By 300SL to the Arctic Circle

Sweden was very hot this summer and during a lull in the practice for the little meeting at Karlskoga I was gazing idly at one of the team of 300SL Mercedes-Benz cars while I drank an iced beer. The driver was Count Berghe von Trips, the up-and-coming new German who has recently been taken into the Mercedes-Benz team, and during conversation he mentioned that after the race he was borrowing one of the SL cars and going for a week’s holiday, and did I know anyone with a week to spare who would like to join him on the voyage around the North of Sweden.

Immediately after the race was over we took delivery of the car from Eric Lundgren, who had been racing it, and without removing the numbers or doing anything to it, we returned to the hotel. Next morning we set off with no destination in view but a vague idea that we would keep heading north, hoping to see such things as reindeer, Eskimos, Polar bears, or even icebergs. We were not far from Stockholm when we left, and though that town is some 300 miles from the southern-most tip of Sweden we had been told by many people that the real Sweden did not start until we were much farther north. Having looked at a map and found that Stockholm was about level with John O’Groats and that the rest of Sweden disappeared towards the North Pole, we decided to let the SL take us where it would.

Now von Trips had twice raced an SL, loaned from the factory, and I had done many hundreds of miles in one in Italy, practising for the Mille Miglia, but neither of us had experienced an SL as a normal touring car. When we opened the boot to insert our pile of luggage, we were a bit shaken to find it filled with an enormous spare wheel and tyre, leaving only room for some shapeless object such as a raincoat, and as neither of us possessed such a thing we had to cram all our luggage into the space behind the seats, on the flat ledge above the rear axle. With careful packing it was surprising how much we got in, though it rendered the rear-view mirror inoperative, but, somehow, with 215 b.h.p. under the bonnet we did not anticipate having to watch out for cars overtaking us.

We went up the centre of Sweden for the first day, running on good roads most of the way, with the SL cruising happily along at around the 100-m.p.h. mark, and towards the end of the afternoon I took over the driving for a while. In spite of having done much motoring in these fascinating cars this was my first opportunity to drive one. Being small and reasonably agile I did not have to make use of the hinged steering wheel, it being a simple matter to slip over the high side of the cockpit into the racing seat. With its high sides and very rigid mounting the bucket-seat gave, a wonderful feeling of being part of the chassis and not an afterthought, and in much the same way the rigid steering wheel and thick stubby gear-lever both felt as if they were meant to be used. The whole driving position, including the disposition of the pedals, lever and steering wheel, was absolutely right, the race-bred influence being most noticeable. This particular car had a racing camshaft fitted and the lowest of the three available rear-axle ratios, with the result that the acceleration was most impressive. The real power came in at 4,100 r.p.m. and accelerating up to that figure in second gear I had the feeling that nothing much was happening and it was not impressive, but then things started to happen and from 4,100 to 5,700 took so-little time that I had to be quick about reaching for the gear-lever and flicking it across-into third gear. Again came that terrific surge of smooth power and 5,500 was showing on the large rev.-counter, while a glance at the speedometer just to the right made me change into top and begin to think about stopping. Even on this low axle ratio it was doing close on 100 m.p.h. in third gear, and there was the same surge of power again in fourth gear. When accelerating hard the engine gives off a deep booming noise, very audible inside the car, though there was no sound of an exhaust note at all. The 3-litre six-cylinder engine was beautifully smooth and mechanically quiet, but under full power it made this very purposeful roar.

The weather being unduly hot we had removed the side windows, proper glass ones with chromium frames and rubber beading, they being held in by a simple spring-loaded catch, while a neat bag is provided in in which to stow them. In addition the little triangular windows by the windscreen pillars were opened, as were all the air vents, including the really big one on the top of the scuttle. In the back of the roof is a permanently open vent, and the result was very cool motor car with no unpleasant draughts. Naturally, all these openings everywhere meant that we had to suffer a lot a wind-noise, but you cannot have silence and fresh air together. The servo-operated brakes had a peculiar feel to start with, there being just the very smallest delay between pressing the pedal and feeling the retardation, but this was only noticeable due to having done so many miles on the very sensitive non-servo Porsche brakes. After a few miles the SL brakes felt quite normal, and for road driving were immensely powerful, in spite of the fact that certain people have proved them to be quite useless.

Our first day’s motoring finished at Mora, still well down in the south of Sweden, but next day we left civilisation and took to the small by-roads, many of them being those used in the Swedish Midnight-Sun Rally. Still going due north we went along the narrow loose gravel road used as a special test in that rally, and it ran along time edge of a large lake for some miles, going up and down in rapid succession like a scenic railway. We were hurrying along this section, to see what an SL would be like in a rally, the loose surface of the, road flying out behind us, while the dust was just unbelievable.

Time being of little importance on this journey, we stopped and played games along this switchback section, and, watching from a distance, the car would disappear from sight down the dips and then show its beautiful full-length undertray over the humps. It also gave an opportunity to appreciate the ease with which the car could be slid about on loose gravel roads at anywhere between 50 and 70 m.p.h. The steering characteristics of the SL are such that the car does its best to return to the straight all the time, not viciously, but very firmly, so that when the tail slides out, the chief characteristic being a small degree of oversteer, a correction will bring it back straight with almost no desire to go beyond the centre line of travel. This meant that a winding road could be taken very rapidly with little flicks of the tail round each bend. Driving the car normally on good roads the steering was as near to neutral-steer as could be desired, while roll on corners was very hard to detect, though naturally it was there, for the suspension is very supple and has long travel.

For a brief time we left the dusty roads and returned to a good tarmac surface and as the car was full of dust we motored along with both gull-wing doors in the up position. To the Swedish peasant who knew nothing of SL cars the sight was not only puzzling but also rather disturbing, for due to the hot weather we were driving stripped to the waist, so that the view from the front was quite something. Many people query the upward-opening door, but it has many uses; this ability to drive along at 60 or 70 m.p.h. with both of them wide open and still not protruding wider than the car was one of them. Later during the voyage, we found other uses, such as umbrellas to stand under while getting luggage out of the car in wet weather, an excellent proposition when reversing, making it possible to lean well out of the car and see behind, and as a warning signal to approaching traffic when hurrying along winding roads with high hedges; the sight of it rapidly approaching door above the hedgerows calling for very great attention. These upward-opening doors are nicely balanced by springs in telescopic tubular units, with a slight bias towards “up” rather than “down” so that they never showed any tendency to drop shut while motoring along. Whether the English police would have approved is another matter, but we were in a free country and people gazed in owe and bewilderment rather than anger.

Our good tarmac road had been heading westwards towards Norway, but we found on our map a dusty road running over what would appear to be the highest point in Sweden, so we turned sharp right and took to the loose gravel and dust once more, closing the doors down after our blast of fresh air. Still thinking of the rally boys, we made another experiment, this time to see just how fast it was possible to travel on these unmade Swedish roads. At nearly 110 m.p.h. the car began to snake rather viciously so we decided to settle for a possible cruising speed of three figures should we ever be in a rally and have to make up time. Little did we know that while we were doing this the Belgian pair Gendebien/Stasse were busy winning the Liege-Rome-Liege Rally with an SL, sure proof as to the car’s suitability for such events. When we climbed to the highest point of the road we were rewarded with a magnificent vista of real Sweden, with fir forests and placid lakes as far as the eye could see in one direction and snow-capped mountains in the other, while the high ground on which, we stopped was barren, rocky heathland, with little or no vegetation.

That night we returned to the centre of Sweden, to Ostersund, which is one of the last civilised towns when going north up the middle of that great country. We were only covering 300 miles a day, but mostly over appalling road surfaces, and the suspension of the SL is so smooth that later when we covered twice that distance in one day we were not the slightest bit fatigued. The car was being continually hammered over the rough roads at upwards of 70 m.p.h. without the slightest complaint from the suspension or bodywork.

Over breakfast on the third day we suddenly realised that the Arctic Circle was an easy day’s run due north and as neither of us had ever been there, and we felt sure an SL had not, we settled on visiting the Arctic Circle. The only road up the centre of Sweden crosses the Circle at the impossible-sounding town of Jokkmokk and I recalled that Ken Wharton had driven an Austin from the Equator to Jokkmokk as a publicity stunt, the Jokkmokk part being considered quite a long way north. Getting into our “racing car,” for, after all, it had numbers on the side, was on racing plugs, and had finished second in two races only the week before, we set off. By chance we met a Porsche enthusiast on a touring holiday with his little “beetle car” and he showed us a photograph of a delightful looking hotel set in a fir forest at a winter-sports centre near the Norwegian border, in quite the opposite direction from Jokkmokk. After some debating we changed our plans and set off for Hemavan, the road through the great areas of forest land being well worth the trip, so that we spent our third night within sight of Norway and not far from the Arctic Circle.

Next day we climbed up into the mountains which form the frontier between Sweden and Norway and, arriving there, we had a shock. For nearly two weeks we had both been in Sweden, motoring about on the left-hand side of the road, for the rule there is the same as in England, but arriving at the frontier we were directed to the right-hand -side of the road, the rule in Norway being normal Continental style. When you cross the English Channel between changing from left to right driving it never seems strange, but to suddenly do so along a straight stretch of road seemed absurd. There being little traffic about, and not being convinced that the signs were correct, we compromised and drove down the centre of the road! Whereas driving across Sweden had presented a vista of limitless forests and lakes as big as oceans, most of the terrain being gentle hills, we now found ourselves in rugged mountain country, picturesque and giving a feeling of fierce battles against Nature; Sweden having given a continual impression of peace and tranquility.

By lunch-time we approached the Arctic Circle on the only road going north in Norway, the countryside having changed from the grandeur of the mountains themselves, to barren rocky open space with the peaks as a backcloth. Dust, stones and rubble not only formed the road but also the surroundings, and the scene of utter desolation was only disturbed by a single-track railway line running parallel to the road, some way to the right. We stopped at the actual line of demarcation, not only to enjoy the satisfaction of being photographed by the sign saying “Polar Circle,” but also to regard with admiration the dirty, dusty 300SL that had brought us all this way from civilisation. This beautiful streamlined two-seater saloon, with its multi-tube space-frame, all-independent suspension and fuel-injection engine, was regarded as the last word in racing/sports cars only three years ago, and now we were using it as a normal touring car to visit the wilds of the North. There are still people who cannot see the point of motor racing, but just at that moment there were two who really appreciated it.

Some more study of the map suggested we ought to go to Narvic and then round the top of Sweden and return to Stockholm via Finland and a boat, but this single Norwegian road eventually disappeared into numerous fjords where small ferries were the only means of transport and our week would not allow of such delays. Once more the plans changed and we went north-west to the very edge of Norway, some 200 miles into the Arctic Circle, to the little desolate port of Bodo. Here we were able to experience the novelty and wonder of the Midnight Sun, it never getting truly dark at all. At 11.30 p.m. clouds covered the sky yet it was light enough to see by sidelights only and by 12 midnight it was getting light again, it being broad daylight by 12:30 a.m. Apart from all the other fantastic scenes we had viewed on our way north, this in itself made the journey worth while, and a large twin-engine seaplane riding gently at anchor on its long floats was also an unusual sight for us “southerners.”

Having covered over 1,000 miles since leaving Stockholm we decided it was time we opened the bonnet of the SL to see if it needed anything. We had opened it many times before, but always to show the engine to the keen admirers who gathered round whenever we stopped anywhere, the interest shown in the car, even in remote parts being surprising. In view of the appalling roads over which we had been motoring; we changed the oil and cleaned the air-filter at the front of the big collector tube leading to the cylinders, but apart from that there was nothing to do, so after filling the fuel tank, a sensible-sized one that held enough fuel for a complete day’s motoring at 19 m.p.g., we set off to return to the south.

Motoring rather furiously at times over the rough roads was playing havoc with the tyres and we were not unduly surprised to get a puncture in one of the rear ones. Jacking the car up by the centre of one side of the chassis was all very well providing the handbrake held securely, or you remember to put it on, and it took only a few moments to fit the spare. The next sizeable town was about 100 miles away but being on holiday we motored off gaily, only to be brought back to reality when the other rear tyre punctured just as we crossed the Arctic Circle.

Looking at the very flat tyre, one hundred yards south of the Arctic Circle, with a flat spare tyre and the next garage an unknown distance away, we decided it was time for a sandwich, so, delving into the food bag we carried, restaurants being almost non-existent away from the towns, we ate what was, better described as a “dust-wich” rather than a “sandwich.” Such had been our faith in the 300SL that we had nothing more than the normal tool kit, but we found the device for removing the hub caps worked quite well as a tyre lever and, together with a screwdriver and some large feet, we got the worst tyre off the rim. Replacing the bare wheel on the rear hub, we lowered the car off the jack and found there was about one inch clearance between the undertray and the ground, and we then had to drive quietly along for nearly 15 miles before we found what served for a garage in these wild parts. An old man produced a long shifter that worked as a tyre lever, a small boy produced a bicycle puncture outfit, and between the four of us we managed to get one of the punctured tyres repaired, though it needed some more of the locals to blow it up to the required 30 lb./sq. in. with the oversize bicycle pump that was produced.

Eventually we got under way and reached comparative civilisation, where we were able to buy some new tubes. That night we stopped at a funny little Norwegian town called Mosjoen, where the streets were all dirt-surfaced and the buildings made of wood, giving an atmosphere of a Hollywood “Wild West” town, and instead of parking our sleek Mercedes-Benz outside the hotel we felt we should have tied up our horses.

All this time the whole of Scandinavia was enjoying a hot summer, not experienced for more than six years, and this weather continued for most of the return journey, our route now being due south down through Norway. The timber industry in Norway made itself more noticeable than it had in Sweden and some of the rivers and torrents were completely blocked by the stripped logs of the great fir trees. All the time the scenery was rugged and mountainous, with wonderful rivers and waterfalls, and the climb over the mountains to the Swedish frontier took quite a time, even for the SL. The last stage a this journey into the wilds was across the width of Sweden, back to the busy city of Stockholm, and after spending so long in vast wastes of the Arctic Circle and the deserted mountains, it seemed strange to get back onto good tarmac roads. The SL was greatly relieved to be able to go motoring once more and sang along at a quiet 4,800 r.p.m. in top gear (112 m.p.h.), now and then going up to over 125 m.p.h. with ease. In the mountains we had spent a lot of time running at low speed in second gear, the engine turning over at 2,000 r.p.m., and after a while the plugs would get fussed so that when opened up to over 4,000 r.p.m. it would “hold back” in its power output, but a few bursts of full throttle in bottom or second would clear them and 5,500 or even 6,000 r.p.m. would soon appear.

Before reaching Stockholm, where we were due to return the car, we ran into torrential rain for many miles and, having put the side windows in place, we sped along the wet roads at 90 m.p.h. or more with complete confidence. It was fascinating to watch the rain streaming up the bonnet in beautiful streamlines and then to see that the side windows and the rear windows were completely dry, the wake behind the car being a delightful study in aerodynamics.

While speeding over the wet roads about 200 b.h.p. suddenly disappeared from under the bonnet and everything went very flat and dull for a time. The reason was that water had somehow got up onto the plug leads, but they soon dried out when we reduced speed and revved the engine in the lower gears. The rain was certainly heavy, but both of us being Porsche owners, we knew that had the engine not been at the wrong end of the car we would not have been suffering this bother. Eventually the weather revived and dry roads once more sang past under the large Continental tyres, and even in evening traffic we found a cruising speed of 100-110 m p.h. quite practical, for when the Swedes make good roads they are really good.

Stopping for our last refill of petrol we made the one fatal mistake of the entire journey, for the engine was very warm and before trying to start we forgot to switch on the auxiliary fuel pump. This fuel pump circulates fresh petrol round the injector pump to prevent vaporisation due to the heat of the engine. Once we had got a vapour lock, due to our own stupidity, there was nothing to do except wait for things to cool off and then the engine started as it had throughout the voyage, and away we went, spinning the wheels and leaving black marks in the road just to convince the crowd that had gathered that there was nothing wrong with the car after all. After more than 2,000 miles in this car that had been taken straight from the race track, we handed it back with a certain amount of admiration for the Daimler-Benz factory and the knowledge that the 300SL while not being a perfect motor car is certainly one of the great cars of the age. — D. S. J.