1952 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Pilots: F. Reiss, H. Lang Team: Mercedes-Benz Daimler AG Race: 1st GC (S 3.0 class) at Le Mans in 1952 Spark - 43LM52 (resin)
Like every major German corporation, Mercedes-Benz was in a bad shape after World War II. Gradually but insistently, the manufacturer started to normalize its vehicle production line. At the time, as always before and after, winning races was one of the best forms of publicity. So with everything improving, by 1950 Mercedes started to think about motorsports. However, recently created FIA, established the new F1 World Championship, substituting the pre-war Grand Prix Championship. From 1954 onward a new set of rules would come into effect, and consequently all Silberpfeile became illegal. Mercedes-Benz just didn’t have the resources to develop and build an F1 car from scratch. So how could they get back to racing? Through sportscar racing and by using as many off-the-shelf components as possible.
With those guidelines, in 1951 Rudolf Uhlenhaut started to work on the new W194 project. To keep costs low, axles, transmission, and the basic engine were taken from the Mercedes-Benz 300 “Adenauer”. The engine (M194) was an inline-6 with 2996 cm³ and SOHC and 12 valves. Fed by three Solex downdraft carburetors, it delivered 175 hp to the rear wheels through a four-speed manual transmission. The M194 was not exactly powerful, so Uhlenhaut relied on low weight to make the car competitive.
The chassis consisted of small tubes arranged in a grid-type fashion, with many triangles, producing a torsionally stiff chassis. It also included two large bulkheads running down the side of the car. As a result, it would be impossible to fit regular doors on the sides. The solution was to use doors that pivoted on the roof – the famous “gull wing doors”. The body had to be light, so it consisted of hand-molded aluminum-magnesium panels. In the end Uhlenhaut had a light car: the new W194 only weighed 1127 kg. And just as important, it was aerodynamically efficient, with a Cd value of 0.25. Consequently, the new 300 SL (“Sport Leicht”) had a maximum speed of 290 km/h.
Mercedes unveiled the 300 SL in March of 1952, and the car made its debut in the Mille Miglia, in May. But of course, the big challenge was the 24 Heures du Mans, in June. The last time a Mercedes-Benz works team was at La Sarthe was in 1930. Their works team consisted of three cars, 300 SL #21 (chassis #007/52), #22 (chassis #008/52), and #20 (chassis #009/52). The team had the experienced Alfred Neubauer as director, who instructed his pilots to preserve their machines.
So the three 300 SL kept a conservative pace until about half-race. During the night, car #22 had to abandon, and by morning Neubauer ordered the remaining cars to pick up the pace. However, Pierre Levegh (Pierre Bouillin) was driving non-stop (!!!) since the start, and had a hefty lead. With other cars abandoning, both 300 SL climbed up the grid, but Levegh’s Talbot-Lago was firmly in the lead. But with just an hour to go, Levegh missed a shift and blew up his engine, and costed to a stop. He was so far ahead that the 300 SL #21 took 20 minutes to pass him, but finished the race in first.
The 1952 race was Mercedes first win at La Sarthe. And after Le Mans, the 300 SL won the Carrera Panamericana, confirming it as one of the great sports cars of its era. The car only raced in 1952, since Mercedes could not financially maintain a top-level racing program. Even though it had a very short racing career, it left an important legacy. Directly from the 300 SL came Mercedes’ most famous sports car of all times, the 300 SL Coupe.
The 300 SL #21 is without a doubt a model that any serious Le Mans collector wants to have. I wanted one for ages, even back in my 1:18 days. However, back then the Le Mans car wasn’t available – only the Carrera car, that I had. But in 1:43 thankfully at least three brands offer it in scale. In spite of that, I wanted the best one possible, and in this case it’s the Spark version. Unfortunately though it’s not a plentiful model. Not rare, but no doubt hard to come buy. So it took quite a while to get one. And to make this one even more special, it was a Christmas present from my adorable wife.
Yep, she rocks my socks 💕.