Great racing cars: 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SLR



A series taken from the 164-page Motor Sport special Great Racing Carswhich is available to buy here

To buy the lead image click here

From the editor Damien Smith

How would you define a ‘great’ racing car? Race wins and championship titles are an obvious place to start – and admittedly, when we began the process of rounding up the ‘voices’ to fill this special magazine, published by the team behind Motor Sport, we had in mind the likes of the Lotus 72, Ferrari F2004, Porsche 917, Audi R10 and so on.

But as the interviews of familiar racing figures began, we realised greatness is often a very personal thing. Naturally, most – but not all – would pick cars they had experienced first-hand, as a driver, designer, engineer or team boss. And on occasion the cars that stood out in their minds as ‘great’ weren’t necessarily so in the grand scheme of history. That’s why you’ll find a Minardi here among Formula 1 cars from Lotus, Williams and McLaren.

Unexpected? Certainly. Wrong? Not to the man who chose it.

As the interviews accumulated, our magazine took on a life of its own, full of personal anecdotes about the myriad cars that made careers. Some of those we spoke to, such as Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney, couldn’t be tied to a single choice from multi-faceted lives at the wheel. Such heroes have earned the right to choose an F1, sports and Indycar, so we allowed them more than one bite.

Others refused to be confined by category. Hence the short ‘Odd ’n Sods’ chapter on cars that, by and large, are mere footnotes in lower divisions of racing lore.

Thus there is nothing definitive about the selection listed herein. Then again, there’s no claim that this compilation offers the ‘Greatest Racing Cars’ of history. It’s much more personal than that, much more quirky – and all the better for it.

1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SLR

Sir Stirling Moss
aka The Boy…

I have driven and raced so many good cars during my career but, without hesitation, I have chosen the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR from 1955, the year when Jenks [Denis Jenkinson] and I won the Mille Miglia.

The Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR was quite simply the finest sports car ever made. It was strong, reliable and fast. The only thing the car did not have was disc brakes. This was because Dunlop had the patent on them and, quite understandably, they would not allow them to be used on the Mercedes.

In 1955, having won the Mille Miglia, the Targa Florio and the Tourist Trophy, Fangio and I were in the lead by three laps at Le Mans when Pierre Levegh, in another works 300 SLR, had that terrible accident. His co-driver John Fitch then rather stupidly talked Mercedes into pulling out of the race and soon after midnight the team withdrew the other two cars.

The greatest story ever told
An excerpt from Denis Jenkinson’s amazing account of how he co-drove for Stirling Moss to win the 1955 Mille Miglia in a 300SLR

Ever since leaving the start we had had the rising sun shining in our eyes and, now, with the continual effects of sideways ‘G’ on my body, my poor stomach was beginning to suffer and, together with the heat from the gearbox by my left buttock, the engine fumes, and the nauseating brake-lining smells from the inboard-mounted brakes, it cried “enough” and what little breakfast I had eaten went overboard, together with my spectacles, for I made the fatal mistake of turning my head sideways at 150 mph with my goggles lowered. Fortunately, I had a spare pair, and there was no time to worry about a protesting stomach, for we were approaching Pesaro, where there was a sharp right corner.

Now the calm, blue Adriatic sea appeared on our left and we were on the long coastal straights, taking blind brows, and equally blind bridges at our full 170 mph, and I chuckled to myself as I realised that Moss was not lifting his foot as he had threatened. We were beginning to pass earlier numbers very frequently now, among them some 2-litre Maseratis being driven terribly slowly, a couple of TR2 Triumphs running in convoy, and various saloons, with still numerous signs of the telling pace, a wrecked Giulietta on the right, a 1100cc Fiat on the left, a Ferrari coupé almost battered beyond recognition and a Renault that had been rolled up into a ball. Through Ancona the crowds were beautifully controlled, barriers keeping them back on the pavements, and we were able to use the full width of the road everywhere, and up the steep hill leaving the town we stormed past more touring-car competitors who had left in the small hours of the morning while we were still asleep. All this time there had been no signs of any of our close rivals. We had passed the last of the Austin Healeys, driven by Abecassis, a long way back, and no Ferraris had appeared in our rear-view mirror.

Essential info: Mercedes-Benz 300SLR

Entrant: Mercedes-Benz
Notable drivers: Stirling Moss, Juan Manuel Fangio, John Fitch, Karl Kling, Pierre Levegh
Debut: 1955 Mille Miglia
Achievements: 3 wins, 1 pole
Constructors’ Championships: 1 (1955)

It was a long way down to the next control point, at Pescara, and we settled down to cruising at our maximum speed, the car giving no impression at all of how fast it was travelling, until we overtook another competitor, who I knew must be doing 110mph, or when I looked sideways at the trees and hedges flashing past. It was now mid-morning and the sun was well above us but still shining down onto our faces and making the cockpit exceedingly hot, in spite of having all the air vents fully open. Through the dusty, dirty Adriatic villages we went and all the time I gave Moss the invaluable hand signals that were taking from him the mental strain of trying to remember the route, though he still will not admit to how much mental strain he suffered convincing himself that I was not making any mistakes in my 170mph navigation. On one straight, lined with trees, we had marked down a hump in the road as being ‘flat-out’ only if the road was dry. It was, so I gave the appropriate signal and with 7,500rpm in fifth gear on the tachometer we took off, for we had made an error in our estimation of the severity of the hump. For a measurable amount of time the vibro-massage that you get sitting in a 300 SLR at that speed suddenly ceased, and there was time for us to look at each other with raised eyebrows before we landed again. Even had we been in the air for only one second we should have travelled some 200 feet through the air, and I estimated the ‘duration of flight’ at something more than one second. The road was dead straight and the Mercedes-Benz made a perfect four-point landing and I thankfully praised the driver that he didn’t move the steering wheel a fraction of an inch, for that would have been our end. With the heat of the sun and the long straights we had been getting into a complacent stupor, but this little ‘moment’ brought us back to reality and we were fully on the job when we approached Pescara.

Taken from the June 1955 issue of Motor Sport. To read more click here.

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