pre-cast concrete ridges can measure up to two feet in height and three feet across. They are, in effect, giant can-openers ready to rip open the belly of any car that approaches them at anything more than crawling pace. Which wouldn’t be such a problem, except most are not signposted or painted a different colour from the road surface.

The sun starts to drop in the west as I catch my first glimpse of the coastline. Huatulco is an impossibly beautiful resort. Nestled between the Sierra Madre del Sur Mountains and the ocean, it centres around nine breathtaking bays and is a popular holiday destination for Mexicans.

Over two days and 500 miles, the Gullwing has been the ultimate time machine. It has taken me back over half a century and, in doing so, transformed dry historic results and blurred black and white photographs into a high-speed, three-dimensional road trip. The 300SL was a defining car, an incredibly advanced racer that took Mexico by storm. Sixty years on, the SLS AMG is no different.

La Carrera Panamericana 2010 takes place from October 22-28. For details go to www. lacarrerapanamericana.com.mx/index2.asp