A Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR Uhlenhaut Coupé from 1955 has been auctioned off for a record price of 135 million EUR to a private collector. This icon of automotive history is an absolute rarity – one of just two prototypes built at the time.
Named after its creator and chief engineer, Rudolf Uhlenhaut, it is considered to be one of the finest examples of automotive engineering and design by automotive experts and enthusiasts worldwide.
Proceeds of this auction will be used as seed capital to fund “beVisioneers: The Mercedes-Benz Fellowship”.
As a global company and as a luxury brand, we bear a great level of responsibility towards society. For this reason, we decided to use proceeds from the auction to fund a special fellowship programme called “beVisioneers”.
Implemented by The DO School and funded by us, the fellowship provides young innovators from around the planet with the training, mentoring, expert support and funding to launch their projects for positive environmental change.
“That’s the way we’ve always done it” – a phrase that would likely determine the course of human history if it were not for people captivated by a greater vision. It is precisely the genius inherent to these inventors that distinguishes them from the status quo and compels them to take those leaps of progress that propel forward culture, science, and business.
For only when mind, matter, and opportunity intersect can truly unique things come into being – ideas and objects distilling the spirit of the future down to an essence so potent that such inventions remain ahead of their time for years to come, perhaps even until the present day.
Just think of the so-called aerial screw, a flying machine sketched by Leonardo da Vinci in 1490. It was to be another 450 years until the construction of the first helicopter, though it is yet to be seen whether we will take to the skies in such flying screws in the future after all.
In 1955, Uhlenhaut created the 300 SLR Coupé, an unrivalled vehicle that exceeded the technical possibilities of its time. This was to become the pinnacle in the life’s work of a genius engineer who persistently strove for the maximum; who dared to turn into reality what his contemporaries did not even consider as a possibility. A “dazzling exception” to automobile history, the Uhlenhaut Coupé was to attain the status of a legend over the coming decades – a myth made material of 998 kilogrammes unladen weight, featuring a manual 5-gear transmission and an unprecedented 302 PS (222 kW), far beyond the standards of its era.
This portfolio tells the story of an engineer not unlike Leonardo. The man in question is Rudolf Uhlenhaut. His masterpiece? The Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR Coupé, which was to gain renown the world over as the Uhlenhaut Coupé. Serving as the head of passenger car development at Mercedes-Benz which included the racing division, Uhlenhaut was also the father of the 300 SL and the W 196 R “Silver Arrows”. Many anecdotes tell of his particular penchant and feel for speed.
It is said that one day Formula 1 champion Juan-Manuel Fangio voiced a complaint to Uhlenhaut over a shared lunch: his car had not been properly adjusted. Uhlenhaut promptly got up from the table, got behind the wheel in suit and tie, and completed the Nürnburgring racecourse three seconds faster than Fangio. Fangio just needed some extra practice, he grinned.
It is the 1950s. Mercedes-Benz returns to motorsports, eager to continue a great tradition. After all, the very first race between automobiles – Paris to Rouen in 1894 – had been won by a Panhard & Levassor equipped with a Daimler engine. This revival of the motoring triumphs of the 1920s and 1930s was to become a rousing success. In 1954, Juan-Manuel Fangio became Formula 1 champion in a Mercedes-Benz and also came to dominate the 1955 season. Parallel to Formula 1, the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR racing sports car (W 196 S) competed in the Sports Car World Championship in 1955. Stirling Moss completed the legendary Mille Miglia in record time, making Mercedes-Benz the sports car world champion and thus marking its most successful season to date.
The 300 SLR – Super Leicht Rennsport – departs from the technology of the successful Formula 1 Silver Arrow W 196 R, thus fusing the unique quality of a sprinter with the endurance of a marathon runner. Exuding a compelling elegance, this racer is entirely constructed around its powerful centre: the engine in which power takeoff is through the middle along eight light-alloy cylinders with chrome-plated barrels.
However, this question was never to be answered on an actual racecourse. The Carrera Panamericana of 1955 was cancelled by the Mexican government; Mercedes-Benz withdrew from motorsports by the end of the season on the height of its success, opting instead to focus on the development of passenger cars.
These open vehicles are fast – fast far beyond any competition. Yet any increase in speed also subjects drivers to greater forces of wind and weather. It is at this point in our story that Rudolf Uhlenhaut comes up with an idea both simple and ingenious.
A closed body would add considerable comfort for drivers on long-haul races. And if the open 300 SLR was already fast, how much faster would it be with reduced drag?
This leaves us with two racing prototypes of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR Coupé, named “The Red” and “The Blue” after the colours of their interiors. And just like connoisseurs are able to distinguish between different versions of famous artworks on the basis of miniscule details, so too do these cars have unmistakable features that set them apart from one another. For example, “The Red” differs from “The Blue” in that it features a fuel filler neck located under the trunk lid which is not routed through the rear window, among other things.
Together they conveyed an entirely credible promise: the “fastest race car to never compete in a race” is preceded by the myth of its invincibility in a vision of a superlative future that never came to pass – one in which the Uhlenhaut Coupé would have been the best long-haul race car of all times.
Despite its absence from the races, the 300 SLR Coupé was not doomed to stillness. On the contrary: Uhlenhaut was to use the fastest vehicle of his day and age as his company car. Clocking in at a top speed of 300 kilometres per hour, it was far ahead of the curve – at a time when even the fastest German sports cars barely hit 200 kilometres per hour. It is said that Uhlenhaut completed his 220 kilometre commute between Stuttgart and Munich in about an hour. (Radar speed checks were only introduced in 1959…)
To date, only very few people have had the privilege of getting behind the wheel of a 300 SLR Coupé. Yet all of them were left with a lasting impression. In 1956, the Swiss “Automobil Revue” – then the authority on all things automotive – took the prototype on a 3,500-kilometre test drive through the Swiss Alps. In a 16-page report sparing no details in either text or image, the editors gushed about a machine “of bold conception and ingeniously intricate construction,” as though they were scientists finally faced with the alien on the dissection table at Roswell. For here it was indeed: the being from a different world.
The Uhlenhaut Coupé left a lasting acoustic impression even on those who never caught a good look at it as it sped off into the distance. Now as then, the infernal sound of its engine shakes bystanders to the core – today, it can still be experienced at selected, high-class events such as Goodwood or Pebble Beach. Starting the car requires a specially trained Mercedes-Benz Heritage expert to get in the cockpit.
Uhlenhaut was himself a talented driver and knew how to steer publicity for his legendary creation. Indeed, it is thanks to his efforts that the Uhlenhaut Coupé became a major flagship of the Mercedes-Benz brand in the 1950s. And not just did he use it for his company car, but he would also carry out demonstration drives in the Uhlenhaut Coupé. Their meticulously compiled assembly reports convey a complete picture even today.
According to one such report, Uhlenhaut took the “Red Coupé” – also known as “Number 8” thanks to its chassis number 196.110-00008/55 – on a freeway tour on 29 November, 1956. He was joined by US racing driver Paul O’Shea, who mainly raced Mercedes-Benz cars. Another document tells of Uhlenhaut’s sojourn with the Duke of Kent on 18 July, 1959. It is likely the Duke was “quite amused.”
The vehicle’s construction is analysed part by part. And each component elicits delight from these connoisseurs, who came to enthuse about the “‘dream rear axis,’ for which engineers went out of their way to translate theoretical insight into the best possible reality.”
In Uhlenhaut’s fusion of state-of-the-art Formula 1 technology and long-distance suitability, the experts recognise a vision illuminating the future of automotive: “The aim is to approach the limits of what is technologically possible, which requires each individual component to be meticulously designed, only the most suitable materials to be used, as well as applying only the most sophisticated methods of manufacturing – this is vehicle construction of the highest distinction. However, it also functions as a yardstick, delineating how far the means of road transportation can be pushed at all.”
And thus the “Automobil Revue” chases this racing sports car up the legendary Swiss passes, where its “cornering safety seems to defy the laws of centrifugal force,” until the air grows thinner and the engine calls out across the summits. Downhill, the inboard drum brake gets put to the test. However, it is noted that this car also tests the skill of the person at the wheel: “The 300 SLR demands a driver of many qualities. Cold blood, quick reactions, a feel for the machine, plus decency and regard for the environment, as well as decisiveness, courage, and stamina.”
In the end, the test driver is over the moon about this car from another planet: “Through my own observations I have become convinced that modern technology can meet the seemingly contrary demands of the highest speed and the greatest safety.”
This ends up putting facts behind the myth of the invincible race car: The “Uhlenhaut Coupé is faster than the car of the Formula 1 champion, reliable, and fit for everyday use as it runs on premium petrol. It is no less than the 20th Century’s ultimate hypercar.