Mercedes-Benz cars with high level competition provenance are some of the most sought after Mercedes of all in today’s market. When one comes up for sale collectors and market watchers take note. RM Sotheby’s is set to offer one such car at their ‘Driven by Disruption’ sale to be held in New York City on December 10, 2015. This particular 1955 Mercedes Benz 300 SL Gullwing is said to be the first of four factory race-prepared steel bodied cars. It was tested by the Mercedes-Benz competition department during 1955 and used for team training and competition. The factory sold the car to a privateer who entered the car in the 1956 Tour de France and secured Stirling Moss to handle driving duties for the rally where he was able to achieve a 2nd place result in the Group B competition-car class. Tour de France veterans of any make are desirable cars, a 300SL driven by Moss to a class, podium finish, even more so. There should be considerable interest in this car when it arrives on the block at the New York sale next month. RM Sotheby’s has published a pre sale auction estimate of $5,000,000 to $7,000,000. (view the entire RM Sotheby’s ‘Driven by Disruption’ digital catalog here).
Billed by the auction company as ‘The Ultimate Gullwing’ this particular car has an interesting early history and benefits from single family ownership since 1966. Let’s explore some of the particulars as presented in the auction catalog description. The car underwent a three year restoration back to its Tour de France specifications that was completed in 2011. There is no mention of what company handled the restoration work, I would imagine that information could be obtained from the auction company.
1955 300 SL Coupe
Chassis no. 198.040.5500640
Engine no. 198.040.5500659
Body no. 198.040.5500619
Records with the car indicate that chassis# 5500640 was delivered to the Sportabteilung (Competition Department) in Unterturkheim in 1955 where it was upgraded to “include an NSL-specification motor with revised camshaft profile; Rudge knock-off wheels; a competition-type fuel-injection pump, venturi, and exhaust; special ventilated drum brakes; a larger oil tank; lower ride height from an adjusted suspension; and a specialized final axle ratio of 3.48:1.”
The chassis completion date on the car’s data card of August 17, 1955 and the delivery date to the Mercedes Competition Department of August 27th point to this car out as being the first factory campaigned 300 SL. The fact that this is the earliest chassis number of the four, known steel bodied cars prepared by the Mercedes factory for competition further solidifies the claim. This car spent 13 months with the Mercedes Sport / Competition department, but, according to the auction company it is “unclear which particular races, if any, the car participated in on behalf of the Factory.” We know that factory drivers at the time included Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Karl Kling, John Fitch, and Hans Hermann, but we don’t know if any of them drove the car in competition during those 13 months of testing and development. Without actual documentation all RM Sotheby’s can say in their catalog description is “there is little question that these important drivers piloted the car at some point.”
What is known, and where the story does pick up steam, is after the factory sold the car to Bernard Hans Hommel who, with his friend Georges Houel, secured Stirling Moss to drive the car in the Tour de France in September of 1956. Moss’ Tour de France participation is well documented with wonderful period photographs. The silver grey metallic car with “checkered gabardine cloth upholstery, which was trimmed with blue Tex leather” wore number 149 for the race and was entered in the Group B competition car class.
Moss and the Gullwing had mechanical problems early in the race, specifically, faulty ignition that led to power loss. Apparently Moss wasn’t at all happy with the mechanical issues and nearly ‘resigned from the race’ until the car was repaired at a corner garage in the town of Grenoble. Once the problem was sorted out and eliminated, Moss charged ahead and over the remaining stages was able to climb up through the field. He eventually finished second in class, behind the Marquis de Portago in a Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta.
Georges Houel campaigned the car over the next few years in other events throughout Europe. Between the late fifties and mid 60s the car changed hands and eventually ended up with a French dealer. The father of the current owner spotted the car in 1966, and unaware of its past history, purchased the car to simply drive and enjoy. After a year of use it was in need of repair work which he never carried out, it was stored for over 40 years until the owner’s son acquired it in 2008. The history of the car was uncovered, all the Sportabteilung equipment was intact after 40 years of preservation and the car was restored over a three year period.
250 GT Tour de France Ferraris have sold in the past year for over $7,000,000, but those examples weren’t podium finishing cars in period. It will be interesting to watch this 300SL cross the block. Can a steel bodied 300 SL achieve the multi-million dollar price RM Sotheby’s is estimating? If any car car, it will be this one, prepared by the Mercedes factory competition department and driven by Moss to a podium finish in one of the great European races of the ‘Golden Age’ of sports car racing.
All images: Courtesy the auction company; period Tour de France photos credited to Maurice Louche.