Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR #20 – Spark

1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR #20
Pilots: P. Levegh, J. Fitch
Team: Daimler Benz Ag.
Race: DNF (S 3.0 class) at Le Mans in 1955
Spark - S4734 (resin)

Published 03/18/22

Born on December 22nd 1905, Pierre Eugène Alfred Bouillin started racing in 1938. In memory of his late intrepid racing uncle Alfred Velghe, using an anagram of his uncle’s name, he adopted the name Pierre Levegh. In 1950, he started racing in Formula One, racing for Talbot-Lago. He debuted at Le Mans in 1951, and competed for the Talbot team from 1951 to 1954. In 1951 he came in fourth, and in 1952, while in the lead and with just one hour to go, a broken crankshaft retired his car. The following year he finished in eighth, and in 1954 he suffered an accident and had to abandon. Though unlucky, he had some very solid results, and Mercedes-Benz took notice. With their Mille Miglia victory two months earlier, they wanted experienced pilots for the groundbreaking 300 SLR at La Sarthe in 1955.

A thirsty beast, the 300 SLR carried 167 (!) liters of fuel.

The German manufacturer wanted a three-car strong team for the 24 Heures du Mans. Juan-Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss would pilot the 300 SLR #19, while Karl Kling and André Simon would share car #21. Initially, race director Alfred Neubauer wanted Paul Frére to drive the third, however he already was committed to Aston Martin. With that, Neubauer invited Pierre Levegh instead. Paired with American John Fitch, Levegh would pilot the 300 SLR #20. That June, Mercedes’ competition would come from Jaguar’s D-Type and Ferrari’s 121 LM. And of course, “to win at Le Mans, first you need to finish the race”. However, after a brutal testing program and the Mille Miglia win, the 300 SLR had proved it was reliable.

Mercedes-Benz tested the 300 SLR’s engine for the equivalent of 10.000 km during development.

One of the key factors of the 300 SLR was its light weight. The car only weighed 901 kg, with the engine accounting for 234 kg. To make the car so light, Mercedes used a magnesium alloy for the body, called Elektron. Though light and resistant, the problem with magnesium is that it is highly flammable. In other words, though fast and light, the 300 SLR was dangerous. On June 11th, race day, expectations were high. In the first two hours, Fangio swapped the lead repeatedly with Mike Hawthorn in the D-Type #6. A little before 6:30pm, on the pits’ straight, Hawthorn passed Levegh and wanted to pit for fuel. Ahead of him was Lance Macklin’s Austin-Healey #26. With the D-Type’s powerful disk brakes, Hawthorn was able to brake late, so he passed Macklin and swerved right, for the pits. 

At the time, some speculated that Mercedes used illegal fuel, more combustible. That was not the case, however.

Macklin’s Austin, on the other hand, did not have such good brakes. To avoid rear-ending the Jag, he swerved left. And that’s when disaster struck. By then, the 300 SLR #20 had caught up, and Levegh had nowhere to go. The powerful Mercedes slammed into Macklin’s car, which catapulted the SLR into the air. Levegh’s car exploded on impact, and worst of all, it went flying over into the grandstand. Flaming debris rained over the crowd, killing 82 spectators and injuring dozens more. Levegh was thrown from the car, dying on impact.

Independent of the tragic result, the 300 SLR was an engineering masterpiece for the time.

The 1955 crash was probably the worst disaster in the history of motorsports. Right after the crash, Alfred Neubauer called Stuttgart asking permission to withdraw the two remaining cars. When Mercedes authorized the withdrawal, around midnight, the two SLR were in first and third. He went to Jaguar to propose that both teams pull their cars. Yet, Jaguar refused, and carried on to the checkered flag. Hawthorn won the race, bringing Jaguar’s third Le Mans victory. He also celebrated with champagne.  After the tragedy Mercedes-Benz only returned to motorsports in 1985.

Despite the so-sad history, the 300 SLR #19 is a striking model – Spark did a brilliant job.

Some collectors don’t buy models of cars that were involved in fatal accidents. Probably because they feel it is kind of morbid. I don’t see it that way, though. For me, I see these models as a homage to their pilots. It is a little tribute that perhaps in a very small way honors those who lost their lives for the sport. Nonetheless, despite the tragic history behind the car, this 300 SLR #20 is ultimately gorgeous. Spark at its finest, no doubt.

In my humble opinion, a very nice way to honor the memory of Pierre Eugène Alfred Bouillin.

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