Rudolf Uhlenhaut, the developer.
The driving engineer.
When, in the anniversary year of 2012, a 60 year old 300 SL – the oldest existing SL (Super Light) – was extensively restored, the spirit of Rudolf Uhlenhaut drifted through the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Fellbach. After all, the ingenious engineer was responsible for the development of the legendary Gullwing which initially won numerous races before going on to a rapid success story as a sports car on the road. Uhlenhaut is considered to be not only the father of the SL, but also of the Silver Arrows. The continued success of the Mercedes racing cars in the 1930s and 1950s is bound up with the name of this half-German, half-English man.
His recipe for success: Uhlenhaut did not develop his ideas on the drawing board, but in practice. The passionate driver was at home in anything with wheels. Very quickly he was known as “the driving engineer”.
A stroke of luck for the company.
An anecdote from the year 1955 is proof of Rudolf Uhlenhaut’s driving skills: after test drives at the Nürburgring the great Juan Manuel Fangio felt that the vehicle had not been optimally prepared. Uhlenhaut got up – after an opulent lunch in a suit and tie – got in the car and drove around the circuit. Three seconds faster than the world champion. Back with Fangio, Uhlenhaut recommended that he should practice a little bit. He did not say this in a condescending manner at all; but was characterised more by modesty and patience as well as a fine sense of humour. Uhlenhaut’s qualities both on a personal and professional level made him a stroke of luck for Mercedes-Benz. A stroke of luck which in 1936 was in the right place at the right time in order to turn the catastrophic run for Mercedes-Benz during the previous racing season into a success story in an unbelievably short time.
Born in London.
Rudolf Uhlenhaut’s family background and his perfect English opened up the way into the English-speaking world of motorsport for him: born on 15 July 1906 to an English mother and German father in London where his father was head of a subsidiary of the Deutsche Bank, Rudolf lived and attended school there until he was eight years old.
From there the family moved first to Brussels and then Bremen. As a great lover of skiing, Uhlenhaut moved to Munich to study mechanical engineering as a young man. In 1931 the young engineer joined Daimler-Benz in Stuttgart and began his career in the research and development department under Fritz Nallinger.
The return of the Silver Arrows.
In 1936 Rudolf Uhlenhaut was appointed to the racing department of which he became head – and advanced development considerably. His mission was to bring the cars with the star back on the road to success. The engineer took to the wheel for thousands of kilometres in order to develop a feel for the racing cars’ faults. In doing so he did not only benefit from the driving skills mentioned above, but also from an ability to carry out accurate technical fault analysis in order to immediately develop productive corrective measures. A combination of closely linked talents unique in this context. And thus Uhlenhaut contributed significantly towards making the Silver Arrow W 25 competitive again. After extensive reworking, Its successor, the W 125, was finally the more superior vehicle during the 1937 Grand Prix season and racing driver Rudolf Caracciola became European champion. Mission accomplished – for the time being.
The successor to the Silver Arrow W 125, the W 154 equipped with a 12-cylinder engine, dominated the racing seasons of 1938 and 1939. Then war broke out putting an abrupt end to the automobile manufacturer’s involvement in motorsport. It was not until the beginning of the 1950s that Mercedes-Benz was able to build a competitive Grand Prix racing car again.
Rudolf Uhlenhaut, appointed head of the department for passenger car testing in 1949, was given a second chance: on 15 June 1951, the Board of Management decided to return to the racing circuit once more – however not until 1954 as Formula 1 racing was expecting a change in the rules to take effect in that season. That meant a lot of time for Uhlenhaut and his team to tinker.
The SL is born.
The development engineer who, after the war had ended, quickly became involved in sports vehicles again, was hired by Colonel Michael McEvoy from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, a division of the British army. He was to build a small racing car for the officer who he knew from pre-war days. Uhlenhaut planned a frame made of closed tubular triangles, the individual segments of which were only stressed through pressure or tensioning. The construction was new and guaranteed a light weight but at the same time sturdiness as well as a high degree of bending and torsional strength. Uhlenhaut adopted the idea of the space frame for a new racing car from the representative Mercedes-Benz 300 Saloon (W 186, “Adenauer Mercedes”): the legendary 300 SL (W 194) was born, albeit initially only as a racing car.
The abbreviation SL stands for Super Light. The weight and the gullwing doors are the result of Uhlenhaut’s design.
One victory after another.
Success showed that Rudolf Uhlenhaut was right: five races – four superior victories! “The races in 1952 have shown that at top speed the 300 SL with a naturally aspirated engine was at the very least a match for its strongest opponents, if not superior to them,” was how he took stock not without a certain amount of pride. Despite numerous triumphs, no one in Untertürkheim thought of using the new car in road traffic. Only the pressure of the American general distributor, Maximilian Hoffman, was finally able to convince the Board of Management: the 300 SL (W 198) series-production sports car delighted the professional world at the International Motor Sports Show in New York in February 1954. The rest is automobile history – which, after the 300 SL was voted “sports car of the century” in 1999, is far from coming to a close…
A very special company car.
When Mercedes-Benz finally dropped out of Grand Prix racing in 1955, Rudolf Uhlenhaut worked exclusively on series-production models as head of development for passenger cars and was involved in the suspension tuning of all SL models through to the 107 model series which premiered in 1971. Furthermore he was also jointly responsible for all of the model series of the time through to the S-Class from 1972. He also had a great influence over another cult car: the 230 SL, known as the Pagoda because of the design of its roof. His company car which was named after him is no less legendary: a racing car prototype based on the 300 SLR which gained prominence as the “Uhlenhaut Coupé”.
However the automobile expert who went into well-earned retirement in 1972 never owned a car in his life. As a result of driving cars so often he had to wear a hearing aid in old age.
“You always did your utmost for Uhlenhaut.”
In addition to his ingenious work which continues to affect the Mercedes-Benz brand even today, the personal qualities of this exceptional talent also remain unforgotten: whether in the workshop or in the office, he always treated his staff as equals. Thanks to his composure, self-assurance and undeniable competence he was always on an equal footing with his superiors. On 8 May 1989 he died aged almost 83 and not only the professional world mourned him; the former manager was also greatly missed by many of his staff. No one can put it better than Dr Hans Liebold, a project leader on the C 111 project under Uhlenhaut: “You always did your utmost for Uhlenhaut. Simply because no one wanted to disappoint him. He could do and knew a great deal, however he never talked down to anyone but treated everyone fairly as a partner.”