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When their race is run

In the mid-1950s, Mercedes ruled the world’s racing circuits with a revered car

Jonathan Meades | July/August 2013

Motor-sport folklore doesn’t get much more folkloric than the tale of Denis Jenkinson’s and Stirling Moss’s victory in the Mille Miglia of 1955. This hairyOK, lethalroad race began and ended in the Lombardian city of Brescia. Moss drove while Jenkinson, an eccentric Hampshire-based ginger-bearded motor-racing journalist who has some claim to be the anorak’s anorak, navigated. They had reconnoitred the 1,600km route half a dozen times, while Jenkinson prepared his "pacenotes". This paleolithic GPS was a six-yard strip of paper, like a loo roll, on which he encoded the road’s deviations of camber, the lengths of straights, the angles of corners, the speeds at which corners might be taken and the precise moments when gears must be changed. Their car was a Mercedes 300SLR. This is not on any account to be confused with its contemporary, the Mercedes 300SL—though it’s easily done, or was in my childhood, not least because the latter model was driven by James Robertson Justice, an eccentric Hampshire-based ginger-bearded film actor who was often to be seen hauling his big-boned frame from beneath its gull-wing door.

The 1955 season was Mercedes’ second after a 15-year break from racing. The year before, it had won more Formula 1 races than any other manufacturer, with Juan Manuel Fangio, the pre-eminent driver of the era, driving two of its cars: the W196 and the W196s. The W196s is a sumptuous caraggressively sleek, wide, with the appearance of an advanced car of the late 1930s, a creation of the automotive modern movementand it was from this variant that the two-seated Moss-Jenkinson 300SLR was developed. The name 300SLR was imposed by the marketing and PR departments. (Yes, even then.) It was deemed sexier than “W196S”: I think all of us in the Naming Community can agree that that goes without saying. 

Fangio won the 1954 French Grand Prix driving the W196S on the Reims circuit, whose near-ruined pits and grandstand survive today beside a surprisingly narrow road; then it was a series of blisteringly quick straights among cornfields to the west of the city. However it quickly became clear that the car lacked the flexibility, torque and responsiveness required on winding, less homogeneous circuits, such as the Nürburgring in the Eifel Mountains and Spa-Francorchamps in the contiguous Ardennes. So it was packed away until the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, part of whose track was banked like Indianapolis. In the meantime Fangio won two out of the next three Grands Prix in a W196a vehicle with exposed wheels that was narrower and "slipper-bodied" (a meaningless nonce expression, coined again by marketing and PR). It is moderately elegant in a functional way, yet appears positively agricultural beside its streamlined sibling, which was notable for temporarily diminishing the aesthetic gulf between Formula 1 and high-performance road cars. The gulf has now re-expanded to the point where the monstrous billboards driven by Vettel, Hamilton, Button, etc share no DNA with the monstrous boasts driven by Rooney, Gerrard and Tevez (whether or not insured).

The W196 driven by Fangio in the 1954 season is to be auctioned at the Goodwood Festival of Speed on July 12th by Bonhams, whose estimate for it is about half a top footballer’s annual income£5m. It will doubtless be exceeded as, Fangio apart, it is touched by that sine qua non of tainted covetability, a connection to Nazi Germany. The fuel-injection system was developed by Daimler-Benz’s aircraft division during the war and used in the engines of Messerschmidts, Heinkels and Dorniers. It was, further, manufactured under licence by the other Axis powers. 

There are not many things that can be done with such a trophy.

This vehicle was, for instance, most recently cached in a warehouse by some sort of auto-miser who appears to have been reluctant to let anyone set eyes on it. Which is perhaps just as well, for an excitable motor-racing historian called Doug said, "The first time I saw this car I needed oxygen." One can only hope that Bonhams have ample supplies of the stuff.

Those with the money to buy multi-million-pound cars have no problem in building galleries in which to display them as though they were the looted entablature of a Roman temple, or massive sculptures by Judd and Serra. The cars are no longer simply cars. Though when was a car ever simply a car?

The gull-wing Mercedes 300sl driven by James Robertson Justice, or even an amended Grand Prix car such as the Moss-Jenkinson 300SLR, is still just about a road car. They are capable of processing through villages, such as Beaulieu sur Dordogne or Castle Combe, that are as picturesquely heritage as they are, bringing brief and gleaming pleasure to the downtrodden drivers of workaday Fords and Renaults. But a 60-year-old, single-seat F1 car is pretty much doomed to eternal museumhood. Even if it is driven it will be driven gingerly, in private. The one fate that won’t befall it is the one it was made for, to be raced at breakneck speeds in circumstances of mortaland mythicdanger.

Pictured Juan Manuel Fangio on his way to winning the 1954 German Grand Prix in the Mercedes W196, now on its way to the Festival of Speed

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