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Mercedes-Benz 300SL

Mercedes-Benz 300SL

By Jack Nerad

Mercedes-Benz 300SL After being a dominant force in Grand Prix racing before World War II, the engineers at Mercedes-Benz must have found the late Forties to be a humiliating time. Their country was a shambles, devastated by the collapse of the Nazi regime with which their cars had been so closely associated, fairly or unfairly, and, as other countries clawed their way out of the abyss, back toward normalcy, they were being left behind. Other, lesser marques were occupying winner's circles that Mercedes-Benz engineers figured they owned.

But the draught in Mercedes-Benz motorsport fortunes would end soon after the Fifties began. Mercedes' crack engineering corps finally got the approval to go racing, and, under the direction of Rudolph Uhlenhaut, who had been through the good times and the bad times with the company, they dove into the project with a vengeance.

The post-war Mercedes-Benz, no longer the darling of Der Fuehrer, had vastly fewer forces to bring to bear on its racing program than it had in its Thirties heyday. Instead of designing an engine from scratch, Uhlenhaut's task was to prepare the M-B luxury car engine for racing applications. On the face of it, the task was daunting.

There was nothing especially bad about the in-line six cylinder, but there wasn't much especially good about it either. Its valves were operated by a single overhead cam, not the dual overhead cams of the rival Jaguar XK engine. Though it displaced just 2996 cubic centimeters (183 cubic inches), it was lengthy, tall and heavy - in other words just fine for Mercedes-Benz limousines and sedans, but marginal, at best, for sports car racing.

Dealt this mediocre hand, Uhlenhaut and his crew went to work on the engine and almost immediately were able to wring 175 horsepower from it - certainly not top-of-the-charts but at least encouraging. Still, Uhlenhaut knew that he and his band had been be ingenious of there new racer was going nowhere, both literally and figuratively.

With a boat anchor for an engine, Mercedes engineers knew the chassis and body structure had to be extremely light for their car to even have a chance of being competitive, so they put together a skeleton so light it might have come from a dirigible had it been made of aluminum rather than steel. Instead of thick-section frame rails, the 300SL's space frame was constructed of narrow-diameter steel tubing. To provide the torsional rigidity necessary for racing with this construction method, Uhlenhaut's engineers specified a wide, girder-like assembly across what, in a conventional car, would have been the lower half of the doors.

This structure necessitated the use of the top-hinged, upwardly swinging "gull-wing" doors and resulted in a sill width that was challenging to all but the most agile. Since Uhlenhaut was going racing and had no plans to offer the 300SL as a production car that was fine by him.

imilarly, the Mercedes-Benz staff dealt with the extended height of the 3-liter engine by canting it at a 45-degree angle. Doing so allowed the hoodline to be kept aerodynamically low.

Uhlenhaut's engineering ace in the hole was an independent rear suspension. By 1952, many racing cars and not a few passenger cars were fitted with an independent front suspension. Since that end of the car didn't involve the transmission of power from engine to wheels, the shift from a beam axle to an independent set-up could be made fairly easily. But designing a workable independent rear suspension that could accommodate power delivery while handling all the forces that were applied to racing wheel/tire combinations was a conundrum. Most of the successful road racers of the era used a live axle or DeDion set-up.

Not Mercedes-Benz.The rear suspension the Mercedes-Benz engineers designed wasn't particularly sophisticated in modern terms. In fact, it was in some ways similar to the suspension that got the Chevrolet Corvair in so much trouble with Ralph Nader in the 1960's. It used swing axles, located by trailing arms, with coils as the springing medium. But this was in 1952, not 1964, and these were racing cars, so the rear suspension proved to be a handling boon.

Wearing simple nomenclature and simple aluminum bodies, a team of 300SLs was prepared for the 1952 sports racing season. (300 stood for the model from which it was derived and SL connoted Sport Leicht.) Right out of the box the car took a second at the Mille Miglia, falling to a Ferrari on that marque's home turf. It was an auspicious beginning, but it didn't begin to tell the tale.

In rapid succession 300SL ripped off victories in the Swiss Grand Prix, the German Grand Prix, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the Carrera Panamericana. It was an unprecedented series of victories and gave notice to all the world that Mercedes-Benz was again a force to contend with.

But not on the race track.

It's point made in that fabled 1952-53 season, Mercedes decided to drop out of "factory" racing. And that might well have been the end of the 300SL had it not been for New York-based entrepreneur Max Hoffman.

A one-time foreigner himself, Hoffman never met a foreign car he didn't like or at least wanted to sell. He took one look at the 300SL gleaming on its stand at the New York Auto Show, and he guaranteed Mercedes-Benz executives he would buy 1,000 units if they would build a production version.

Thus challenged, Mercedes-Benz could hardly say no. Uhlenhaut was sent back to the drawing board to "productionize" his brainchild, while Karl Wilfert and Walter Hacker were given the task of turning its aluminum racer body into something the factory could build in volume.

Sensing the production car would have considerably more weight, Uhlenhaut redesigned the cylinder head and specified Bosch mechanical fuel injection, which upped horsepower considerably. In stock trim the engine delivered about 240 horsepower at 4,800 rpm.

The new body-style, complete with chrome bumpers and a mammoth three-pointed star in the grille, was both handsome and aerodynamic enough to allow a 140-mile per hour top speed. It was unquestionably the fastest production car of its day.

In comparison, its handling was not up to modern standards, but one has to remember it was shod with extremely narrow, bias-ply tires. Equipped with a set of modern tires, tuned to its stiff chassis, it might well surprise doubters with its prowess.

It certainly surprised and delighted all doubters during its 1954-57 production run. A total of 1,400 300SLs were produced, a sadly small number for one of the greatest sports racing production cars the world has ever known.
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