How do you decide which is the world's most expensive car?

Road Cars

The Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR 'Uhlenhaut' Coupe is now the world's most valuable car – but, as Andrew Frankel muses, how do you decide such a thing?

Mercedes 300 SLR Coupe side detail

Mercedes 300 SLR ‘Uhlenhaut’ Coupe is now the world's most expensive car

RM Sotheby's

Like you I was amazed by the sale of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, the famed ‘Uhlenhaut Coupe’. Amazed by the €135 million price achieved of course, but more amazed still that Mercedes either decided, or was persuaded to sell it. When I drove that very car in 2013, the very idea that the company might part with it was simply laughable.

Drove it? Yes I did, lucky boy that I am. It was at the company’s Untertürkheim test track, where I was given the car and free rein to do whatever I liked, save fling the coupe around the literally vertical test track wall they have there. Which was probably for the best.

The car was not easy to drive, like a Jaguar D-type or Aston Martin DB3S is easy, but nor did it come with an ineradicable sense that it was just waiting for the right moment to mug you, as did the Ferrari 750 Monza I used to race. While you felt you were always treading a line in the Ferrari, not so much between oversteer and understeer as crashing and not crashing, the SLR, though notably more powerful, was far less menacing.

Rudolf Uhlenhaut with Mercedes 300 SLR Coupe

Rudolf Uhlenhaut with his prototype creation


But you still had to learn its ways. Job one was coming to terms with the extraordinary racket coming from its 3-litre, straight eight motor with its Desmodronic valve gear. Some cars have a sound you just never forget: a V16 BRM is one, a Ferrari with a racing Colombo V12 another, and the SLR is a third. It drills right into your brain, more brutal than beautiful in tone perhaps, but no less unforgettable for that.

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Then it was the brakes which were poor by any standards of that era, and frankly alarming given the level of performance on hand. The pedal felt dead, the retardation limited, the propensity to lock up considerable. But once you knew, the problem could be managed. By contrast, the gears required constant thought if disaster were to be averted.

It sounds so easy: it’s a five-speed transmission, with a slick and easy change, with first, third and fifth exactly where you’d expect to find them in almost any similarly specified road car. Great. Except that second is not below first, it’s below third, where you’d expect to find fourth which has itself migrated one plane to the right where it lived directly below fifth. So if you pull back from third to get fourth as you might in any other five speed car, you get second and blow the engine to pieces. Or, you could change down from fifth into what you think is fourth and also find second, blowing it to smithereens.

I always pondered its value, particularly after Simon Kidston told me he thought it one of the two most valuable cars in the world, the other being another 300SLR, the roadster in which Stirling Moss won the 1955 Mille Miglia. Could it really be so? The brace of Uhlenhaut coupes are wonderful and beautiful cars, but neither turned so much as a wheel in competitive anger.

And I always thought that was necessary. For a car to command the toppest of top dollars, I thought it needed to be beautiful, rare, fast, wonderful to drive, potentially usable in modern events, from the right brand, historically significant and successful in competition. The Uhlenhaut coupes ticked every box save the last.

I’d also had it stuck in my mind that a car could be too rare. How can you assess a car’s value if there is literally no market for it because none has ever been sold? Take the second most valuable car sold at auction, the Ferrari 250GTO. It qualifies on every count and because nearly 40 were built, it is rare but not unknown for them to come up for sale. So there is precedent, something that can be measured and a current value therefore estimated. But how do you estimate the value of an Uhlenhaut coupe, both examples of which were retained by factory that built them? I guess you gather enough interested prospects – or their proxies – under one roof and let nature take its course.

I think there is perhaps one other ground upon which a car could become more valuable than any other, and that is simply for it to be more important than any other. If, for instance, the original Benz Patent Motorwagen were to turn up in incontrovertibly original condition – the very first example of the very first car, that surely would have a claim? But I don’t believe it exists in any state at all.

But what if a car did exist, whose provenance were undisputed and whose influence was so great it made the name of the company that built it? And what if that name went on to become one of the most revered and recognisable names, not just among automotive brands, but in the world? Would that rival an Uhlenhaut coupe?

Such a car exists and has, very recently, been sold. I’m talking of the 12th Rolls-Royce 40/50hp to be built, fitted with a Roi-des-Belges body by Barker and intended to be a company demonstrator. Until that is, Claude Johnson – the oft-forgotten and so-called hyphen in Rolls-Royce – decided to screw a rectangular plaque to its scuttle bearing the name, ‘The Silver Ghost’ and created a legend.

Rolls Royce Silver Ghost AX201

Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost AX201 – once thought to eb the world’s most valuable car

As you know, that car, AX201, put Rolls-Royce on the map, prompted Autocar to call it ‘the best car in the world’, a title the brand dines out upon today, 115 years after it was built. It too was beautiful, rare, wonderful to drive (yes I have), potentially usable, significant and even successful in competition, obliterating the reliability record by running for over 15,000 miles non-stop with zero faults of any significance at all.

It was recently bought from Bentley Motors, where it had lain unseen by the public for over 20 years. Now in private hands and still in the UK – can you imagine the fuss it someone were to try to export it? – its owner is not only prepared to let it be seen, he feels it is important that it is. And quite right too. What he paid for it I have no idea but if any car that has been sold was going to get close to Uhlenhaut coupe money, I can think of none more likely than this. Do I think it did? Probably not.